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This is kind of difficult for me to describe, so let me lead with an example. Suppose I tell you there's a creature named Humbarum and another named Axratax. I'll ask you to start imagining what they're like, even though you know nothing but their names: imagine their behaviour, their appearance. You'll probably be able to imagine at least a couple of things about at least one of them, and you might feel those same qualities couldn't be said of the other.

When we create new words to name things, the sounds of those words have connotations that mean things to us. This means there's compositional rules, and if we can understand them we can leverage them to better understand how to name things. And when a name doesn't feel quite right for a character, we could understand what about it might not be quite right and what we can do instead.

I'm interested in learning about those rules, and I imagine someone's done the science to understand and develop them, but I don't even know what this kind of thing is called. How can I learn about these rules? Is there a name for this subject I can look into? Are there formative texts I could read?


Related topics in naming: phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and the bouba/kiki effect.

In illustration, the theory of shape language is well understood: it asserts that characters can be composed of circles, rectangles, and triangles, and the shapes we use to build a character helps us say things about them. It seems weird, but it works. This seems like it's the phonetic equivalent of that.

  • I don't know if there's a reliable way to instill a specific feeling into a name. For example, when I read "Humbarum", I imagined Hodor, and when I read "Axratax", my mind went from "generic bad-fantasy character" to "Galbatorix from Eragon" to "Aatrox from League of Legends". In other words, it's tied to personal experiences. However, if you liken a name to a more common word, I imagine you might get the desired result. I don't know if research has been done into this area, but try looking into associative learning and the modern understanding of emotions. – verified_tinker Jun 9 at 12:16
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This is more of a comment than an answer, but it is long, so I posted it here. I find the subject interesting and I am sure someone will come up with an answer, if there is one it will likely be in psycho-linguistics.

When I was in high school, in France, we studied something similar. It was not a science, or a precise field, just a matter of word connotation and associations and sounds. It is important in metric poetry for instance an “iel” “ael” “elle” sound evokes light, air, softness, it is feminine and musical, pleasing, while a “br” “brw” “dr” “gr”is hard, evoking stones, grinding, grimness...

so if you want to speak of dewy roses in a morning breeze you would have to avoid using any words with harsh sounds, like dirt, earth, or unpleasant associations like thorn, you find more “pleasing” sounding synonyms, like humus or soil, even if the meaning is not precisely what you wanted to convey...on the other hand if you spoke of death, conflicts you would avoid nice round words, you would use war (ugly sound, animalistic) over battle (the Ba is soft but mitigated by the “tt”), over combat (too soft “omb” = womb).... basically there is need of coherence, adequation between the subject and the words used to describe it...

a good rule of thumb is that consonants together or in thigh proximity, and some consonants in particular like G, Q, K, R, T, are Yang, harsh, ugly...and vowels close together, and light consonants like L, H, F, M, B are Yin... and some combos are worse than others while some harder sounds can be sweetened

To take your sample names Humbarum and Axratax, to me both are male, but Humbarum is a gentle character, it reminds me of humbugs, because of the enveloping “hum” and the H is soft, this maybe why Hodor and Hagrid are so named, gentle giants... Heimdall, Hephaestus, Hercules, Hulk, The Hound, Homer Simpson... . Also apart from hum, by association there is human, rum, bar, Barnum, humble, rumba...The other name first makes me think of some hissing alien spidery, spindly, character in a bad 80’si-fi novel, it has two of the harshest sounding consonants T and X(a “KS” in disguise) and if you just take out the “A” it becomes XRTX phonetically KSRTKS ; it also contains words Axes and Rat and taxes...hardly associations to generate trust or friendliness.... tsk, tsk, tsk

Related to this sounds connotations is the consonant/dissonant concept in music

Consonance and dissonance

Sure it is partly language dependent but it should hold for most Indo-European languages. While the sounds/phonemes I used are based on the French language Look at Tolkien’s names: Galadriel, Luthien Tinuviel, Lothlórien, Boromir, Beren, Barad-dûr.... I think it is close to being universal which names are airy, beautiful and which are hard, masculine... (though there could be hair splitting overGaladriel, but that GA sound is “diluted” by the A and L, and gala, galactic, galacto = milk without the iel it becomes a bit more masculine as in Gilgalad, and the dr is rendered harmless with the A and beautiful iel, Adriel is a nice sound, dreamy, and I guess Beren is not that hard because of the B,E,N softening it, but it is still virile, Just nicer, more reassuring Beren, bear and the maiden fair, bearen, bearer, born, Beorn...)

This is also linked with your cultural and personal background. For instance take the name Molly, it will have a different association if you are westerner, if you are an English native speaker, if you are a Brit, if you actually know or knew, or read about, girls named Molly. All those will influence the connotation of the name for you, which is maybe why there may not be a systematic study of that.

That being said, since you share a common background with your readership, some of the conventions are shared. Marketing and advertising make good use of connotations in their efforts to manipulate the potential buyers, so yes there is something in your question but I am not sure it is an area that can be objectively studied.

Also I am not sure if this is related to your question but there is always the old trick of names that are close to colors, occupations, looks, to help characterize... i.e. Tinker, Amber, Holden, Ruddy... Here is an interesting article I found about the length to which your given name can influence you...

names produce a Dorian Gray effect, influencing personality

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