Why So Many Girl Names End with an ‘a’ Sound

Why do so many female names, irrespective of country of origin and language, end with an ‘aa’ sound? It’s a question that most of us, at some point of time, have wondered about. I had been terribly fascinated with this question as a child. All around me, I saw girl names ending with an ‘aa’ (or an ‘ee’) sound. This was the case even with fictional characters in those wonderful books! So, throughout the world, girls are almost always given names that must end with an ‘aa’, right? Well, yes. Almost.

I did find an explanation for this when I discovered the internet, but having quenched my thirst, I was satisfied with the knowledge, and soon forgot about it. That is, until a question on Quora opened it up again.

So why do so many female names end with an ‘aa’ sound? The answer lies in the birth and origin of languages.

Different languages originated in different parts of the world at different times. One of the largest of these was the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE), that is the parent of most of today’s Eurasian languages. PIE language seemingly had a masculing-feminine construct for nouns, where an ‘aa’ sound added to the end of a male noun makes the noun a female. This rule appears to have passed down to almost every language descended from PIE.

European names like John and Johann become female when appended with long ‘a’ – Joanna, Johanna. There are very few male names that end with a vowel, though – Nikolai, for example. Even with some of the recently derived Romance languages – Spanish, Italian, Portuguese – female names still typically end with an ‘a’ sound, while male names end with an ‘o’ or ‘i’ sound. (Isabella, Donatella, Teresa, Olga, Sofia, Elena, Natalia; Paolo, Antonio, Leonardo, Diego, Giovanni, Rossini)

Speaking for Indian names now, the same notations from PIE extended down to Sanskrit – descended from PIE and the root for most Indian languages, ergo, most names. Sanskrit has a well-defined structure for how nouns operate – vibhakti pratyaya. In Sanskrit, every streeling (female gender) noun ends with a long vowel as a rule, while every pulling (male gender) noun ends with a short vowel. So Rama, when pronounced raam-uh, is male, and when pronounced rum-aa is female. Every male name derived from Sanskrit has a short –a sound affixed at the end of it, which is usually removed owing to the Schwa deletion in Indo-Aryan languages, causing Rama to become Ram, Karna to become Karan, and Ramesha to become Ramesh.

Contrast this with languages derived from families other than PIE, you get an abundance of female names that end with a consonant. Proto-Dravidian languages – Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu before the Sanskrit influence – still carry down names that end with a consonant, like Malar, Ezhil, Aandal. Proto-Mongolic language, the parent of modern Mongol family of languages – Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean – gave rise to a lot of female names that end with the ‘i’ and ‘o’ sounds, like Makiko, Beixi, Shino, Sakae, Thi; but also lots of names that end with a consonant sound – Wen, Xifeng, Tuyen, Yen, Zhenzhen. Proto-Uralic languages gave rise to the modern Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian languages that have female names like Hajnal, Csillag, Gyรถngyvรฉr, Virรกg. Eskimo languages like Inuit and Aleut are derived from Proto-Eskimo language and have female names like Arnakuagsak, Corazon, Cikup, Uiritsaktak. Proto-Mayan, parent of the family of today’s Mayan languages birthed female names like Atl, Coszcatl, Tepin, Yaotl. You can find a list of all proto languages on Wikipedia.

However, female names all over the world are usually identified with the long ‘aah’ sound at the end. This is, in fact, more common than the long ‘ee’ sound. It’s always easier to identify names like Maya, Georgina, Helena, Clara, Eugenia, etc as female rather than names that end with a long ee’ spelled with an i like Gayatri, Savitri (gaai-yuhth-ree, saa-vith-ree) due to the presence of short ‘i’ sounds at the end of male names – Nikolai, Kai, Tye, Levi, Eli – and short ‘e’ male names like Ajani and Percy. So, it’s often common for parents to consciously name a girl child with a name that can be identified as female across cultures.

This is all a lot of generalizing, of course. There are very interesting, unique names that defy all conventions and are quite common. Please note that the theories about the derivatives and timelines of almost every proto language except PIE is still debated among linguists.


References and credits:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Indo-European_language
http://sanskritdocuments.org/learning_tools/grammarintro.pdf
http://indiauncut.com/
http://www.babynamesdirect.com/
http://www.quora.com/Linguistics/Why-do-most-girl-names-end-with-an-aa-sound-Does-your-language-have-girl-names-that-end-with-a-consonant-sound

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15 comments on “Why So Many Girl Names End with an ‘a’ Sound

  1. June

    Wow, that was a really informative and interesting article! Thanks for sharing! My name is June though a lot of friends do lovingly call me Juno or Juna ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Sandrova

      Juna is a really nice name! Thanks for the comment. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Hari

    Always thought of this myself, especially since another close friend’s name ends with an “a” and mine ends with an “i”. Guess some of these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

    1. Sandrova

      Yeah, I think so too. Besides, ‘Hari’ ends with a small ‘ee’ as opposed to, say, ‘Gayatri’ or even ‘Harini’.

  3. Ashish

    Many of my friends’ names end with an ‘a’ — Avisha, Archana, Monica, for example — and I’ve asked them all, at some point, this question: “Why do you think that your name ends in an ‘aa’ sound?”

    Clueless, they fire the question back at me and I (clueless as well) playfully tell them: “So that it’s easy & fun for others to stretch the last syllable while yelling at you, like ‘Archanaaa…’!” ๐Ÿ˜€

    But now, well, I have a scientific answer to that. Thank you for this. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Sandrova

      Haha, you’re welcome! Now you know more about their names than they do! Brag about it.

  4. Sunderesan

    PIE predates sanskrit? Tough to believe

    1. Sandrova

      PIE definitely predates Sanskrit, by millenia. It’s a Proto language: they are languages that were ancestors to all modern languages. Sanskrit has/had a definite structure, grammar, and rules. Proto languages were more like frameworks that helped build the child languages.

  5. Dinesh

    Hope Dinesha —> Dinesh..I never did comment on your post, Hope this is the time to comment When I’m close to you … Expecting more post from your side and take a look on my website as well.”All the best and congrats for your new carrier Sandy ๐Ÿ™‚ “

  6. anon

    Nikolai, Kai, Tye etc dont end with a vowel, they are spelled [..aj] [..aj], [..aj] – a consonant. Phonetics and writing are quite different things. To put it to extremes, we write “1” but say “one” or “first”, completely different. And from that linked article, Ira is female name, a short form from Irene.

    Latin and Greek, on which our culture and language are based on, use grammatical gender, every word, not just a noun or a name has a gender, and suffixes to denote it. These words are still around in English (Venus, bonus, etc, and in fact Nicolaus, there is a reason why they end with -us) Since English doesnt have grammatical gender, and even in case it would, articles would be used instead, like German(der, die, das) does, these words are borrowed without considering grammar, which can lead to pretty funny grammatical structures, for example there is a baseball team named “The Los Angeles Angels”, ill let it up to you to figure out whats funny with that name.

    What “Sandrova” means – “Sandr” is the actual word. “-ov” is a suffix “of”, and “-a” is an ending, denoting that the bearer of this name is a girl. So “Sandrova” means “the Daughter of Sandr”, where Sandrov would mean “the son of Sandr” or “Sandrson”, much like Scarlett Johansson, by now it should perhaps be obvious why Scarlett Johansson is quite a funny name.

    All in all its not a mystery or PIE prehistory, its grammer, nothing but boring grammer.

  7. Prashanth

    I feel Kannada is more closer to PIE than the other Proto-Dravidian languages – at least in terms of girls’ names. That is as per my observations/reading the Kannada literary works.

    PS: I was called Prashantha and became Prashanth when I got enrolled in school ๐Ÿ˜›

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