Why Floon Seems Farther Away than Fleen
“Hey Google, play WBEZ”
The first thing I do every morning is voice these four words. Before opening the blinds or flipping on the lights, I conjure talk radio through the magic of language.
Although the two nouns in my daily oration—Google and WBEZ—are both proper nouns and are both spoken with the same gruff tone, they are pronounced very differently. To make the “oo” sound in Google, the tongue pushes up toward the back of the mouth. To make the “ee” and “zee” sounds at the end of “WBEZ,” the tongue pushes forward.
Psycholinguists have long known that this small front-back difference in word pronunciation can add up to big differences. People expect things whose names include back vowels, like “oo,” to lumber about and look dark and round. In contrast, people expect things named with front vowels, like “ee,” to zip by, bright and sharp. This is why hammers—to bluntly smack with—whose brand names have back vowel sounds sell better than those with front vowels. In contrast, knives—to precisely slice with—whose brand names have front vowel sounds sell better than knives with back vowel sounds.
My colleagues and I got the idea that the vowels in names might also imply distance. A trip to the ballpark illustrates our reasoning. A strapped-for-cash fan might notice a few empty seats along the first base line, sneak past the usher, and plop himself into a spot that goes for a dozen stadium beers more than his real ticket. Very near the action, this upgraded vantage point casts everything in stark relief. The ball rockets out of the pitcher’s hand, the afternoon sun glints off the bases, and the names and numbers are legible on the players’ jerseys—that is, until the rightful owner of the seat shows up.
The crasher glumly embarks on the long climb to his seat in the nosebleed section. From there, the ball seems to be moving a little more slowly, the field looks less vivid, and the players appear like undifferentiated dots. What changed? Aside from the loss of pride at being relegated to the cheap seats, the misfit has a good deal more space between his eyes and the action. Distance turned the fast into the slow, the bright into the dim, and the sharp into the dull.
Distance, in other words, maps onto features that go hand in hand with back vowel sounds. Perhaps those same sounds, we reasoned, would map directly onto distance. To test this possibility, we asked students in the New York University student center to guess how far away they were from two other cities in New York state based only on their made-up names—Fleen and Floon. They estimated that Floon was farther—over 200 miles—away than was Fleen, a relatively short 150 miles away. The vowels in the city’s names, it turned out, affected people’s estimates of their whereabouts.
Just as people can be physically close to or far from other places, they can also be psychologically close to or far from other people. If back vowel sounds in city names make them seem spatially farther away, might the same sounds in people’s names make them seem socially farther away?
In an initial study, research participants saw themselves as having less in common with made-up people whose names included back vowels (like Don and Joan) than people whose names included front vowels (like Dean and Jean). In another study, we found that participants said they would give larger tips—which we saw as a marker of social closeness—to servers whose names included front vowels rather than back vowels.
Sometimes, though, back vowel sounds have more positive effects than front vowels. Along these lines, another study showed that a therapist named with a back vowel was more helpful in helping participants remember a negative experience from a more distal and less threatening perspective.
I started this post with the way I start my day not only to note how vowel sounds can differ but also to illustrate that the line dividing human from nonhuman continues to blur. I’m interacting with Google and WBEZ in the same way that I converse with human beings. Like people, brands have names, and so developers pour untold investments into crafting the handful of syllables that make up a brand’s moniker. They expect these investments to pay off, knowing that how a product’s name sounds colors people’s perception of the brand. So when you think a new product sounds swell before you know much about it, take pause. Or ask Alexa or Siri to remind you to do so.
For Further Reading
Maglio, S. J. & Feder, M. A. (2017). The making of social experience from the sounds in names. Social Cognition, 35 (6), 663-674.
Maglio, S. J., Rabaglia, C. D., Feder, M. A., Krehm, M., & Trope, Y. (2014). Vowel sounds in names affect mental construal and shift preferences for targets. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143 (3), 1082-1096.
Rabaglia, C. D., Maglio, S. J., Krehm, M., Seok, J., & Trope, Y. (2016). The sound of distance. Cognition, 152, 141-149.
Sam Maglio is an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His attempts at naming to date have resulted in a cat called Luna and a daughter called Penny.