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April, 2019 Adam Shigem

The best names start with great mouth-feel

We all know when we hear a name that works. We feel it deep down in our gut. “Bronco”? Now that’s a manly vehicle! “Kia Sephia?” Not so much.

We simply know when a name works. At least that’s what we say when pressed for an explanation: “I dunno. It just works.” Well, whether we realize it or not, there’s a reason behind these gut feelings. That reason is science.   


“According to my calculations... yes, there is definitely some science in here.”

According to people who study the sounds we make with our mouths, the particular vowels in a word affect our perception of an object’s size and gender. How? Well, it all comes down to the shape your mouth makes when you talk.

Linguists distinguish vowels based on the position the tongue is in when the sound is made. A vowel is either front or back, high or low. For example, say “feet”. Your tongue is in a forward position. Now say “foot”. Your tongue is noticeably farther back.

 

Feel free to say these out loud too, if you don’t mind the strange looks.

As it turns out, smaller, lighter things are more often represented with front vowels and larger, heavier things have back vowels. Stanford Linguistics professor Dan Jurafsky even noticed that this phenomenon can even be observed across languages:

 “It's not always true, but it's a tendency that you can see in any of the stressed vowels in words like little, teeny or itsy-bitsy (all front vowels) versus humongous or gargantuan (back vowels). Or the i vowel in Spanish chico (front vowel meaning small) versus gordo (back vowel meaning fat). Or French petit (front vowel) versus grand (back vowel).”

Not only is this true across languages, but it applies to made-up names as well. Richard Klink, a marketing professor at Loyola College in Maryland created a test using sets of randomly-generated names and then asked these questions:

  • Which brand of laptop seems bigger; Detal or Dutal?
  • Which brand of vacuum cleaner seems heavier, Keffi or Kuffi?
  • Which brand of ketchup seems thicker, Nellen or Nullen?
  • Which brand of beer seems darker, Esab or Usab?

Which name seems more appropriate, “Gorog, Destroyer of Worlds” or “Lisa”?

Any guesses to what he found?

 "In each case the participants in the study tended to choose the product named by back vowels (dutal, nodax) as the larger, heavier, thicker, darker product. Similar studies have been conducted in various other languages."

The lesson seems pretty clear, if you want a product to sound big and powerful, give it big, powerful vowels. If you want a product to feel light and airy, use higher, front vowels. Even when encountered out of context, the types of vowels used in ‘Dodge’ and ‘Kia’ begin to shape our perception of the product. Our gut tells us that Dodge feels bigger and stronger, and Kia feels smaller and daintier. Science tells us why.

 If you’re looking for a name that evokes all the right things, shoot us an email.

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