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!
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.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.
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:
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."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 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?