Vowels sex-based symbolism in Setswana personal names

First and last names



sound symbolism, Setswana, vowels, gender, anthroponym, ethnonym, naming


Traditionally it was believed that language was arbitrary; that is there was no association between the word and the form it signifies. However, later research has shown that some phonemes naturally have features associated with the meaning they express thereby supporting iconicity. This study investigates sound symbolism in Setswana personal names with a particular focus on vowels. It analyses a corpus of 958 names and the results show that female names statistically significantly preferred front vowels, lax vowels and generally have more vowels than male names. Male names favoured tense vowels, but back vowels did not produce a significant result.  Across languages, female names tend to have more front vowels whereas males have more back vowels. While the results of the study demonstrated sex-biased size dimorphism, the non-significant back vowels in male names rejects the possibility of vowels sex-biased size dimorphism universality. The study concluded that vowel sound symbolism in gender names is not universal; it depends on the phonology of the language as well as the naming culture of that society. The results of the study offer a great avenue for similar research in other languages especially lax and tense vowels which have not been widely researched.



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Author Biography

Thapelo Otlogetswe, University of Botswana

Professor Otlogetswe is a professor of Linguistics and Lexicography and a recipient of the Presidential Order of Honour (PH) being an honour awarded for efficient and devoted service to the Republic of Botswana. Between 2019-2020 he was a Fulbright visiting professor in the Linguistics Department of the University of California, Davis.

His principal areas of interest are corpus linguistics and lexicography. Much of his research is in lexical computing, corpus lexicography, onomastics, rhyming patterns, genre and text type analysis. He has been involved in the development of Setswana spellcheckers and the compilation of a multi-million token Setswana corpus.

He has also compiled a number of dictionaries including Tlhalosi ya Medi ya SetswanaEnglish-Setswana DictionaryOxford English Setswana Setswana English School Dictionary and Poeletso-medumo ya Setswana: a Setswana Rhyming dictionary. He has led the breakthrough translation work on the Setswana Google Search, OpenOffice and Firefox Setswana Spell-checkers. He is a member of the African Association of Lexicography and of the African Academy of Languages - which is a languages arm of the African Union. He also sits on the editorial boards of multiple academic journals.