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Mr. and Mrs. Concrete hired a ratcatcher who was particularly fond of their “wainscotting.”
I don’t think it is possible to separate the sound of the word from the meaning of the word. I don’t think Grant or Martha were separating the meaning from the sound as they claimed in the discussion of “cellar door” as the most beautiful words in the English language. Why would Grant ask how the words “cellar door” were spelled if the meaning weren’t important? If meaning isn’t important, then ‘seller door” would be just as beautiful as “cellar door”. Andy Warhol asked us to look at everyday objects without looking at their “meaning” or function. But I think meaning is so closely tied to the sound that it isn’t possible to separate them without super human effort i.e., say the words a hundred times and then they may lose their meaning. But I don’t think it is possible to separate the meaning from the sound when you only say it once or a dozen times. I don’t think “vomit” will ever be a candidate for the most beautiful word not because of how it sounds but because we can’t separate the word from the sound. I think jazz musicians understand this principle. That’s why they scat sing with nonsense words so we’ll listen to the sound and not the meaning.
A Way with words Cellar door
I understand Grant has done some research on this topic. I haven’t listened to what he has to say but I’ve done some research on my own and discovered the origin of the belief that the words “cellar door” are the most beautiful word in the English language.
The son of an influential author was reading his deceased father’s diary. After a 15 page description of his father’s first date with his new girl friend, who would become his wife of fifty-three years, he found a verbatim description of his father’s last visit to his psychiatrist who was treating him for writer’s block stemming from an overwhelming sense of inferiority. Here is a copy of the transcript from the father’s diary:
Me: I have something to tell you doctor.
Dr. Burkle: Before we get distracted, I would like to continue our conversation about your recurring dream.
Me: OK. It’s relevant to what I have to say. I had the dream again last night but it was different this time. As before, I descended the stairs with a small key in my hand. When I reached the bottom, I inserted the key into the lock but it turned without engaging the lock. I went down another set of stairs with the same result, another and another until I was ready to give up. And then doctor, the most marvelous thing happened, I descended the last set of stairs and as I approached the cellar door I could see that it appeared different than all the others. It glistened like grass after a summer rain. It was so beautiful. The key I was holding grew and grew as I descended the stairs . By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, it had grown to fit the lock perfectly. I held my breath inserted the key into the lock and gently turned it. The cellar door opened as if by magic.
It still sends shivers up my spine when I think about it. (end of diary entry)
The father thanked the psychiatrist went home and finished the novel he was working on and became one of America’s most influential authors and teachers. He started each semester by telling his students, “the most beautiful words in the English language are: Cellar Door.” They spread the word until everyone in the world knew that the words “Cellar Door” were the most beautiful words in the English language.
His son reported that the only request his father made upon his death was that he be buried with the gift his wife gave him on their wedding night: a gold chain with a key attached.
Garry, it’s a pretty story but it sounds like an urban legend. The only detail we have is Dr. Burkle’s name. Dialog in diaries seems out of place–narrative is more likely. No name of the novel is mentioned. If he “became one of America’s most influential authors and teachers” why doesn’t the story reveal his name?
When something triggers me to think it is an urban legend, I am usually right.
Until I get some more definitive details, consider me skeptical.
I wrote that story. I got to thinking how Freud would have a field day with the claim that the words “Cellar Door” are the most beautiful words in the world. So instead of making the point in an explicit fashion, I wrote the story. Sorry, I probably should have given more clues that I intended it to be an allegory.
Back in my university times I took a course in phonology and phonetics by Professor Lukszyn, a Russian linguist working at Warsaw University, Poland, and I remember a lecture about some research (I don’t remember whether his or someone else’s) on the perception of sounds. As I remember it, the sounds that are perceived as nice and pleasant are those produced at the front of the mouth cavity, this is why many people like the sound of such words as “lullaby”. On the other hand, sounds produced at the back of the mouth, like /h/ or /g/, are perceived as unpleasant ones.
Coming back to the controversial “cellar door”, I guess in can sound really nice if you pronounce it with British non-rhotic standard and not so nice if you pronounce it in a rhotic variety of English 🙂
Thanks Agnes. I didn’t know that rhotic meant so I looked it up:
“English pronunciation can be divided into two main accent groups: A rhotic (pronounced /ËˆroÊŠtÉ¨k/, sometimes /ËˆrÉ’tÉ¨k/) speaker pronounces the letter R in hard; a non-rhotic speaker does not pronounce it in hard. That is, rhotic speakers pronounce /r/ in all positions, while non-rhotic speakers pronounce /r/ only if it is followed by a vowel sound in the same phrase or prosodic unit (see “linking and intrusive R”).”
Since both “r”s are followed by a vowel, wouldn’t the pronunciation be the same?
Also, I just read Grant’s article in the NYT Magazine. When he discussed it on the radio, I got the impression that he thought it was because of the meaning of the words rather than how they sound that qualified the words as the most beautiful in the world. But in the article it is clear that he he has analyzed the assumption from many different points of view including the euphonious . It seems to me that the words are symbols with heavy sexual overtones which he did not consider. Of course, I am a psychologist so a can of beans has heavy sexual overtones.
As for rhoticity, this is something you get to know when you study English as a foreign language 🙂 I don’t think native speakers need to think about it 🙂
You are right that if /r/ is followed by a vowel sound, it is pronounced even in non-rhotic dialects of English, but in “cellar door” the first /r/ is followed by /d/ and the second is the end of our phrase, so I assume they wouldn’t be pronounced in British standard, which is the variety I’m trying to use 🙂
But my main point is that there has been some research looking for some universal appeal of different sounds and I would love to learn if anyone else is doing this.
I would be interested in that research as well. Perhaps it would answer if, in fact, there is a universal appeal at all or does it totally depend on the individual’s experience with one’s language and culture. Also, does it vary across cultures and languages. I read many years ago that “M” was the most pleasing sound. I hope it’s true since my kids are named Mary, Martha, Mitch, Matthew and Michael.
(just kidding about the names)
I just joined the forum so I will use that fact as my excuse for posting late. To me the most beautiful word in our language is “pentimento”. For me the word evokes mystery, nostalgia and longing. This does not fit the dictionary meaning exactly but I would guess an Italian speaking person would agree with me. The very speaking of the word causes me to think about the good memories in my life.