Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Knocking At Your Cellar Door: Words of Beauty



Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm'd;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. 

--William Shakespeare

Beautiful words in structured combinations evoke strong emotions. Williams Shakespeare was a master of word craft. Sonnet 18 testifies to his unparalleled skill. Words – spoken sounds and their written representation – create understanding with sound as well as with meaning. Humans find certain sounds more pleasing than others.

Dale Purves, professor of neurobiology at Duke University and director of the Duke-NUS Neuroscience Program in Singapore, explains a tonal link with evolutionary history ...

“The sounds humans make matter most because that's where we get information about our competitors and our potential mates – the things we need to know to be successful creatures. We developed an ear for the tones common in human vocalizations, the same way a sommelier (wind steward) might develop a taste for fine wines. Those are the tones we find most appealing and thus, the ones we made into our musical art.”

(Maggie Koerth-Baker. The Biology of Music: Why we like what we like.”
boingboing.net. December 14, 2009.)

What words make the most beautiful sounds in the English language? Understanding that any judgment involves theory, or more broadly, a philosophy of art, we can acknowledge that “beautiful sound” is a difficult concept to define. Words such as soft, musical, melodic, mellow, and mellifluous are adjectives used to describe sounds that are pleasant. But, how about the beautiful words themselves? Can we identify the most aesthetically pleasing combinations?

What would you put forth as a word (or word combination) with beautiful sound? Let's see if your brain has hard-wired some popular choices.

According to a British Council survey, the top 10 most beautiful words in the English language are mother, passion, smile, love, eternity, fantastic, destiny, freedom, liberty, and tranquillity.

The word serendipity is also a favorite of many linguists. Serendipity has the advantage of positive associations. It means “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.” It derives from an old name for what is now Sri Lanka, as well as a Persian folktale in which the heroes were often making accidental discoveries.

A sampling of other user suggestions, in no particular order include soliloquy, epiphany, Elysium and elysian, scissors, vivacious, fudge, telephony, nycthemeron, cinnamon, woodthrush, phosphorescence, lithe, and languorous.

The Criteria For Beauty?

In 1930, linguist JR Firth coined the term phonoaesthetics to refer to the study of how words sound. Phonoaesthetics is a branch of phonetics concerned with “the possible connection between sequences and meaning” (i.e., sound with no regard for semantics).

Linguist David Crystal defines phonaesthetics as "a term sometimes used in linguistics to refer to the study of the aesthetic properties of sound.” According to Crystal:
“Examples include the implication of smallness in the close vowels of such words as teeny weeny, and the unpleasant associations of the consonant cluster sl- in such words as slime, slug, and slush.”
(A Dictionary of Language, 2001.)



Euphony is used for effects which are pleasant, rhythmical and harmonious. An example of euphony is the poem Some Sweet Day.
Some day Love shall claim his own
Some day Right ascend his throne,
Some day hidden Truth be known;
Some day—some sweet day.
-- J. Bates, the poem Some Sweet Day
Cacophony consists of harsh, often discordant sounds. These sounds are often meaningless and jumbled together. A discordant series of harsh, unpleasant sounds helps to convey disorder. This is often furthered by the combined effect of the meaning and the difficulty of pronunciation.


My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.
--John Updike, the poem "Player Piano"

Perhaps, The Most Celebrated Beauty

J.R.R. Tolkien is often given credit for the idea that cellar door is an especially beautiful phrase; he mentioned the idea in a speech in 1955.
Most English-speaking people ... will admit that cellar door is 'beautiful,' especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant."
(Ake Bertenstam. A Chronological Bibliography of the Writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. 11th edition December 2015)

Actually the first published instance of the cellar door aphorism occurred in a 1903 novel Gee Boy by Cyrus Hooper. William Dean Howells (1905), Alma Blount (1914), Frank Colby (1949), L.M. Boyd (1979), and Geoff Nunberg (2014) – all in some way support the phonoaesthetic beauty of the phrase.

Yet, of course, there is no scientific proof that the phonemes of cellar door are particularly pleasing to the ear. A subjective poetic argument for the phono-acoustic superiority of the phrase is easier to make, as long as one can dissociate sound from meaning.

“Poetry, in fact, is two quite distinct things,” H. L. Mencken wrote in a 1920 magazine column. “It may be either or both. One is a series of words that are intrinsically musical, in clang-tint and rhythm, as the single word cellar-door is musical. The other is a series of ideas, false in themselves, that offer a means of emotional and imaginative escape from the harsh realities of everyday.”

It is said that Tolkien’s use of the phrase was meant simply to illustrate the point that some phonemes, when combined in certain ways, are particularly euphonious and served as inspiration for names and places in his writing.

Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me – ‘cellar door,' say. From that, I might think of a name, ‘Selador,' and from that a character, a situation begins to grow.”

So, the beauty of the phrase may even rely upon Tokien’s English accent. While Drew Barrymore’s American character in Donnie Darko pronounced the phrase SELL-urDOR, Tolkien meant it to be pronounced SEH-luhdor.

To me, the affinity for cellar door above all other words in the English language is surprising. (The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries.)

I have always loved pleasing words in dulcet combinations, yet enjoying their phonetic beauty involves more of a “feeling” than a “judgment.” The art of rhythmical composition – whether in poetry or in prose – is often as subtle in formation as it is strong in emotional impact. It is there to dissect through the intellect or there simply to elevate a symbolic experience. Perhaps, understanding something about phonaesthetics can heighten our appreciation.

Speaking of cellar doors, I have always loved this haunting Neil Young song – “The Needle and the Damage Done.” According to songfacts.com., this is Young's story of the lyric:

“This song is about heroin use and what it will do to you in the end. Young wrote it about Danny Whitten, one of the original members of his band Crazy Horse. In 1971, Young went on tour and hired Crazy Horse and Nils Lofgren as backup. During rehearsals, Whitten was so high on heroin that he couldn't even hold up his guitar. Young fired him, gave Whitten 50 bucks (for rehab) and a plane ticket back to Los Angeles. Upon reaching LA, Whitten overdosed on alcohol and Valium, which killed him...

“Neil Young says of the tragic death of Whitten: 'I felt responsible. But really there was nothing I could do. I mean, he was responsible. But I thought I was for a long time. Danny just wasn't happy. It just all came down on him. He was engulfed by this drug. That was too bad. Because Danny had a lot to give. boy. He was really good.'"

Maybe now that I know the rest of the story, I will understand even more of the impact of the song.

The Needle and the Damage Done” By Neil Young

I caught you knockin'
At my cellar door
I love you, baby,
Can I have some more
Ooh, ooh, the damage done.

I hit the city and
I lost my band
I watched the needle
Take another man
Gone, gone, the damage done.

I sing the song
Because I love the man
I know that some
Of you don't understand
To keep from running out.

I've seen the needle
And the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie's
Like a settin' sun.

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