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, Gyöngyvér, Virág. 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.
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