Beautiful-sounding words float like gossamer

It turns out that the words that English speakers find pleasing are more like papillon and less like Aschenputtel, according to phonaesthetics.

Staff

Some languages have beautiful words for “butterfly”: papillon (French), mariposa (Spanish), farfalla (Italian). In German, it’s Schmetterling. Cinderella gets names fit for a princess in these languages, too: Cendrillon (French), Cenerentola (Italian), Cenicienta (Spanish). In German, she’s Aschenputtel. I heard these examples recently in a series of viral videos: “How German Sounds Compared to Other Languages.” The videos imply that German sounds harsh compared with the Romance languages. This got me thinking, what are the most beautiful-sounding words in English?  

It turns out that the words that English speakers find pleasing are more like papillon and less like Aschenputtel, according to phonaesthetics, the study of “the aesthetic properties of sound.” Ideally, phonaesthetics investigates sound irrespective of meaning, though of course in practice that is difficult to do. When classics professor Robert Wolverton surveys his students, he finds that they often rank mother highly, even though, as he says, “It’s not really a beautiful sound. But, it’s something that everyone has such a high regard for.”

So which patterns turn words into music to our ears? Linguist David Crystal has identified some characteristics. “Beautiful” words often have three or more syllables, with stress on the first syllable; they are dactylic, like Professor Crystal’s favorite, tremulous. They frequently have the consonant sounds “l,” “m,” “s,” and “n,” but almost never contain the “zh” from casual or the “th” from think, for example. 

Professor Crystal provides an interesting thought experiment to test our preferences. If you were piloting a spaceship toward an alien planet, and you knew nothing about it except that it was populated by aliens known as Lamonians and Graks, in whose territory would you want to land? Most people pick the Lamonians, according to Professor Crystal, because they seem more likely to be “friendly,” on the basis of their name.   

It is no surprise, then, that melody, gossamer, luminous, sonorous, and mellifluous are frequently cited as beautiful words. Many famous writers, though, including Dorothy Parker, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, have plumped for the more prosaic cellar door. This word must be loved, as Tolkien argues, “dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling).” 

If I change cellar door to selladore, as Lewis suggests, and say it in my head with an upper-class British accent, I can almost convince myself that I see the attraction. But not really. And if we asked people in 1830 where they would land their spaceship, they might well choose the Graks. In that era, writes linguist Riccardo Battilani, “German was considered a very beautiful language, on par with Italian or French.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.