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.


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.”

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