On Phonaesthetics and Euphony in Fantasy Writing

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On Phonaesthetics and Euphony in Fantasy Writing

Post by danjvelker » Thu Apr 25, 2019 11:44 am

Cellar door.

Tolkien invented the word phonaesthetics in his 1955 lecture "English and Welsh." It is meant to describe a word that is audibly pleasant; such a phonaesthetically appealing word would be euphonious, not by its meaning but by its construction and derivation. He presents the example "cellar door" as a word whose association is naturally pleasant by the nature of its linguistic construction, and indeed is even more pleasant when disassociated from its meaning!
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.
But what goes into the construction of such a word? What little academic research we have on the subject is contributed by David Crystal in a 1995 paper. He identified that phonaesthetically appealing words are those of three or more syllables, which place stress on the first syllable, with favor shown to shorter vowels, and favor the phonemes l, m, s, n k, t, d in that order. A perfect word, according to Crystal, is tremulous. I find many words in both Tolkien's Legendarium and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea stories to be euphonious: Silmaril, Selidor, Rivendell, Tehanu, Elbereth, Sparrowhawk.

Ursula LeGuin herself suggested that Tolkien's very manner of writing was constructed for the purpose of aesthetic pleasure. She notes that LOTR is “a wonderful book to read aloud. Even when the sentences are long, their flow is perfectly clear, and follows the breath... the cadences are graceful and inevitable... The narrative prose wants the living voice to speak it, to find its full beauty and power, its subtle music, its rhythmic vitality.”

I would suggest that LeGuin's writing also possesses a phonaesthetic beauty, as do works by Patricia McKillip and John Crowley. (LeGuin's "Selidor", it should be noted, is derived directly from Tolkien's "cellar door.") That naturally occurring beauty is a rare trait among authors but one that is immediately recognizable. It is, in fact, the primary trait to which I aspire as a writer and which I search for as a reader:
"Those were men in whom great strength and knowledge served the will to evil and fed upon it. Whether the wizardry that serves a better end may always prove the stronger, we do not know. We hope." -- Ursula LeGuin

"She is our moon. Our tidal pull. She is the rich deep beneath the sea, the buried treasure, the expression in the owl's eye, the perfume in the wild rose. She is what the water says when it moves." -- Patricia McKillip

"God, he thought, her eyes are so bright, flashing, deep, full of promise, all those things eyes are in books but never are in life, and she was his." -- John Crowley
I'm still not precisely sure what makes a sentence phonaesthetically lovely. There is discussion of cadence, of breath, of consonants and phonemes, but there is no formula for constructing a lovely sentence. Perhaps this is that place where art can no longer be quantified, but while I doubt the truth of that I also think there is some wisdom in letting the question die. Perhaps the art that is quantified loses some of its beauty, like a bird with clipped wings or a lion trapped in a cage. Perhaps phonaesthetics are random, unplanned, not the work of a master writer but accidental blessings from Above. Or, as is always possible, there exists a secret society of artists hiding all their greatest secrets from us. We may never know.

I do know that I'm way out of my depth as a mathematician in a writer's world. Any thoughts on this? Are there other fantasy writers who you feel are similarly beautiful? What do you think contributes to a sentence's audible or visual appeal?
“But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?”
“For work, if you love that best. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. For mumblety-peg, if that's where your heart lies.”

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Re: On Phonaesthetics and Euphony in Fantasy Writing

Post by WilliamHadley » Thu Apr 25, 2019 2:59 pm

You just gave me some killer inspiration. With abit of thinking and abit of Welsh, I've made some killer city names, for my future world building. They all translate loosely to 'something-door,' in English. Which is kind of poetic. A city can be interpreted as a door, if you want to travel to the lands of metaphor ...

Thanks, was an interesting read.
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Re: On Phonaesthetics and Euphony in Fantasy Writing

Post by Stewart Stigeweard » Sat Apr 27, 2019 9:04 pm

This here's my jam; one of the things I see taught to writers is evoking the feeling of the subject written:

The splashing waves crashed against the rocks, droplets of salty water pelting Danny as he stood by the tidepool.

The drones of the tremendous mechanized legs sent an echoing groan across the plain, and with a great lumbering effort they carried Fort Almhron toward to mountains, thunderous footfalls reverberating across the land.

The keys clacked rapidly as he snapped the divorce letter into being.

He leaned forward and, in a hushed, breathy whisper, murmured "Daniel, the soup is cold."

Probably not great examples. Maybe you guys can improve them, or give better examples. I think you're on the money here:
danjvelker wrote:
Thu Apr 25, 2019 11:44 am
Perhaps this is that place where art can no longer be quantified, but while I doubt the truth of that I also think there is some wisdom in letting the question die. Perhaps the art that is quantified loses some of its beauty, like a bird with clipped wings or a lion trapped in a cage.
There may be some math to it, but I think the formulas remain a vague mystery.
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Re: On Phonaesthetics and Euphony in Fantasy Writing

Post by danjvelker » Mon Apr 29, 2019 9:40 pm

I've been thinking some more about the "formula" (or whatnot). I think that we tend to favor softer sounds or hissing sounds over harsh sounds and grating consonants. The 's' and 'l' and 'r' sounds are very subtle, while the 'th' and 'g' and hard vowel sounds are not. Sir Stewart Stigglebeard (Seventh of His Name, Great Imperator and Mighty Chancellor of Ye Olde Stew) is too humble to admit it, but his example sentences are excellent indicators of the relationship between how a sentence sounds and its function within a larger narrative setting.

Those city names are pretty cool, Will. I see your "Selerdrous --> Selidor --> Cellar Door" bringing us back full circle, eh? Something about them isn't quite at 100% with me, though. I'd wrestle with 'em a little bit more and see what comes up. I've always found the etymology of location names to be really interesting, although as a mathematician who's merely dabbling in this stuff with no formal training, I admit I'm better at the analysis of names and their etymologies than at their development.

In fact, that might be what's holding me back from 100%: the English roots of the word are distracting me. "Arth-" is a root we associate with arthropod, for one immediate example. I can't tell whether the roots of the other words are just escaping me, or if I'm playing a really weird game of word association in my head, haha. I'm way more picky than your average reader, though; I think the names function perfectly well.
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Re: On Phonaesthetics and Euphony in Fantasy Writing

Post by Stewart Stigeweard » Thu Jun 13, 2019 6:31 pm

Buttercup. I like the sound of it.

Buttercup.

Quaint. Hints of brightness. Diminutive.

Tolkien uses Attercop in The Hobbit. Remember that poem? Bilbo's mocking the spiders. Attercop makes them sound more diminutive. "You don't scare me. You don't see me, you little attercops."
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