Names and sound association

We’ve long known that humans associate certain shapes or qualities with certain sounds; as part of poetry teaching, I introduce my students to sound theory based on Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.

A new study from researchers at the University of Calgary shows that we also associate personality traits with the sounds in names, especially before we come to know people well. For instance, the voiceless stop phonemes in the name Katie are associated with extraversion, while the sonorant phonemes in the name Lauren are associated with emotionality, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. This writeup explains in greater detail.

This is good for teachers to be aware of if they are trying to learn names ahead of the start of school, which is the first assignment I give myself every school year. I get about 70% of the way there, based on looking at a class printout of pictures along with names. (Of course, previously teaching students or knowing a sibling or parent helps immensely.)

Another aspect of names that this study brings to mind is a student’s preference for a name other than their given name. A good 1/3 to 1/2 of my students go by nicknames or preferred names that are not reflected on my class roster, and this study helps to explain why a person might change their given name to something else in particular.


Sidhu, D. M., Deschamps, K., Bourdage, J. S., & Pexman, P. M. (2019). Does the name say it all? Investigating phoneme-personality sound symbolism in first names. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 148(9), Sep 2019, 1595-1614.



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