Chasing Amy

Earlier today, Mark Liberman commented on Language Log about a study by Amy Perfors that has gotten some recent media attention.

Perfors has a nice, informal summary of the study and its results here, but for those of you who just don’t wanna follow the links: in a nutshell, Perfors claims to have found that men whose names (in English) have stressed front vowels are rated as somewhat more attractive than men whose names have stressed back vowels, while women whose names have stressed back vowels are rated as somewhat more attractive than women whose names have stressed front vowels. So, Craig is (statistically) somewhat hotter than Paul, but Laura is hotter than Jamie. (And hence the relevance to phonoloblog.)

There’s a lot that needs to be addressed in this study, as Mark notes and as Perfors herself freely admits. I won’t rehash all that here; y’all can just read it for yourselves. What I’d like to comment on is a part of Mark’s final remarks about the article in Nature written by Michael Hopkin. Mark quotes Hopkin (from the article):

Which brings us to the most pressing question of all: is my own name, Mike, a help or a hindrance when it comes to attractiveness? “Mike is a front vowel sound, so it’s a good name,” says Perfors. “If you do badly with the ladies you can’t blame it on your name.”

Mark then jumps on the obvious phonetic misclassification, and takes both Perfors and Hopkin to task for it:

Mike is NOT "a front vowel sound". The vowel in the name spelled "Mike", in all English dialects that I know of, has a low back nucleus.

If Hopkin quoted Perfors correctly, and if she was not just being polite, then she might have been confused by the spelling. The symbol "i" in IPA (as in most orthographies) denotes a high front vowel. But in English, as a result of the Great Vowel Shift, the nucleus of long vowels written with orthographic "i" lowered and backed, all the way to the bottom back corner of the vowel quadrilateral. In most contemporary dialects, it’s a diphthong with a high front off-glide, so you might take it as mixed on the hot-or-not dimension, but "a front vowel sound" it is definitely not.

If you think about it, this is a sad state of affairs. A journalist who served for "two and a half years as a subeditor for Nature‘s print edition", who passes for "a science expert on BBC radio", and who was assigned to write a story about sound symbolism for a publication that advertises itself as "the best in science journalism", turns out to be completely ignorant of the most elementary phonetic terminology, as applied to the pronunciation of his own native language. Worse, the term in question was the key independent variable in the experiment under discussion, and he not only didn’t know what it meant — as applied to the kind of words studied — he didn’t bother to find out.

I don’t disagree at all, but I think that it’s more likely the case that Perfors was simply misquoted in this case. Here’s a relevant bit from the informal summary cited earlier:

Does this work for all names? Not all vowels can be classified as front or back. For instance, the i in Diane is what linguists call a dipthong [sic], which means a vowel that actually has two or more vowel sounds in it. (Think about it: it starts off with the ah sound in hot and moves to the ee sound in feet. So it starts in the back and ends in the front). I didn’t look at names with dipthongs, or more central vowels, in this study.

It sounds to me like Perfors knows that long i is at the very least not unambiguously back or front. I suppose she could have been having a bad day during her interview, or maybe Hopkin pronounced his name to her as if it were Mick. In any case, I definitely agree with Mark that Mickey should have spent less time chasing Amy and more time doing his homework.

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