Thursday, June 06, 2013

Those pesky hard vowels

Q: What's funnier than a frontpage story about political science and language?
A: A frontpage Washington Times story about political science and language!

Names with the soft consonant “l” or that end in a long “a” — for example, President Obama’s daughter Malia — are more likely to be found in Democratic neighborhoods, while names with hard vowel sounds such as K, G or B — think former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s sons Track and Trig — are more popular in Republican communities.

How the study's "schwa A" became the notional "long A" in "Malia" is an interesting question, but it pales next to those manly hard vowels K, G, and B!

Some of the failings here hold lessons for the professional press as well as the party press:

One, don't swap terminology around at random. The study isn't about "Democratic neighborhoods" and "Republican communities"; liberal-conservative ideology is measured by an average of five vote percentages, only two of which are specifically party-related.

Two, featurize at your own risk:

It turns out the parents of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Perry knew what they were doing when they named their babies.

No, not really. Going by Table 5 ("gender distribution of the most common phonemes among California birth names 2004"), score Hillary Diane (born 1947) and James Richard (born 1950) yourself and see what you get.

Oh, and three: Make sure the same person handles both text and graphics. That's one way to avoid having your story say "HAHAHA Liam is the gurliest name EVAR" while the chart points out that Liam was the top name for boys in Wyoming in 2012, in which the state voted 69.3% for the Republican candidate. That's not a trend that "proves" anything, but it does suggest the importance of talking about what a study measured -- names, ideology, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and gender in California in 2004 -- as well as what it found.

This appears to be the paper, as presented as the Midwestern Political Science Association.


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