If Samsung has its way, we’ll all be bellowing voice commands to “Bixby,” the company’s new voice assistant. Yet Bixby could be hard for some users to call upon because of the placement of one letter: the “x.”
The “x” in Bixby sounds essentially like a “k” and an “s” combined, which is difficult for many people around the world to say, according to linguists, including for those in Samsung's native South Korea.
“Lots of languages do not allow for certain kinds of consonant clusters,” William Idsardi, head of the linguistics department at the University of Maryland, said in an email.
The problem, he said, is also exacerbated by the fact that a “b” comes right after the “x,” making it a three-consonant cluster (“k”, “s” and the “b"). In languages such as Korean and Japanese, speakers would have to put an extra vowel in between the “x” and “b” to make it possible for them to say it. That’s something that competitor Alexa from Amazon.com manages to avoid, despite having an “x” in its name. So does Samsung's “Galaxy” line.
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The company hasn’t released much information on how it chose the name; Samsung did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Samsung isn't alone in naming woes. When Siri came out, Apple took some flak when people noticed the “si” in English becomes a “shi” in Japanese pronunciation — and “shiri” is the Japanese word for one's posterior. (It's more commonly “oshiri,” but the association sticks.)
While it is easy to pile onto Samsung for its linguistic hiccup, the truth is that it’s very difficult to choose a name for anything, said Barbara Kahn, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
First, companies must choose a name that isn’t trademarked anywhere else, or at least not in a way that will conflict with their own products. Then, she said, they must conduct an exhaustive test to make sure that the word they choose isn’t associated with anything bad or laughably damaging to the product. Think of the cautionary (though apparently apocryphal) tale of the Chevy Nova, which was said to sell poorly in Spanish-speaking countries because its name sounded like “doesn't go.”
Finally, companies must also choose a word that gives them the opportunity to make their own brand. Even if that word is hard to pronounce, Kahn said, companies can make it their own. She pointed to Aflac, the insurance company that turned its original acronym into a new word, as an example of a company that has embraced the weirdness of its name to great effect.
Bixby can also be a good brand for Samsung because it doesn’t have many preexisting associations with it, said Laurel Sutton, co-founder of the naming firm Catchword, linguist and information officer for the American Name Society. Sutton said that some may remember “Incredible Hulk” actor Bill Bixby, or know another person with that name, but it’s not a particularly common word.
And when it comes to voice assistants, picking an uncommon word is important. Tech firms must choose names that won’t be confused easily with other words, so that the assistant doesn’t trigger by accident. But it also must be a word that is easy for an assistant’s microphone to hear.
In that way, Sutton said, Samsung chose a good word. Having a consonant cluster flanked by two vowel sounds, she said, makes “Bixby” both unique and easy to pick up for a computer. Alexa, she said, also uses this trick. The pattern is also repeated in another trademark, “Kestra,” that Samsung registered for voice assistants in the U.S. Trademark Office's public database.
Overall, Kahn says that Samsung did a good job picking a name. And, in the end, the name is only part of the equation. If Samsung proves Bixby has value to its customers — however they say it — that’s what will make or break the assistant. “Ultimately, what your brand name means is what consumers think it means,” she said.