What’s the most beautiful word in the English language? Different people, using various criteria, will give a slew of answers.
Surveying more than 7,000 English-speakers in 46 countries, the British Council decided on “mother” — an unglamorous word yet one that conveys comfort and the deepness of human relationships. Others on their list include concepts, like “liberty” and “tranquility,” or expressions, as in “smile.”
But then we have phonoasthetics to consider. Ignoring public opinion, phonoasthetics combines the study of sound and phonology to determine the most pleasing words apart from their meaning. Author J.R.R. Tolkien famously (although not first) claimed “cellar door” wins that title. The cult classic “Donnie Darko” even gave his theory a shout-out.
Close your eyes (which might help block semantic function) and say it — slowly. Cellar door. Somehow, kind of lovely, right? “I was astonished when someone first showed that by writing ‘cellar door’ as Selladore, one produces an enchanting proper name,” C. S. Lewis wrote in 1963.
Robert Beard, a former linguistics professor at Bucknell University, also created his own list of beautiful words. Through careful research, he determined 100 English words that people seem to like most though may not use frequently. Some eccentric yet notable words include ailurophile, inglenook, and Susquehanna.
While you might consider these words beautiful without knowing what they mean, linguist David Crystal says it’s impossible to separate sounds entirely from their meaning. Words with positive connotations, like birds and flowers, naturally make us happy, while darker words, like “peril,” instill less positive feelings.
But even Crystal can’t deny some patterns appear based just on sound; humans simply find some sounds more pleasing than others. By analysing the consonant and vowel sounds that appear in language the most and least frequently, Crystal created certain criteria that compose the most beautiful words.
For example, the word “tremulous” fits every category. The word contains more than three syllables, with the stress on the first. It uses “m” and “l” — letters we seem to enjoy pronouncing. It uses other consonants that appear in English with high frequency but eliminates those with low frequency. It also uses only short vowels, articulated in a mid or low position, in the front of the mouth.
The chart also gives examples of other nice words.
Despite these trends, personal preferences also play into whether “mother” sounds more beautiful than “cellar door,” “inglenook,” and “tremulous.”
Personally, I like “hullabaloo.”
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