Does a hard-to-pronounce baby name hurt you?
Last week I suggested that we don't give the written versions of names their due. We call Chloe and Kloee mere alternate versions of the same name, as if the "real" name is what's spoken aloud. Yet in today's world, our written names do much of the heavy lifting of making first impressions and establishing our reputations.
A timely study tries to shed some light on how much influence the pure written name might have. As reported around the world, researchers found a "name-pronunciation effect": that people respond better to names that are easy to pronounce, and that this response has real-world repercussions in terms of life success. And pronounceability, in their measures, is quality of the written name.
How much store should you put in this finding?
Looking at the actual research paper, it's a series of five experiments, most of which can be thought of as initial probes into the topic. The real meat comes in the fifth and final study, the only one that looks at names at large in the real world. The authors recorded the names and positions of 500 lawyers in large American law firms. Taking some care to account for factors like educational background and "Anglo-American vs. foreign" name identity, they found a measurable effect of name pronounceability on attorneys' rank in their firms’ hierarchies.
This is a careful enough study, and an intuitive enough result, to assume the result is accurate. I do have a major reservation about the research, though. It's not about the actual experiments per se, but the way the authors describe their findings. Here's the start of their abstract:
"Names are rich sources of information. They can signal gender, ethnicity, or class; they may connote personality characteristics ranging from warmth and cheerfulness to morality. But names also differ in a much more fundamental way: some are simply easier to pronounce than others. Five studies provide evidence for the name-pronunciation effect: easy-to-pronounce names (and their bearers) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names."
Would you ever guess from that description that their study looked almost exclusively at surnames? Surely the gender, class and cheerfulness information they describe is carried primarily by the given name. (At least that’s true in the U.S., where the law firm study was done.)
Yet throughout the paper the authors adopt a "names-is-names" attitude, making no distinction between hereditary family surnames and fashion-sensitive given names. The past research they cite is about first names, the experiments the run are on last names, and their conclusions are simply about "names." Even in the few cases where the experiments might have included full names, they make no mention of the component parts. It's not clear how they would determine their "Anglo-American vs. foreign" categories for names like, say, James Nwokeji or Giovanni Smith.
It seems to me this is taking advantage of the broadness of the English word "name." In a language where distinct words apply to given names and family names, the entire paper would have been different.
There's a world of difference between American given names and surnames, in the way they're assigned, they way they change over time, and the way we all interpret them. There's also ample reason to suspect that a name-pronunciation effect could work quite differently in given names. When it comes to baby names, spelling is a cultural choice fraught with significance.
For instance, the perception of conformity to tradition -- mostly a non-issue in surnames -- is a powerful dimension in given names . Do you think that the phonetically simpler Kloee would give a girl a step up in a legal career over Chloe? Or that clarifying the ambiguous Madeline to Maddalinn would yield more positive responses and higher societal status? And that's just one factor. Spelling of given names can also signal ethnic differences and more.
Because of the freedom of choice parents have, given names carry more dimensions of information than surnames. That means that a dimension like pronunciation fluency could well be significant in surnames but be swamped by other factors – including other written-only factors – in given names. So when it comes to news you can use for choosing a name for your baby, I'd put this particular worry at the bottom of your list.