In her article, “Why we like some words more than others,” Carmen Álvarez-Mayo discusses the idea of words that are “phonoaesthetically pleasing,” which is something I have always found intriguing. Naturally, everyone has a preference in the words they like to hear and say, which influences which words are actually used and how we attach meaning to them. It really is amazing how our feelings towards the aesthetics of words themselves can shape our language!

Álvarez-Mayo focuses on the criteria that make words alluring, the first of which is easy, flow-y phonemes. Naturally, it is important to consider the sounds and pronunciation of a word. In lists that contain “the most beautiful words in the English language,” the words tend to all have 2-3 syllables, short vowels, easy to produce consonants like /l/ /s/ and /m/. These phonemes in particular elicit natural, peaceful tones that many find solace in. Some of these words include velvet, gossamer, luminous, etc.

She also briefly mentioned the importance denotation and connotation has on our perception of words. Unsurprisingly, words that have negative definitions or connotations are usually disliked and make people cringe. For example, some words that I have often heard people hate are moist, ointment and phlegm, all of which don’t necessarily relate to positive, light thoughts.

Carmen Álvarez-Mayo also touched on an interesting point, which is when people form preferences to words in their non-native language. This kind of research is interesting because it allows for some suspension of the influence of denotation and connotation, and it allows for the speaker to focus solely on the aesthetic phonemes. She mentioned how words that may use sounds that are typically rarely used in the speaker’s mother tongue are often admired, especially when they learn to and manage to successfully pronounce it. Some examples she included are esperanza, izquierda, and (my personal favorite) desafortunadamente. It’s so interesting because we have most, if not all of these phonemes separately in English, but the unique combination of them creates an enchanting and alluring word.

I really enjoyed reading this article (and going on several tangents from this article), as I have often heard people express their preferences and very strong dislike for words (particularly moist) that I could not relate to! There are so many words I have no problem with that others cringe at, and I have always considered it an extremely subjective and relative concept. Supposedly, many don’t like the sound of ‘pulp’ and ‘slurp’, which I don’t mind at all, but I found comfort in learning that many don’t like the word ‘rural’, which I have never been fond of! (I think it’s the awkward pronunciation of the word that makes me dislike saying it out loud.) Regardless, it’s the small attention to detail that causes such strong emotions in word preferences and word aesthetics, and it truly is amazing to think about!

3 thoughts on “Phonoaesthetics

  1. That actually is interesting to think about! I too dislike the word “rural” for its awkward pronounciation. I think, generally, people who speak the same language tend to agree at some point on the aesthetics of some of these words, but not others. I, for instance, have always been fond of the word “purport” ( I have always liked the way it sounds despite the awkward pronunciation others might experience).

  2. That is actually interesting to think about. I guess there are a lot of words that people who speak language tend to agree on, but not all. For example, I, too, don’t like the word “rural” and “pulp” for their awkward pronunciation. But I kinda have a weird taste since I actually like the words “slurp” (maybe because I associate it with Anime’s and Manga lol) and “purport” even though most people wouldn’t agree with me.

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