The words “cellar door” supposedly serve to make up the most beautiful phrase in the English language, based not on meaning but rather on something called phonaesthetics.
For those unfamiliar with the term “cellar door”, I’ll first lend a little insight into the actual semantics of the phrase. Basically, it is exactly what you might guess it to be, a door for a cellar. Simple. In America, this structure is usually located outside of the house, and for anyone that has seen a movie depicting any sort of natural disaster, you should be familiar with this architectural beauty. For us Canadians, and those residing in any of the other British colonies, our cellar doors are nicely nestled inside our homes, safe from the elements. And, now that that is out of the way, WHY are the words “cellar door” so beautiful to the human ear?
As mentioned earlier, the beauty of the phrase has to do with phonaesthetics. According to the New Oxford English Dictionary, phonaesthetics is: the study of the aesthetic properties of speech sound, in particular the study of sound sequences, as in phonaesthesia. Yeah, that’s great… But what does it have to do with the phrase, “cellar door”?
Oddly enough, the more I say it the more beautiful it sounds.
The phrase has a particular cadence, a rhythm within its syllables that make it sound almost foreign to the ear. But, its exotic resonance lend an elegance to the phrase that no one seems to know the root of. Believe me, I have googled it. All we know is that although a cellar door is not pretty — the really nice photograph I found is beside the point — the way the words sound is magic to our ears. The supposed beauty of the phrase has been examined since it popped up in the novel Gee-Boy, which was published in 1903. From there such famous authors as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have commented on its beauty… But beyond the stiff scientific definition, there is no specific, dumbed down reason as to WHY these words elicit such a pleasant response.
Maybe “cellar door” is just a linguistic mistake? A statement born of necessity that just so happened to be phonaesthetically pleasing. Maybe we have all been watching too much Donnie Darko, and have been unfairly duped. Who knows? For now, I am content to just relish in the accidental beauty of the English language.
Until next time, sarah.
Photo Credit: A Love for Art: (BEAUTIFUL AND NOT-SO-BEAUTIFUL) WORDS
“New Oxford American Dictionary” Oxford University Press. 2010. Web. October 09 2012
“Cellar door”, www.wikipedia.org, Web. October 09 2012.