Sensuous impression merely!

Some words just sound nice. Sometimes this is because they describe something nice, like cafuné, a Brazilian Portuguese word which means to stroke someone’s hair. Sometimes this is because they are satisfactory to say, like the Americanism tintinnabulation, which refers to the ringing of bells, or the Italian farfallina, a little butterfly. And sometimes this is because they sound humourous or absurd; as a character in Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys observes, “words with a k in are funny. Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. All with a k.”But this sort of judgement is by definition extremely personal. Just as some people prefer the sound of Italian to German, or find eggplant funnier than kumquat, so some sounds are pleasing to one ear but grating to another. Despite this, the distinguished linguist J. R. R. Tolkien argued that there are in fact sounds which are universally appealing to speakers of a given language. For him, the noun phrase ‘cellar door’ contained all of the most pleasant, euphonic sounds in the English language:

‘Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful…The nature of this pleasure is difficult, perhaps impossible, to analyse. It cannot, of course, be discovered by structural analysis. No analysis will make one either like or dislike a language, even if it makes more precise some of the features of style that are pleasing or distasteful. The pleasure is possibly felt most strongly in the study of a ‘foreign’ or second-learned language; but if so that may be attributed to two things: the learner meets in the other language desirable features that his own or firstlearned speech has denied to him; and in any case he escapes from the dulling of usage, especially inattentive usage.’

Interestingly, ‘cellar-door’ was first cited as the holy grail of linguistic euphonia fifty years before Tolkien. The following comes from a novel, published in 1903, by American author Cyrus Lauron Hooper:

“He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”

The reference to an unnamed ‘Italian savant’ is curious, because about a century later the film Donnie Darko also references ‘cellar door’, attributing its discovery to an unnamed linguist.

A linguistic analysis of ‘cellar door’ highlights its combination of spirant, liquid and vowel. It is often argued that it is the supreme example of a word which is beautiful because of its phonaesthetic (sound-related) qualities alone, regardless of its semantic content. But American linguist Geoff Nunberg disputes this, primarily because he (rather cynically) believes that aesthetes jump at any chance ‘to display a capacity to discern beauty in the names of prosaic things’. He goes on to argue that the perceived beauty of ‘cellar door’ stems from the fact that it suggests ‘a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty, spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals and open syllables with cardinal vowel nuclei — the languages of the Mediterranean or Polynesia, or the sentimentalized Celtic that Lewis and Tolkien turned into a staple of fantasy fiction.’

And he is right, at least partly: celador is the Spanish for prison guard.

Whether or not you believe that some words (or languages) are inherently more beautiful than others, the fact remains that many people have a list of words that they are particularly affectionate towards. What are yours?