Ask Language Log: Are East Asian first names gendered?

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The question comes from George Amis:

I wonder– are first names gendered in Mandarin?  That is, is it possible to tell that Tse-tung or Wai-wai are masculine names? Given the extraordinary proliferation of Chinese first names, I rather doubt it. And what is the case with Japanese first names? Here, I suspect that the names are gendered, although of course I don't know.

In a word, no.  Normally you cannot tell a person's gender simply by hearing their name spoken aloud in Mandarin.  In some cases, you can make a reasonable guess at a person's gender if you see the characters used to write their name.  For example, if the characters have a "grass" or "woman" radical and mean things like "fragrant" or "pretty", chances are good that the person is female.  Again, though, you wouldn't reliably be able to determine that just by hearing their name spoken aloud without seeing the characters.  Similarly, if the characters used to write a person's name have weapon radicals and mean something like "martial" or "heroic", they are likely to be male, but I wouldn't bet on it, even if I saw the name written down in characters, because it's possible that the parents wanted their daughter to be a Joan of Arc or Mulan type warrior woman.

If I hear a name like "Mǎlì 玛丽" ("Mary") or "Dàwèi 大卫" ("David"), which are obviously modeled on English gendered given names, I will feel fairly confident that they are respectively female and male, but even then I wouldn't bet on it.  If I saw these names written down as "Mǎlì 玛丽" (lit., "agate / cornelian pretty / beautiful") and "Dàwèi 大卫" (lit., "large / big / strong guard / defend / protect"), I'd be close to 100% sure that they are respectively female and male.

A word of caution:  if you haven't been told explicitly that so and so is male or female, best not to make any assumption about their gender on the basis of their given name in Mandarin, especially not by sound alone,

As for Japanese, I will put it this way:  most Japanese women I know have given names that end in -ko 子 ("child; infant; tot; young woman / geisha").  Conversely, few (if any) Japanese men whom I know have given names that end in -ko 子 ("child; infant; tot; young woman / geisha").  As for the finer nuances of Japanese naming practices, I leave it to the Japanese wallahs who are reading this post to weigh in.

When it comes to Korean, I will quote my colleague, Haewon Cho:

Like English, we do have male names, female names, and gender-neutral names. I would say 80% of the time I can tell if a person is male or female by his/her name. If I have their Chinese characters, it's easier. For example, as for my name Haewon (혜원慧媛), 99% of Korean people would assume that I am female.   Find more here.

There is a great painter named 신윤복 (申潤福)  Sinyunbok and his (號) ho  ("pseudonym; alias") is 혜원 蕙園. Other than him, I've never seen any 혜원 who is male.  Interestingly, 해원 haewon is more unisex than 혜원 hyewon (my name is romanized this way, but I chose Haewon as my English name as it is difficult for English speakers to pronounce Hyewon).

On a slightly different note, my mother's name ends in 子 자 Ja as she was given a Japanese name during the Japanese forced occupation. Many female seniors have 子 in their names, which is considered outdated and old.

I have had four Korean colleagues, friends, and students named "Haewon" or "Hyewon", and they are all female.  On the other hand, I've only had one Korean student named "Barom", and the name just sounded masculine to me, even before I met him.



32 Comments

  1. Lillian said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 2:51 pm

    Just as a note, younger Japanese women and girls are unlikely to have names ending in -ko. (One fairly reliable way to tell that a piece of media/fiction about Japan was written by a non-Japanese person is that most of the young female characters are named Keiko, Ryoko, Hanako, etc.) Of course it's still true that a name ending in -ko is almost certainly going to be female, but there are still exceptions–names ending in -hiko (e.g. Katsuhiko) are going to be male.

  2. John Rohsenow said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 3:07 pm

    Prof. Mair has kindly passed over the use of the term "first name", here
    referring to personal names, as opposed to E Asian family surnames, which of course come "first", i.e. before personal names, e.g. MAO Zedong, MUFUNE Toshiro, etc.

  3. Jim Breen said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 4:17 pm

    I agree with Lillian; they days when a majority of Japanese female given names ended in -ko (*) are past. It was a custom/fad some years back. I have read that before that the use of xxxxko names was largely confined to the nobility, but I can't confirm it. Another female name pattern is xxxxmi(*)

    (*) I won't enter the kanji for "ko" or "mi" as I want to test Victor's theory that the reason the LL system is treating my attempted posts as spam is the presence of Japanese characters.

  4. Jim Breen said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

    The -mi I alluded to earlier in Japanese names is "美" meaning beauty. Many male given names end in rō (郎, 朗, etc.)

  5. Arthur Waldron said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 5:10 pm

    For decades my Chinese personal name
    霨 was not in the font in PRC so a grass radical 蔚 was substitred making it I was told a girl's name. ANW

  6. krogerfoot said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 6:33 pm

    In practice, when hearing a given name in Japan, it's a bit uncommon for that person's sex to turn out not to be what you expect. Family names are used far more than given names in everyday situations, though, and there's no way to tell whether "Harada-san" is a man or woman.

    Usually you'd encounter an unknown (or at least not-yet-met) person's given name on a list of some sort, and seeing the kanji usually but not always removes any doubt, especially if the given name is not written in kanji—I've never met a man with a hiragana-only given name. Some kanji could go either way: 歩 could be "Ayumi" (most likely female) or "Ayumu" (most likely male), and there are probably many more I'm forgetting.

    I'm not sure I'd agree that female names ending in -ko are UNlikely for younger women, but the trend is definitely not in that direction. Similarly, male names ending in -rō are not so much in vogue.

  7. Filter Fodder said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 8:21 pm

    This might be of interest:

    http://www.meijiyasuda.co.jp/enjoy/ranking/year_men/girl.html

    It lists popular Japanese names for newborns since the beginning of Taisho, but doesn't seem to merge names with the same reading. Looking at girls' names, -ko seems to take off at around 1920, before which two-mora names were common. The -ko trend seems to fall in popularity at around 1980.

    > In practice, when hearing a given name in Japan, it's a bit uncommon for that person's sex to turn out not to be what you expect.

    Everything's relative. The same site also has lists for top 50 popular readings, although without history:

    http://www.meijiyasuda.co.jp/enjoy/ranking/read_best50/girl.html
    http://www.meijiyasuda.co.jp/enjoy/ranking/read_best50/boy.html

    Featured in both lists are Aoi (girls' #10, boys' #14) and Hinata (girls' #25, boys' #9). Apart from these, there are also many other names that are gender-neutral in my intuition, e.g. girls' #7 Rio, and boys' #10 Yuuki.

  8. Eric said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 9:07 pm

    According to Wikipedia, the husband of the Japanese supercentenarian Nabi Tajima's name was Tominishi (富二子), a male name that ends in 子.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nabi_Tajima

  9. Itinerant said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 10:57 pm

    Aside from the -ko and -mi suffixes, other common and perhaps more contemporary ones are -ka, -na, -sa. Then there's "ri" which is not necessarily a suffix per se, but a common sound at the end of female sounding names – Midori, Hikari, Yuri, Kaori, Sayuri… Depending on how they're written out the "ri" may have its own kanji but I wouldn't say they're suffixes; if you take out the ri you often aren't left with a real name (Kao, Mido..)

    -ho is another candidate that sounds outdated to me. e.g. Mizuho, Kaho, Naho, Chiho.
    Even more antiquated sounding in some cases is -e, e.g. Kazue, Yurie, Kikue.
    One I hardly hear any more is -yo. Michiyo, Kayo, Chiyo, Kazuyo, etc.

    I think -ra might be an upcoming western-sounding contender. Yura, Sara, Kurara (?? OK not to get all Heidi on yalls…)
    And -i, though that's more of a sound than a suffix again imo (Aoi, Yui, Mai) and there might be more male sounding names in there (Kai, Rai, whatever)

  10. Wayne said,

    January 14, 2018 @ 11:03 pm

    At least in Taiwan, Mandarin given names seem to be pretty heavily gendered. Not just female names often having characters with the woman radical (婷 is very common in women's names here), but also phonetically. The sounds mei, ling, and xuan seem to be in exclusively female names while hong, wei, and zhi would almost always be in only male names. Also, anything related to academics like 書 and 文 are almost exclusively male while names with characters related to nature like 雲 are more likely to be female. For instance, NBA star Jeremy Lin's Chinese name 林書豪 has that book in there.

    Moreover, I've been told that relatively gender-neutral (中性) given names, if anything, are preferred. My own kids have relatively gendered names, but that was because the fortune teller gave us a choice out 24 characters and that was the best we could come up with.

    Indeed, I wonder if you were to read a list of Chinese names to a complete non-Chinese speaker how accurately they could guess the person's gender. My guess is that it would be better than random to a statistically significant degree.

    Having not visited mainland China in a while, I'd still say you could say the same thing about names there. I know literally millions of men in their 40s have the given name 國強 or 紅軍. How many women have that given name?

  11. Thomas Lumley said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 12:21 am

    Interesting. The only Haewon I know is also male, and Google finds another, a bioengineering research at Dankook University (http://www.itren.kr/index.php/component/k2/item/195-influential-papers-published-one-after-another)

  12. Travis Seifman said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 1:39 am

    Eric – regarding the name Tominishi, he and his super centenarian wife are apparently from Kikaijima, an island in the Amami chain (between Okinawa and "mainland" Japan). So, likely somewhat different naming practices.

    Still, a good example for how even within Japan you can't assume that any particular person's name would necessarily follow standard (mainland) Japanese trends or patterns.

  13. Travis Seifman said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 1:42 am

    Nabi 鍋 itself was a common female name in the Ryukyus, along with names like Ushi 牛 and Kamadu 釜戸, names I imagine would be rather rare/unusual in mainland Japan.

  14. phspaelti said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 3:45 am

    For Japanese names the most certain correlate with gender is number of syllables. 4 or more is almost guaranteed to be male. Previously 3 syllables names were mostly female, but recently that has been breaking down and 3 syllable names for boys are more common and 2 and 1 syllables are also increasing for both boys and girls.

    I took a quick sample of the young women in our department (Women's University):
    567 names, 270 unique names.

    Number of syllables:
    4 syllables – 2 names
    3 syllables – 335 names (175 unique names)
    2 syllables – 226 names (91 unique names)
    1 syllable – 4 (2 unique) [Not really accurate: Names such as "Ai" etc. are counted as 2 syllables]

    Here are the most common final syllables (all names):
    ka (99), mi (63), na (59), ko (59), ki (47), ri (44), i (34), ho (20)
    [Strictly speaking "i" is not a final syllable. It occurs in names like "Mai", "Mei", "Yui" etc.]

  15. phspaelti said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 3:52 am

    Just one more comment: Japanese personal names are clearly gendered, but the clues to the gender are quite subtle (especially in more modern names) and more gender ambiguous names are (perhaps) increasing.

  16. B.Ma said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 6:08 am

    @Wayne

    "The sounds mei, ling, and xuan seem to be in exclusively female names while hong, wei, and zhi would almost always be in only male names."

    Really? What about 軒, 微 and 芝 (or even 玄)?

  17. Michael said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 6:15 am

    Modern practice in Israel is to give previously masculine names to girls, thus making gender recognition iffy.

  18. The Suffocated said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 7:39 am

    @B.Ma

    Wayne referred to the probability that a name is masculine/feminine. There are exceptions, of course. E.g. 芝 is usually used for girls' names, but Mao Tse-tung was named 咏芝 when he was born (and he changed it to 潤之 after he came of age); most people with 雲 as the last characters in their names are women, but 馬雲 is a bloke.

  19. Chris Button said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 8:48 am

    Of course it's still true that a name ending in -ko is almost certainly going to be female, but there are still exceptions–names ending in -hiko (e.g. Katsuhiko) are going to be male.

    For Japanese names the most certain correlate with gender is number of syllables. 4 or more is almost guaranteed to be male.

    As such, the relatively well-known Japanese linguist Kindaichi Haruhiko (金田一 春彦) was undoubtedly a man. Having said that, had his name been Haruko (春子) he would have been a woman.

  20. Francis Bond said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 9:05 am

    G'day,

    using the list of gendered names from Enamdict and nltk we were able to predict male or female with 97% accuracy for the gendered names:

    problem:
    http://compling.hss.ntu.edu.sg/courses/hg2051/week11.html
    code:
    http://compling.hss.ntu.edu.sg/courses/hg2051/code/wk11b.html
    result:
    http://compling.hss.ntu.edu.sg/courses/hg2051/code/wk11b-out.txt

    Note that this is type accuracy for names whose gender is given in the lexicon, so the numbers are a higher than for random names.

    Finally, as people have noted Haruhiko does not really end in /ko/ 子 (female) but rather /hiko/ 彦 (male) — it is the final character that is important not the final syllable.

  21. Mark S. said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 10:01 am

    I have a bit of information on this for the case of Taiwanese:
    * Most Common Taiwanese Given Names
    * Common Taiwanese given names.

  22. liuyao said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 1:16 pm

    "Similarly, if the characters used to write a person's name have weapon radicals and mean something like "martial" or "heroic", they are likely to be male, but I wouldn't bet on it, even if I saw the name written down in characters, because it's possible that the parents wanted their daughter to be a Joan of Arc or Mulan type warrior woman."

    In support of this is the name of famous female physicist at Columbia, C. S. Wu 吳健雄.

    I did not think Yun 雲 (cloud) was particularly feminine. Chen Yun 陳雲 and Liu Yunshan 劉雲山 are two examples from the Communist party, Zhao Yun 趙雲 from the Three Kingdoms, and Wang Yangming's childhood name was 雲 too.

  23. ajay said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

    Modern practice in Israel is to give previously masculine names to girls, thus making gender recognition iffy.

    A practice not restricted to Israel. Cameron, Mackenzie, Sydney, Marion, Hilary, Clair…

  24. Guy_H said,

    January 15, 2018 @ 5:57 pm

    I think the reason Taiwanese names like "mei" and "ling" sound female is that 美 and 玲 are somewhat popular characters to use in girl's names. Similarly, "zhi" probably sounds masculine because 志 is a popular character in boy's names.
    Without seeing statistics, I'm not confident that 書 and 文 are anything other than gender neutral. Off the top of my head, I can think of several young female celebrities in Taiwan with those characters e.g. 郭書瑤 (Yao Yao, who is very popular) and 丁文琪 (Kiki Tang).

  25. Ouen said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 2:46 am

    As other people have said I think it's much more common for females to have male-sounding names than for males to have female-sounding names.

    There are two things that I am curious to know more about.

    1) is it more common for women in mainland China to have male sounding names than women growing up in other Chinese speaking areas? When I lived in Thailand I knew a mainland Chinese girl called li4. I had always assumed it was 麗, but it was in fact 力. This didn't surprise anyone but my Taiwanese boyfriend and myself. This is very anecdotal but others have hinted at something similar. I am afriad it is impossible to discuss beyond anecdotes given the size of mainland China.

    2) was it the case historically-speaking that men often had names that would be considered flowery and effeminate by today's standards? Maybe this is easy to answer and I'm sure someone more knowledgeable than me can offer a reliable opinion.

  26. Chion said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 11:40 am

    Rather interesting is the gendering of Korean names based on native Korean nouns. Haneuls (sky) for example seem to always be female. I recently met a Bada (sea) who was male.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 12:04 pm

    Note FWIW that in AmEng there are a few names (perhaps mostly nicknames?) that are gender-neutral ("epicene") in speech but disambiguated in spelling into gender-marked pairs. So, e.g., that the Steely Dan song "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" was NOT "Ricky Don't Lose That Number" was a "tell" that the addressee was female. Similarly, I have a cousin named Andrea who uses her full name as an adult but as a girl was commonly called "Andi" — i.e. not "Andy," which would have been more appropriate for a boy named Andrew. Obviously the trend in the US as elsewhere for markedly-male names to evolve into markedly-female names over time and greater comfort with giving a girl a boy-sounding name than vice versa makes the data messy.

  28. Null said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 3:37 pm

    Is Korean name Minjung male or female?
    Answer: You cannot tell.
    If it is a transcription of 민정, it would be female; if it is a transcription of 민중, it would be male.

  29. Martha said,

    January 16, 2018 @ 10:21 pm

    As an ESL teacher, it would be nice a lot of times if I could tell whether a name was male or female when I first encounter it. I've gotten better at making a guess with some languages, but not with others. The characters used to write the names originally are of no use, as I only ever see their romanized names. Nevertheless, this post is helpful!

    It took me a while to get used to the fact that Abdulelah is a boy's name, since it ends in "ella." I eventually got used to paying attention to the "Abdul" in the beginning, not how the name ends.

  30. Null said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 2:34 am

    BTW, some old Korean females have names ending with 남 (男). This is because their parents wanted a boy.

  31. Andrew Usher said,

    January 17, 2018 @ 8:48 am

    Isn't this originally the wrong question? It's not at all surprising that Westerners with no real familiarity with Chinese or Japanese would be unable to gender their given names: equally a Chinese with no knowledge of European languages would probably not gender English given names much better than chance.

    The more interesting points are how (for example) Chinese compares with English in having distinctly gendered names, different sound patterns for male and female names, etc.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  32. Ashley said,

    January 23, 2018 @ 12:55 pm

    Regarding Korean names, the Ask A Korean blog has some insightful posts

    https://askakorean.blogspot.ca/2013/06/why-are-korean-names-two-syllables.html
    https://askakorean.blogspot.ca/2008/08/its-not-just-that-they-all-look-same.html
    https://askakorean.blogspot.ca/2010/10/still-more-about-korean-names.html

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