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Phonaesthetics (in North America, also spelled phonesthetics) is the study of beauty and pleasantness associated with the sounds of certain words or parts of words. The term was first used in this sense, perhaps by J. R. R. Tolkien,[1] during the mid-twentieth century and derives from the Greek: φωνή (phōnē, "voice-sound") plus the Greek: αἰσθητική (aisthētikē, "aesthetic"). Speech sounds have many aesthetic qualities, some of which are subjectively regarded as euphonious (pleasing) or cacophonous (displeasing). Phonaesthetics remains a budding and often subjective field of study, with no scientifically or otherwise formally established definition; today, it mostly exists as a marginal branch of psychology, phonetics, or poetics.[2]

More broadly, phonaesthetics refers to the study of "phonaesthesia": sound symbolism. For instance, the British linguist David Crystal, who has compiled research on popular perceptions of beautiful-sounding English words, regards phonaesthetics as the "study of aesthetic properties of sounds, especially the sound symbolism attributable to individual sounds".[3] For example, English-speakers tend to associate unpleasantness with the sound sl- in such words as sleazy, slime, slug, and slush,[4] or to associate formless repetition with -tter in such words as chatter, glitter, flutter, and shatter.[5]

Euphony and cacophony[edit]

Euphony is the effect of sounds being perceived as pleasant, rhythmical, lyrical, or harmonious.[6][7][8] Cacophony is the effect of sounds being perceived as harsh, unpleasant, chaotic, and often discordant; these sounds are perhaps meaningless and jumbled together.[9] Compare with consonance and dissonance in music. In poetry, for example, euphony may be used deliberately to convey comfort, peace, or serenity, while cacophony may be used to convey discomfort, pain, or disorder. This is often furthered by the combined effect of the meaning beyond just the sounds themselves.

The California Federation of Chaparral Poets, Inc. uses Emily Dickinson's "A Bird Came Down the Walk" as an example of euphonious poetry, one passage being "...Oars divide the Ocean, / Too silver for a seam" and John Updike's "Player Piano" as an example of cacophonous poetry, one passage being "My stick fingers click with a snicker / And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys".[10]


David Crystal's 1995 paper "Phonaesthetically Speaking" explores lists, created by reader polls and individual writers, of English words that are commonly regarded as sounding beautiful, to search for any patterns within the words' phonetics. Frequently recurring example words in these lists include gossamer, melody, and tranquil. Crystal's findings, assuming a British Received Pronunciation accent, is that words perceived as pretty tend to have a majority of a wide array of criteria; here are some major ones:[11]

  • Three or more syllables (e.g., goss·a·mer and mel·o·dy)
  • Stress on the first syllable (e.g., góssamer and mélody)
  • /l/ is the most common consonant phoneme, followed by /m, s, n, k, t, d/, then a huge drop-off before others consonants (e.g., luminous contains the first four)
  • Short vowels (e.g., the schwa, followed in order by the vowels in bid, bed, and bad) are favored over long vowels and diphthongs (e.g., as in bide, bode, bowed)
  • Three or more manners of articulation (with approximant consonants the most common, followed by stop consonants, and so on)

A perfect example word, according to these findings, is tremulous. Crystal also suggests the invented words ramelon /ˈræməlɒn/ and drematol /ˈdrɛmətɒl/, which he notes are similar to the types of names often employed in the marketing of pharmaceutical drugs.

Cellar door[edit]

The English compound noun cellar door has been widely cited as an example of a word or phrase that is beautiful purely in terms of its sound (i.e., euphony) without regard for its meaning.[12] The phenomenon of cellar door being regarded as euphonious appears to have begun in the very early twentieth century, first attested in the 1903 novel Gee-Boy by the Shakespeare scholar Cyrus Lauron Hooper, and it has been promoted as beautiful-sounding by various writers; linguist Geoffrey Nunberg specifically names the writers H. L. Mencken in 1920; David Allan Robertson in 1921; Dorothy Parker, Hendrik Willem van Loon, and Albert Payson Terhune in the 1930s; George Jean Nathan in 1935; J. R. R. Tolkien as early as a 1955 speech titled "English and Welsh"; and C. S. Lewis in 1963.[12][13] Furthermore, the phenomenon itself is touched upon in many sources and media, including a 1905 issue of Harper's Magazine by William Dean Howells,[a] the 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam? by Norman Mailer, a 1991 essay by Jacques Barzun,[15] and the 2001 psychological drama film Donnie Darko.[16][17]

The origin of cellar door being considered as an inherently beautiful or musical word is mysterious. However, in 2014, Nunberg speculated that the phenomenon might have arisen from Philip Wingate and Henry W. Petrie's 1894 hit song "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard", which contains the lyric "You'll be sorry when you see me sliding down our cellar door". Following the song's success, "slide down my cellar door" became a popular catchphrase up until the 1930s or 1940s to mean engaging in a type of friendship or camaraderie reminiscent of childhood innocence.[18][b] A 1914 essay about Edgar Allan Poe's choice of the word "Nevermore" in his 1845 poem "The Raven" as being based on euphony may have spawned an unverified legend, propagated by syndicated columnists like Frank Colby in 1949[21] and L. M. Boyd in 1979, that cellar door was Poe's favorite phrase.[22]

Tolkien, Lewis, and others have suggested that cellar door's auditory beauty becomes more apparent the more the word is dissociated from its literal meaning, for example, by using alternative spellings such as Selador or Selladore, which take on the quality of an enchanting name (and both of which suggest a specifically British pronunciation of the word: /sɛlədɔː/).[13][c][d]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Howells attributes to a "courtly Spaniard" the quote, "Your language too has soft and beautiful words, but they are not always appreciated. What could be more musical than your word cellar-door?"[14]
  2. ^ Nunberg identifies "Playmates" as an earlier song from which "I Don't Want to Play in Your Yard" was derived; in fact the derivation is the reverse.[19][20]
  3. ^ In a 1966 interview, Tolkien said: "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".[23]
  4. ^ 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 [i.e. such beautiful words] 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.[24]


  • Smith, Ross (2007). Inside Language: Linguistic and Aesthetic Theory in Tolkien. Walking Tree Publishers. ISBN 978-3-905703-06-1.
  1. ^ Holmes, John R. (2010) "'Inside a Song': Tolkien's Phonaesthetics". In: Eden, Bradford Lee (ed.). Middle-earth Minstrel. McFarland. p. 30
  2. ^ Shisler, Benjamin K. (1997). [ Phonesthetics]". The Influence of Phonesthesia on the English Language.
  3. ^ Crystal, David (2011). A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. John Wiley & Sons. p. 364. ISBN 9781444356755.
  4. ^ Crystal, David (2001). A Dictionary of Language. University of Chicago Press. p. 260. ISBN 9780226122038.
  5. ^ Allan, Keith (2014). "Phonesthesia". Linguistic Meaning. Routledge Library Editions: Linguistics.
  6. ^ "CACOPHONY, Literary Terms and Definition by Carson-Newman University". Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  7. ^ "Definition of Cacophony". Retrieved 2013-09-10.
  8. ^ Elizabeth, Mary; Podhaizer, Mary Elizabeth (2001). "Euphony". Painless Poetry. Barron's Educational Series. ISBN 978-0-7641-1614-8.
  9. ^ "Cacophony". Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  10. ^ "Poetic Devices" (PDF). Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  11. ^ Crystal, David (1995). "Phonaesthetically Speaking". English Today 42.2 (April): 8–12. Cambridge University Press.
  12. ^ a b Barrett, Grant (14 February 2010). "On Language: Cellar Door". New York Times Magazine. p. 16.
  13. ^ a b Nunberg, Geoff (26 February 2010). "The Romantic Side of Familiar Words". Language Log. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
  14. ^ Howells, William Dean (March 1905). "Editor's easy chair". Harper's Magazine: 645.
  15. ^ Jacques Barzun, An Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry (New Directions, 1991). ISBN 0-8112-1157-6: "I discovered its illusory character when many years ago a Japanese friend with whom I often discussed literature told me that to him and some of his English-speaking friends the most beautiful word in our language was 'cellardoor'. It was not beautiful to me and I wondered where its evocative power lay for the Japanese. Was it because they find l and r difficult to pronounce, and the word thus acquires remoteness and enchantment? I asked, and learned also that Tatsuo Sakuma, my friend, had never seen an American cellar door, either inside a house or outside — the usual two flaps on a sloping ledge. No doubt that lack of visual familiarity added to the word’s appeal. He also enjoyed going to restaurants and hearing the waiter ask if he would like salad or roast vegetables, because again the phrase 'salad or' could be heard. I concluded that its charmlessness to speakers of English lay simply in its meaning. It has the l and r sounds and d and long o dear to the analysts of verse music, but it is prosaic. Compare it with 'celandine', where the image of the flower at once makes the sound lovely."
  16. ^ Kois, Dan (23 July 2003). "Everything you were afraid to ask about "Donnie Darko"". Slate.
  17. ^ Ross Smith, Inside Language, Walking Tree Publishers (2007), p. 65).
  18. ^ Nunberg, Geoff (16 March 2014). "Slide down my cellar door". Language Log. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
  19. ^ Nunberg, Geoff (17 March 2014). "GN response to comment by "Emma"". Language Log. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
  20. ^ Lovelace, Melba (15 July 1989). "Words to "Playmates" Song Stir Up Controversy". News OK. Retrieved 21 March 2014.
  21. ^ Colby, Frank (3 November 1949). "Take My Word For It". Miami Daily News. p. 45. Retrieved 1 March 2010.
  22. ^ Boyd, Louis M. (15 January 1979). "Quoth the raven "cellar door"?". Reading Eagle. Reading, Pennsylvania. p. 5. Retrieved 27 February 2010.
  23. ^ Zaleski, Philip; Zaleski, Carol (2015). The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-374-15409-7.
  24. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1964). Angles and Britons. University of Wales Press. p. 36.