April 4, 2018

Behind the Name

One of the basic notions of linguistics is that the sounds of words are not related to the thing being represented. For example, "cold" is made of [k] [o] [l] [d]. Do any of these sounds inherently have anything to do with low temperature? They do not. This is the case for most words. Nevertheless, it appears that when we name things, the sounds we choose are not entirely arbitrary. A famous linguistic experiment had people choose names for a round shape and a pointy shape. They offered two choices - 'bobo' and 'kiki.' It was significantly more likely that the round shape would be called 'bobo' and the pointy shape 'kiki.' We would expect it to be equal if the qualities of the sounds had nothing to do with what they represent.

One interesting correlation between names can be found in this paper prepared for a Pokemon Onomastics conference. Pokemon is a Japanese series of video games based around collecting creatures. Onomastics is the study of names. This paper posited some interesting things. In Japanese, voiced obstruents (that is, sounds like 'b','g','d',''j', where airflow stops momentarily while you're making the sound and your vocal cords vibrate) are associated with size and heaviness. The authors found that larger Pokemon and more evolved Pokemon were more likely to have more voiced obstruents. They also found that the number of mora (the way Japanese words are split up into syllables) correlates with evolution stage and size.

The authors only looked at Japanese Pokemon names, not English ones, but some Pokemon names are taken straight from the Japanese into the translated language. Pikachu is the same in Japanese and English. We can see some of these effects at play here. When the second generation of Pokemon games was released, they added a 'baby form' of Pikachu, which is a smaller, weaker Pokemon that 'evolves' (essentially metamorphizes) into Pikachu. They called this 'baby form' Pichu. We can see that they 'babyfied' Pikachu's name by taking away the middle syllable and making a smaller name.

I was reminded of a similar phenomenon in the naming of black magic spells in the Final Fantasy games (a role playing game based on science fantasy). The basic name for the lightning spell is Thunder (sanda), then the level two version is Thundara (sandara), level three is Thundaga (sandaga), and level four is Thundaja (sandaja). This pattern of "word," "word+a," "word+ga," and "word+ja" holds true for other elemental spells as well, such as Water and Fire. It's a single data point, but it's interesting that the morphemes for the highest levels (the third level is the highest one in some of the games, such as Tactics Advance) follow this correlation and have voiced obstruents.

This is a pretty cool study overall, mostly because it validates the idea that you can figure out what it is that makes a name sound cool or cute or small. So far they've only done it with Japanese Pokemon names, but perhaps some enterprising scholar can do a similar analysis for other language names. The "voiced obstruent = bigger" connection is noted as a Japanese phenomenon, so it may not hold in English or other languages, but I'm certain there are similar iconic sounds.

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