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July 11, 2006

Product Naming: Stop Morphing My Phonemes!

I find one of the challenges in using foreign words to create new product names is the way sounds shift shape across languages.

Linguists call a unit of sound a “phoneme,” from the Greek word phone, meaning “voice.” And right there we have a demonstration of the problem. English “phone” is a one-syllable word, but Greek phone is two syllables, since the “e” at the end rhymes with “way.”

English has one letter, “e,” to represent the two Greek “e”s: Epsilon (the short e, pronounced like the “e” in English “bed”) and Eta, which is pronounced like a long English “a”. Not only that, but English uses “e” to represent at least two other sounds as well: the “uh” of “the” and the long “e” of “Steve.” And then there’s the silent “e,” at the end of “Steve,” which isn’t pronounced at all.

All of which means that English speakers might not be sure how to pronounce a new name with an “e” in it, unless the “e” is part of a word or name they already know.

I feel if people can’t pronounce a brand name, they’re not going to talk about it - and those who hear them might not realize which product they mean if they do. Look at the problem Nike (another Eta word, this time the name of the Greek goddess of victory) had convincing the American public that its brand name didn’t rhyme with “bike.”

This problem with the changing shape of sounds rules out a lot of otherwise good name candidates, at least for English names. Languages like Italian, Spanish, and German are much more a case of “what you see is what you get” when it comes to pronunciation and spelling.

But English, precisely because it has roots in so many languages and uses so many imported words, has many ways to represent every sound and many sounds for every combination of letters (called a “morpheme,” from the Greek word for shape).

The moral of the story? Watch out for Etas when naming.

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Posted by Diane Prange at July 11, 2006 7:05 AM
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1 Comment

Love this post if for nothing more than the exposition about the Greek alphabet.

Your insight about people is just as good; "if people can’t pronounce a brand name, they’re not going to talk about it"

Everyone's ego is fragile. Smart naming strategies would take that into account or so I would think. But that's just me.

What a pleasure to share in the conversation you are creating.

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