May 31, 2003

sounding versus being

Dorothea over at Caveat Lector has an entry about phonaesthetics. It mainly has to do with the supposed "ugliness" of the neologism "blog." Discussions of phonaesthetics always remind me of de Saussure's principle: "Le lien unissant le signifiant au signifié est arbitraire, ou encore, puisque nous entendons par signe le total résultant de l'association d'un signfiant à une signfié, nous pouvons dire plus simplement: le signe linguistique est arbitraire." [See Cours de linguistique générale, Première partie, chapitre premier.] Yes, I have to agree with him that the linguistic sign is arbitrary, and any attempts to convince me otherwise are doomed to failure: pace Derrida's lovely book, Glas ('death knell'), which word I'm sure sounds ugly to a francophone and which book is an extended trope on de Saussure's observation that onomatopoeia is little proof contra the arbitrary nature of the sign. Most musings on phonaesthetics remind me of arguments about the supposed beauty or ugliness of certain languages. Not to say we shouldn't discuss such things, just don't ask me to believe in the truth of an allegedly ugly word. Take the word syphilis which is quite pretty as words in English go, but an ugly thing indeed. "Phyllis has syphilis" is a pretty sentence, no? Sounds pretty anyway, but pity the poor woman if she in fact did have this dread venereal disease. Strange enough, the word has a literary origin: it comes from the name of the eponymous hero, Syphilus, in Girolamo Fracastoro's poem Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus.

I'm also not sure I'm convinced that the words for crow and goose in Germanic (or Original Teutonic as Murray would have it) are onomatopoeic. Animals have a way of sounding different in different languages than one would expect. I love the sound that Danish pigs make, øf, which sounds softer than our harsh oink, but besides which neither sounds anything like any porcine snufflings I heard down on the farm in my youth. The point of Tolkien's contructed language, Black Speech, having harsh sounds ("positively bristling with velars"), may have more to do with the professor's native tongue being English rather than say Afrikaans or Hebrew. Otto Jespersen, Valdimir Nabokov, and Alexander Scriabin all had notions about phonaesthetics, too, and may reward the patient reader. Jespersen observed the symbolic differences between high front unrounded vowels like /i/ and mid to lower back rounded vowels like /o/, /a/, etc. Nabokov and Scriabin both associated phonemes with colors and memories in general.

Other links to peruse:

Posted by jim at May 31, 2003 08:47 AM
Comments

Remember the old joke about different words for butterfly, with the German muttering in the corner, "And what's wrong with schmetterling?"

I happen to seriously dislike the word "chunk," purely on aesthetic grounds, and was crawling in my seat during a psychology class concerning cognitive grouping of concepts, which they call "chunking."

But beauty, as they say, is in the eye, or in this case, ear, of the beholder. I don't know that "weblog" is too difficult to use, but English is a great aggregator, and like all hoarders and packratters, sometimes those diamonds in the rough are pieces of broken beads.

Posted by: Ian on May 31, 2003 12:37 PM

I don't think I made any universalist claims about phonaesthetics in my post -- I was pretty careful about putting in "for English speakers" and whatnot.

Because the (slim) evidence points to you being quite right about aesthetic judgments differing by native language. Scandinavians, for example, tend to not understand what the big deal is about Quenya.

(Personally, I don't either, and I'm not Scandinavian nor do I speak a single Scandinavian language -- but it's an iffy field, what can I say?)

Posted by: Dorothea Salo on May 31, 2003 02:41 PM

Dorothea-- Yes, but most phonaesthetics proponents (but not you) tend to sound like they're making universalist claims. I'm not even sure we can make a case for individual languages: at most, maybe ideolects. It's all so damned subjective. As you said in your entry, it would take a lot more research than just a weblog post would merit, and who has the time? Sorry if I came off a bit brittle, it's just that the idea of banning any word from the language for any reason is a bit hard for me to take.

Posted by: jim on May 31, 2003 08:58 PM

Yes, they do, and that's another part of the reason phonaesthetics don't get no respect, even on the rare occasions it maybe deserves to.

Kinda why I like the idea of studying it through conlangs -- all you *have* to make assertions about is the conlanger's idiolect, though you can work upwards (as does the Law of Velar Villainy) when several idiolects coincide.

No offense taken, by the way, and I'm as unhappy as you about kicking perfectly good words out of a language.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo on June 4, 2003 08:31 AM

It would be interesting to take the Jakob Nielsen* approach and do a quick and dirty cross-cultural study. Record some speakers of non-European languages (for unfamiliarity) and get speakers of a bunch of European languages to rate them on aesthetic grounds, then see what sorts of correlations come up between phonemes (and syllable structure?) of the samples and the respondents' languages.

Hmm. This is something you might even get funded in Europe. Perhaps by a company that does branding research? "Get your clothes sparkling clean with new Xzkkhplgzt!"


* Jakob Nielsen, web usability guy, http://www.useit.com/

Posted by: Prentiss Riddle on June 5, 2003 07:36 AM

Where the hell did you discover the word "gallimaufry?" Probably from me when I used it to describe a ragout of artworks at my gallery. I've never seen anyone else use it (I found it from flipping through M. Webster's 7th Coll. in 1957). Somehow I remember that it connoted an Irish stew even though it has an Old French etimology. Any ideas? P.S. What's a URL?

Posted by: Muldoon Elder on September 3, 2003 12:10 PM

Where the hell did you discover the word "gallimaufry?" Probably from me when I used it to describe a ragout of artworks at my gallery. I've never seen anyone else use it (I found it from flipping through M. Webster's 7th Coll. in 1957). Somehow I remember that it connoted an Irish stew even though it has an Old French etimology. Any ideas? P.S. What's a URL?

Posted by: Muldoon Elder on September 3, 2003 12:18 PM

I ran across gallimaufrey as you did, flipping through a dictionary--probably the OED. It had to be back in the late '80s or early '90s. If you search in Google on "gallimaufry" or "gallimaufrey" you'll come across hundreds of sites. I can't remember now why I went with the less common spelling with the 'e', but it works for me. There are many words in English that are of French origin, and the anglophone Irish chose that one. A URL is a uniform resource locator. It's the address for a web page (or other online resource) that you type into your web browser. Many times it begins with an "http:" and ends with an ".html". On the comments page on this blog, it means your home web page or blog URL.

Posted by: jim on September 5, 2003 06:22 AM
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