If someone asked you to name the most beautiful word or phrase in English, how would you begin to choose? Would your decision be based on the meaning of the word or how it is spelled, or maybe how it sounds?

Phonaesthetics is the study of the euphony and cacophony of words without regard for semantics. Phonaesthetics derives from two Greek word parts that mean “voice-sound” and “aesthetics.”

Euphony is used most commonly to describe the pleasing, agreeable sound effect of poetry. In general, vowel sounds are more euphonious. Cacophony, meaning harsh and discordant, is the opposite of euphony. Cacophony comes from the Greek word parts meaning bad, evil, and voice.

Speak the words serendipity, epiphany, and vivacious out loud. How did that feel? These words are among those that reportedly rank high on the list of favorable choices to be the most beautiful words.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular works of the 20th C. Its popularity is due in part to the linguistic depth and the artistry of style portrayed. Tolkien’s position on beauty in languages, his delight in individual words – especially names, and his specialty in Old English were addressed in his research, and also incorporated in his mythology and stories of Middle-earth.

Elements of Tolkien’s linguistic aesthetics include aesthetic sensitivity and appreciation for the sounds of words, phonetic fitness between their sound and their meaning, ancient semantic unity in the words of old languages and the mythology embedded in them. It should be no surprise that his views in phonology and phonaesthetics were applied directly to his invented languages, to his mythology of Middle-earth, and to the various prose styles of English used in writing Lord of the Rings.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) is considered to be the founder of modern scientific linguistics. He considers the words that we use to indicate things and concepts could be any words — they are essentially just a consensus agreed upon by the speakers of a language and have no discernible pattern or relationship to the thing. Second, he says that, because words are arbitrary, they have meaning only in relation to other words. A dog is a dog because it is not a cat or a mouse or a horse, etc.

Sound symbolism refers to the apparent association between particular sound sequences and particular meanings in speech. It is also a key factor in determining the strength of a word’s euphony. Onomatopoeia is the direct imitation of sounds in nature; for instance, hiss or murmur. An onomatope is a word that imitates the sound it denotes. Batman was a professional at applying onomatopoeia.

Someone is knocking on the door, so I am going to zoom over and answer it. It was my elderly neighbor complaining about the quacking ducks. I had a hard time hearing him over my growling stomach, so I am off to scrape up some lunch.

Melody K. Smith

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