An Interview with Laurel Sutton of Catchword

November 1, 2010



One of the ways to plan a career in language, is to talk to employed linguists! I interviewed Laurel Sutton, co-founder of a naming company named Catchword, to find out how she went from student in linguistics to being her own boss.

(The questions listed here function as headings for each section and are not necessarily the exact questions that elicited the information).

Why a graduate degree in linguistics?

Laurel was one of the first undergraduate students to receive a linguistics degree at Rutgers University. She lists Susan Gal as her mentor for finding her way to linguistics (Sutton began as an English major). For three years after undergrad, Laurel ran a record store in New Brunswick. She enjoyed the work but eventually realized it would not lend itself to a career for her. So, she went back to see Susan Gal to ask for advice about how to keep pursuing linguistic training. Gal advised her to go to Berkeley, offering to write her a letter, and soon after, Laurel was a graduate student.

How did it get you to where you are?

Despite enjoying her studies and research and really being involved in the community at Berkeley, Laurel began realizing she did not want to be an academic. She referred to what happened next as “luck;” she had a friend who worked at a naming company who thought she would be good at it, so Laurel talked to the owner of the company and was hired because of her linguistic training and computer skills. She enjoyed the work and was excited to find she could use her linguistic expertise in a really practical way.

After several years at the company, she and a couple of coworkers decided to try starting their own naming business. That was the beginning of Catchword and of being her own boss.

How do you use your linguistics training?

Laurel says it simply helps to know how language works and be able to “talk off-the-cuff” with clients about language.

Laurel’s role in the company centers around project management and name evaluation. She meets with clients to collect information about the products, which she then passes on to the people who do the creative work. After they generate a list of several hundred names, Laurel goes through and picks out the top __. Because of her knowledge of linguistics, Laurel explains, she is good at knowing how the word(s) will look, sound, be pronounced, and the layers of possible meaning that exist.

During graduate school, Laurel did a lot of phonetic work and continues to be interested in sound perception. And she uses this for naming by, for example, explaining to clients where in the mouth velar plosives are produced and why this creates good acoustics. She says she has even offered to show clients a spectrogram! (though no one has yet insisted upon that level of analysis). Catchword, then, is able to distinguish itself from other naming companies that talk about language by referencing the actual science of linguistics.

She gave another example of using her phonetics background at work. A recent client with a mostly Asian market, came to Catchword assuming they should not have “l”s or “r”s in their names. But Laurel said she knew from a paper she did on Japanese speakers and flaps, that there is evidence Asian speakers know to substitute flaps in these situations. She said she remembered looking at the electropalatograms, and she was able to relay this to the client, that these consonants may be pronounced differently, but were not necessarily problematic.

Laurel said she still does some academic work. She is a member of the American Name Society which is made up of mostly academics. They have an annual meeting, usually held in conjunction with LSA, where she presents her latest work. She says this is a nice way to keep up the practice of putting together research for an academic audience.

How should students interested in naming learn more about it?

Laurel says many naming companies take on interns during the summer, which is an ideal way for a student to get a feel for what naming is like. She emphasizes that “naming” involves numerous tasks and skill sets, and that within the industry, there are a lot of different positions. She recommends students who are interested in this type of direction for their careers start learning a bit about trademarks and marketing, admitting that she would have taken more business classes, since understanding these aspects are just as critical to the business of naming as the language aspect.

What skills are important to focus on?

One thing Laurel emphasizes about graduate school is the training it provides students in presenting yourself and your work. She feels this is an invaluable tool that students should market. She said that someone who is smart and well-trained but unable to socialize and business-speak, may not be hireable in many cases. In short: Develop your BUSINESS personality.

Any final advice for students getting a Master’s in linguistics?

Laurel concluded the interview by saying that there are many places where a degree in linguistics can be helpful, and what is important is deciding what is interesting to you personally. She said, “It’s less about being a linguist and more about what’s exciting for you, and what you want to do,” and that linguistics is just one (interesting) way to get there.

One of the ways to plan a career in language, is to talk to employed linguists! I interviewed Laurel Sutton, co-founder of a naming company named Catchword, to find out how she went from student in linguistics to being her own boss…


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