By Harriet Powney
It was the linguist JR Firth who, in 1930, coined the term phonoaesthetics to refer to the study of how words sound. I came across it recently when, 26 years later than most, I heard Marlow ask in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective: “What’s the loveliest word in the English language, officer? In the sound it makes in the mouth? In the shape it makes in the page? E-L-B-O-W.” (And yes, for anyone else who didn’t know, it is where the band got its name.)
The film Donnie Darko offers a tip of its hat, too, in the lines of Drew Barrymore’s character, teacher Karen Pomeroy: “This famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of history, ‘cellar door’ is the most beautiful.” The famous linguist was none other than JRR Tolkien, and he made the claim in his 1955 lecture English and Welsh.
There’s also Robert Beard’s The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English. Although you’re unlikely to agree with them all, Beard’s list does help make some phonetic links: the B and L common to bungalow, elbow and one of my favourites, for example. Long vowels and liquid sounds such as L and R have been considered particularly beautiful since the ancient Greeks, but I’d love to know where B fits in.
So, in no particular order, here are five that for me illustrate Tolkien’s description of the phonetic pleasure of words as “simpler, deeper-rooted, and yet more immediate” than any practical or structural understanding of their sense.
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