Phonetic Contrast

Lately I have been thinking about naming a lot. Brand names, band names, nicknames, you name it (oh, god.) I’ve been contemplating their context in a given space as well as their presence – visual and phonetic.

Let me disclaim first that this is one of those posts where I did take notice of the extensive amount of research available on the subject, yet I will only be scratching the surface on practical matters of naming.

In my opinion, the practical power in a name lies in its distinction, as well as the ability to convey it well in conversation. In my initial thoughts I named this phonetic contrast, unbeknownst if the term actually existed. Words with low phonetic contrast are generally single syllable words (eg. Build, Air, etc.) or two-syllable words where the syllables have the same speech sound, or a soft tone, also have a low contrast feel to them (eg. Burger, Phone, Move.)

Without getting too theoretical about it, I believe the parts of a word that raise the contrast can be broken down into two categories: a wide variation between the speech sound between the vowels, and the use of certain strong consonants. The difference between the speech sound of vowels is set out in the IPA vowel chart.

As I’ve come to notice; phonetics is a science in itself. I’ll try to break it down by matter of examples.

Consonants

The contrast of consonants is hard to group logically, so here’s a list of strong consonants (and yes, my notations are off):

  • unvoiced stop-plosive consonants ([p], [t] and [k])
  • most voiced fricative consonants ([v] and [z])
  • combination consonants ([ch], [dj])

Then there are the less noticeable ones:

  • voiced stop-plosive consonants ([b], [d] and [g])
  • unvoiced fricative consonants ([f], [s], [sh] and [h])
  • lateral consonants ([l])
  • glides ([r], [j], [w] and [hw])

Examples

Pastebot contains strong consonants, yet the vowels keep the word from being of high contrast. Instacast is another example of this case.

PlainText contains three strong consonants, of which two are also at the start of both its syllables. Definitely easy to pronounce, even in the most dire of conversation situations.

Vowels

Vowels only add to contrast in context. They contrast each other on speech sound and their contrast is higher the further they are apart on the aforementioned vowel chart.

Examples

Facebook is light on matters of contrast by consonants, but the [a] and the [oo] are far apart, thus the word gains medium contrast. This makes it noticeable in speech yet not too complex to say quickly.

Decemberists contains a lot of vowels that are all near each other on the vowel chart, therefore the contrast in the word lies on the last [t].

Airglow can only gain its contrast from the vowels, as all consonants are soft. Yet the consonants here are so soft, that the word doesn’t even have a medium level of contrast.

Meh is a perfect example of a word with very low contrast.

Contrast with caution

Using specific vowels and consonants to create a high level of phonetic contrast is a very powerful way of creating a name that is clear to use in conversations and everyday speech. Overusing these vowels and consonants easily makes the name more complex to pronounce correctly fast.

I believe the crux lies in finding the correct ratio of strong vowels and consonants to the length of the name. I’d say it’s a ratio of 1:4, where a strong consonant counts as a single unit and a combination of vowels counts as two.