Tasty names 2

Follow-up to the Häagen-Dazs gelato campaign here, with its tasty names: a story in Stanford Magazine of July/August about research by my colleague Dan Jurafsky: “Why Ice Cream Sounds Fat and Crackers Sound Skinny: Words carry weight. A linguist explains”. The brief version:

… front vowels are used in words for small, thin, light things, and back vowels in words for big, fat, heavy things

… Since ice cream is a product whose whole purpose is to be rich, creamy and heavy, it is not surprising that people seem to prefer ice creams that are named with back vowels.

… In a study for an upcoming book based on my freshman seminar The Language of Food, I checked to see whether commercial ice creams (like Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s) make use of this association by using more back vowels in their names, and conversely whether thin, light foods like crackers would have more front vowels. I found more back vowels in ice cream names — Rocky Road, Jamoca Almond Fudge, Chocolate, Caramel, Cookie Dough, Coconut — and more front vowels in cracker names: Cheese Nips, Cheez-It, Wheat Thins, Pretzel thins, Ritz, Krispy, Triscuit, Chicken in a Biskit, Ritz bits.

Here’s a very compressed version of the story: front vowels (like English / i  ɪ  e  ɛ  æ / ) have higher second formants (F2) than back vowels (like English / a  ɔ  ʌ  o   ʊ  u / ) and “sound higher” to listeners. Meanwhile, speech with higher fundamental frequency (F0), which “sounds higher” in a different way, tends to be produced by smaller creatures and speakers.  So there’s a natural association between front vowels and small, thin, light things and between back vowels and big, fat, heavy things — which turns up in tendencies in the way foods (among other things) are named: Rocky Road / a … o / but Cheese Nips / i … ɪ /. More details in Dan’s magazine piece.

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