The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Phonology Circle 9/20 - Fulang Chen (MIT) & Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)

Speaker: Fulang Chen (MIT) & Michael Kenstowicz (MIT)
Title: Phonotactics of gender in Mandarin given names: patterns and constraints
Time: Monday, September 20th, 5pm – 6:30pm

Abstract: Research on English given names has discovered phonotactic patterns that correlate with gender (Slater & Feinman, 1985; Cutler et al., 1990; Wright et al., 2005; Sidhu & Pexman 2015; a.o.): female names are more likely to have a higher ratio of open syllables and contain more high front vowels and sonorants, while male names tend to contain more back vowels and obstruents. Recent studies suggest that some of these patterns are cross-linguistic (e.g., Sullivan 2018; Wong & Kang 2019; a.o.), conforming to the Frequency Code Hypothesis (Ohala 1984, 1994; a.o.), which states that higher acoustic frequency signifies smallness, and lower acoustic frequency largeness. Hence, high, front, unrounded vowels, which have higher F2 (or F2-F1 difference), signify smallness and in turn are favored in female names; low, back, rounded vowels, which have lower F2 (or F2-F1 difference), and grave (i.e., labial and velar places) consonants, which also have lower F2, signify largeness and in turn are favored in male names.

In this paper, we first investigate the phonotactic patterns that correlate with gender in given names for Mandarin Chinese (MC), a language phonotactically quite different from English; then we compare the phonotactic grammars of MC male and female given names using maximum-entropy phonotactic learning models (Hayes & Wilson 2008).

We find that many of the predictors for gender trend in the same direction as reported in corpus studies of English given names and conform to the Frequency Code; specifically, in MC, female names tend to have a higher proportion of open syllables and high vowels, and male names a higher proportion of back vowels, round vowels, obstruent onsets, and non-coronal (grave) onsets.

We also probed the interaction of the predictors for gender more closely and find that certain low acoustic frequency sounds that signify largeness are penalized for female names, while higher acoustic frequency sounds that signify smallness are not marked in the grammar for male names.