LINGUIST List 11.352

Fri Feb 18 2000

Sum: Feminine Names Ending in "-a"

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>


  1. Kentaro Toyama, for Query 11.186 Feminine names ending in '-a'

Message 1: for Query 11.186 Feminine names ending in '-a'

Date: Thu, 17 Feb 2000 20:20:04 -0800
From: Kentaro Toyama <>
Subject: for Query 11.186 Feminine names ending in '-a'

Summary of responses for "feminine names ending in -a":

Thanks to everyone who responded! Sorry for the delay;
there was a lot of material.

- -------------------------------------------------------
Many people CONFIRMED the "-a" suffix hypothesis in various

- Anne Cutler cites two papers which appear support the
"-a" ending inclination for English names in this century.
Both papers enumerate a series of other gender biases in
names and make for very interesting reading in themselves.
The Cutler paper, in particular comes close to an
explanation for phonetic gender bias, which I summarize
below. (Cutler, A., McQueen, J.M. & Robinson,
K. (1990). Elizabeth and John: Sound patterns of men's and
women's names. Journal of Linguistics, 26, 471-482.
Cassidy, K, Kelly, M & Sharoni, L. (1999) Inferring gender
from name phonology J. Exp Psych: General, 128, 1-20.)

- Slavic languages almost always have female names ending
in "-a" (Lucja Biel, J.P.Kirchner,Larisa Zlatic, Ursula
Doleschal, Robert Orr, John Davis) 
- Biel pointed out that on a list of 309 Polish names
(source: a now-defunct web page), only 8 did not end in
"-a", and these were all of non-Polish origin.
- Kirchner noted further that Slavic languages add the 
"-a" when the name in the language of origin lacks it 
(Yvette -> Iveta, in Czech).
- Zlatic notes that in Serbo-Croation, female names not
ending in "-a" behave as undeclined nouns (Wechsler,
Stephen and Larisa Zlatic(1999). Syntax and Morphological
Realization in Serbo-Croatian. In Slavic in HPSG, edited
by R. Borsley and A. Przepiorkowski, Stanford, CSLI

- Danon mentions that "-a" is the standard feminine 
marker for Hebrew.

- John Davis mentions that new African-American names 
often end in "-a".

- Many respondents pushed the "-a" ending roots back to
Latin and further back to Proto-Indo-European (John
E. Koontz, Karl Reinhardt, Gabi Danon, Robert Orr, John
Davis, James L. Fidelholtz).
- Koontz notes that the "-a" ending for female names is
common throughout Proto-Indo-European descendants. He
doubts that this tendency exists outside of IE, listing
Semitic, Berber, Japanese, Siouan, Hidatsa, Omaha, as
exceptions, many of which use a non"-a" suffix explicitly
denoting "girl" or "woman" to indicate gender.

- -------------------------------------------------------
... which leads us to the many interesting COUNTEREXAMPLES
for female names not ending in "-a":

- In Hindi, "-a" is for males, and "-i" for females
(Elizabeth Pyatt, Lameen Souag).

- In Japanese, -o (or -ko) ends most female names
(Elizabeth Pyatt, Earl Herrick, John Davis). As Herrick
notes, there are many male names that end in "-a" (Akira,
Hidetaka, etc.). Being Japanese, I can confirm that this
is the case; however, let me also note that there is
still a faint preference for female names ending in "-a"
for those names which do not end in "-ko" (Mina, Haruna,
Nana, Risa). Alas, "-e" and "-i" are also frequent, but
"-u" is almost unheard of.

- In Afro-Asiatic languages (Egyptian, Aramaic(?)
Semitic(?)), "-t" often ends female names (Elizabeth
Pyatt, Lameen Souag, John E. Koontz).

- Celtic names frequently do not end in "-a" (Dorcas,
Caris) (John Davis).

- Old Norse appears to have many female names without "-a"
(Liz Evans).

- -------------------------------------------------------
Here are some COUNTEREXAMPLES for male names ending in 

- Early American male names from the Bible (Elisha,
Jededia, ...) often ended in "-a" (John Davis).

- Irish male names often end in "-a" (Barra, Donncha,
Murcha...) (Roslyn Blyn-LaDrew). Blyn-LaDrew notes that
most nouns ending in "-a" are masculine in Irish.

- -------------------------------------------------------
Finally, as to EXPLANATIONS for why there might be any
phonetic gender biases in names (beyond the historical
explanations which only push the question back to the
proto-language in which the biases originate):

- Doleschal and Pyatt offer that the feminine gender
generally being the marked gender in languages, it's no
surprise that feminine names would have some consistent
marker bias. I find that this explanation goes part of
the way.

- Cutler et al. (paper cited above) come closest to an
explanation for why [i] (not "-a") occurs more frequently
in female names than in male ones. They cite papers by
Ohala (1983, Cross-language use of pitch: an ethological
point of view, Phonetica 40:1-18; 1984, An ethological
perspective on common cross-language utilization of F0 of
voice. Phonetica 41:1-16) in which it is argued that
"small vocal tracts, which produce high-pitched sounds,
are typically possessed by smaller, weaker, less
threatening beings." Cutler et al. continue: "(It is
hard to imagine a Tina more threatening than a Hugh.)
Perhaps the frequency of [i] in female neames has come
about, therefore, because smallness and lack of threat
are held to be desirable attributes of females. This
suggestion could even be extended to a more general
principle of phonological weight, which would then
embrace the tendency for weak, that is to say
phonologically lighter, syllables to occur more often in
female names."

This seems plausible, and the final schwa presumably fall
unders the "light" phonological weight category. I have
read a similar explanation in Stephen Pinker's "The 
Language Instinct," in which he lists words such as "teeny-
weeny" and "itsy-bitsy" as examples of our tendency to see 
[i] as little (although, possibly, he was referring to 
Ohala when he mentioned this, so that would be no more 

In conclusion, let me propose the following amended
hypothesis: In the absence of semantic suffixes (such as 
the Japanese "-ko") which denote femaleness, female names 
tend to end in "-a" or "-i" universally (this is only a
statistical trend, not an absolute rule). The reasoning is
that semantic suffixes outweigh the synesthetic 
associations we make, but that in the absence of semantic
cues, Ohala's theory may bias female names to be marked by
the lighter, higher-pitched "-a" and "-i".

In Japanese, the phonetic and semantic biases conspire to
make "-mi" one of the most common feminine suffixes after
"-ko". "-mi" is frequently spelled using the character for

Thanks again! 
Kentaro Toyama
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