Identifing Patterns of Name Phonology in African-American Names

Posted May 10th, 2010 at 12:48 pm.

Laura Sockol

Mentor: Professor Kim Cassidy

This summer, I will be working with Kim Cassidy on a grant proposal to seek funding for research to identify patterns of name phonology in African-American names. Name phonology refers to the types of sounds present in names; for example, number of syllables and ending consonants. This research will help identify phonological differences between distinctive African-American and mainstream American names. This information can then be used to determine whether individuals are implicitly aware of these differences, how and when this knowledge develops, and whether this knowledge affects behavior. This research could contribute to understanding the ways in which racial stereotypes are activated.

African-Americans often have “distinctive black” names.[1] These are names that identify an individual as African-American, due to the much higher rate of name usage by African-Americans than by other groups. African-Americans are much more likely to choose names that are indicative of their race than members of other racial or ethnic groups.[2] By 1980, the names given to African-American girls were, on average, twenty times more likely to be given to an African-American child than to a white one.[3] There is a similar split for boys, though not as large, because parents are generally more conservative with boys’ names. Because of the differential preference for certain names between African-American and mainstream Americans, names are a reliable indicator of race, although there are names that are equally common in both racial groups (e.g. common male names such as “Michael”).

While some distinctive black names reflect historical trends or are rooted in African naming practices, others have emerged from African-American culture. These names are phonologically distinct from mainstream American names. For example, three-syllable female names in which the first and second syllables end in an “ah” vowel and the stress is on the second syllable are frequently distinctive black names (e.g. Tamika or Latoya). These patterns are not rooted in any identifiable historical trends; rather, they reflect a tendency for African-American parents to invent unique names for their children within an existing framework of phonological guidelines.[4] By studying the phonological differences between African-American and mainstream names, we may be able to identify patterns which help individuals identify others as members of particular racial categories.

This would have interesting implications for future research on racial stereotyping. Distinctive black names have already been used in studies of discriminatory behavior, for example, to determine whether individuals with distinctive black names are less likely to be called in for a job interview.[5] Identifying the phonological features of distinctive black names will help other researchers determine which names to use in these types of studies. It could also provide an avenue for studying implicit racial stereotype activation. Because subjects often try to mask racist responses in experimental settings, the use of names could allow racial stereotypes to be activated without leading subjects to censor their own behavior. This could provide more reliable evidence regarding the influence of racial stereotypes on behavior.

[1] Lieberson, S. & Mikelson, K. (1995). Distinctive African American names: An experimental, historical, and linguistic analysis of innovation. American Sociological Review. 60(6). 928-946.

[2] Lieberson, S. (2000). A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions and Culture Change. New Haven: Yale.

[3] Levitt, S. & Dubner, S. (2005). Freakonomics. New York: William Morrow.

[4] Lieberson, S. & Mikelson, K. (1995).

[5] Bertrand, M. & Mullainathan, S. (2002). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment evidence on labor market discrimination.

Filed under: 2006,Cassidy, Dr. Kimberly,Sockol, Laura by Ann Dixon

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