The Pleasure of Words

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
An explanation of why I like specific words and dislike others, mainly based on the sound of words. The arguments are strictly based on my opinions. The aim is to let people think more often about language in general.

Submitted: November 27, 2018

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Submitted: November 27, 2018

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The Pleasure of Words

Words fascinate me. They may be the most undervalued aspects of culture that exist. Every single person uses them, often without giving them any special attention. You need them, so you use them. They are useful for expressing your thoughts, like fuel is useful for making a car move. You don’t think a lot about fuel, so why should you think about words? There is a simple answer to this question; it gives you pleasure. This essay deals with the aspect of words having a pleasing sound or a sound that puts you off. This is not a scientific essay, it is about some of my own likes and dislikes. The aim is to make people aware of the fact that thinking about words may also provide an interesting insight in one’s psyche and is worth doing.

People and sound belong together. If you want to draw a baby’s attention, make a sound. The tiny face will light up, or it will look worried, puzzled or even frightened. That’s just the start of our relationship with the noises we hear around us. Later in life, we will grow to like the music of our choice and we will hate other people’s favourite music. Those of us who are not dentists will learn to loathe the piercing shriek of a dentist’s drill, and loud bangs will make us cautious, no matter how old we are. Yet, the sounds we produce when using words don’t seem to interest us at all. That’s strange.

I think, some words sound beautiful. I have noticed that I have a preference for words with sibilants in them. The ones that have {S} {Z} or (?} – as in shop. The smoothness of the sounds is a big plus for me when it comes to liking the words. Perhaps that’s connected to something in my brain. I also like the gliding notes in music. Hearing a slide guitar or a steel guitar can really enthral me, and I love hearing a finger travel from one note to the next on the same string on a violin– the technical term being glissando.  Now it’s time to look at some words in different languages.
 

English and Dutch (my native language) share a word that I find very unattractive sounding; plank. According to the dictionary it is a piece of timber. That’s true for both languages. There is a slight difference in pronunciation between the words in the two languages, because the vowels are pronounced differently. In Dutch the pronunciation of the vowel corresponds to the vowel in the word bath. I must admit, the vowels are not the problem, it is the overall sound. I think plank is a fitting word for the object, because it has a squareness to its sound that reflects the shape of the object. Let’s face it, there will be very few people who are thrilled by the shape of a plank. Things become quite different when you do something with that plank. The only thing that you have to do, is get a drill, some brackets and screws, and do some DIY. The plank almost magically gets transformed into a neat place to store books. Now, the two languages become different. The resulting Dutch word remains ugly and the English word becomes beautiful. The Dutch word for book is boek – its pronunciation is virtually the same as in English, there’s mainly a difference in spelling. In Dutch we have just created a boekenplank. There’s that ugly sounding plank again, whereas in English we’ve created a bookshelf. It becomes even better when we continue our work, and we create bookshelves. Now we’ve got rid of that rather blunt f-sound at the end of the word. Instead of having a rectangular piece of timber that can keep our books from ending up on the floor, we now have bookshelves. Hearing the word almost invites you to glide your finger along the entire length of the shelves, caressing the spines of those wonderful treasures. The sound of the word is almost sensuous. (I think the word treasures also sounds better than books. I know it is not a better word, it just sounds more pleasing).


Al lot of the more pleasant English words come from other languages. English, German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages are so-called Germanic languages, which simply means they share the same ancestry. For English, this means that a lot of the words used today have a Germanic or Saxon origin. The Saxons were a Germanic tribe that invaded Great Britain, hence the term Anglo-Saxon used for the language that is also known as Old English. Quite a lot of the English words used in everyday life have a Saxon origin. Usually, they are the shorter words. In my opinion a lot of them sound a bit terse, and square. The word book being an example, but also words like dead, arm and house (boek, dood, arm, huis in Dutch and Buch, Tod, Arm, Haus in German). Interestingly, the word sax itself is a Saxon word used for the type of sword which that Germanic tribe used. Nowadays people know the word merely as an abbreviation of the word saxophone, the instrument named after its inventor. It may be pure coincidence that a saxophone is called a sax and an electric guitar is often called an axe nowadays, but both of them now secretly refer to old fashioned weapons of war.1
 

There is a completely different group of English words that is derived from the Latin languages such as French, Italian and Latin itself. Examples are words like: attention, merchant, imagination, hospital, pizza. Usually, those words are a bit longer than the Saxon words, and they have a more melodious ring to them. I think they sound a bit less matter of fact than the Saxon words, they lack a bit of squareness. Perhaps it could even be that the melodious character of those Latin words, let’s call it their flow, may even reflect the more easy-going attitude of the character of the people who are the native speakers of Latin languages. For example, an expression like laissez faire sounds so much gentler than Grundlichkeit, which has a squareness to it that seems to be more fitting to the more northern Europeans.
 

Make no mistake, English did not just borrow short words from the Germanic languages, and only longer ones from the Latin languages. There certainly are long words that come from German. Have a look at these relatively modern examples: kindergarten, weltschmertz, schadenfreude, hinterland, sauerkraut. Yet, it is true that words like waltz and lager have a length one would expect from Germanic words. Now let’s have a look at some of their sounds.


I think kindergarten is an ugly sounding word. The word Kinder means children – its singular form is Kind- and the word garten means garden. I think the sound of the word Kind is rather harsh, it doesn’t fit the image of a child. (German and Dutch have the same word for a child and it is pronounced in almost the same way). Sound-wise, the word kindergarten seems to lend itself for ordering people around, the exact opposite of what a kindergarten is about. A word like weltschmertz has a more gliding ring to it, so I find it more pleasing. The same applies to schadenfreude. Mind, I am just talking about the way the words sound, not about their meaning or connotations. When thinking about the literal meaning of the two words and their connotations, things may become quite different. The German world Weltschmertz, literally means pain of the world, and Schadenfreude literally means pleasure in damage. Given the history of the twentieth century, they are rather unfortunate words that conjure up images modern Germans won’t enjoy. The word sauerkraut is a bit of a mixed bag to me. Sauer -acidic/sour- is quite pleasing to mu ears, although its meaning indicates it is not very pleasant to the taste buds. The Kraut part – which means herb - gets boxy, and a bit unpleasant, whereas most people enjoy eating herbs. Nowadays, there is a negative connotation with the word kraut in English, because during the world wars, the word Kraut was used as a derogatory name for a German, equivalent to the French word Boche.

It is time to have a look at one of the most pleasant areas of human existence; love. Isn’t the word itself a pleasure to use. It has a softness to it that befits the feeling. Words linked to it can also be treat to the ears. Take a word like kiss. It may be short, but it is a shortness that seems to fit the often-fleeting action perfectly, it begins with the explosion at the beginning of the word and ends in a soothing sibilant. The word is sheer perfection. In contrast, just think about the more vulgar expression snog. It sounds a bit like snort, and I think the sound just indicates a description of a much baser way of kissing. This difference in experiencing the word is comparable to the following pair of expressions: making love and having sex. Solely judging by the sounds of the expressions, the latter one describes a more technical, down to earth experience. It even gets worse; when a slang word like to bonk is used. Then we enter the realm of snog and snort, instead of the world of love.

Where does all this bring us? It brings me to the realization that words themselves can bring pleasure to the user. A phenomenon that most people aren’t even aware of. To them a word is a word, a word, a word … and another word. Something that just drips endlessly and effortlessly from your mouth, like the drops from a leaky tap – faucet to Americans. Yet, some other people enjoy using specific words, for whatever reason. Perhaps they don’t care as much about them in the spoken language, but as soon as they start writing, they begin to think about all those words that may convey their message just a little bit better; an aspect of writing that is extremely important to the poet who is serious about his poetry. It also brings us to the question if everyone should be thinking about the vocabulary they use? The answer is simple; they don’t have to, but simply doing it, may bring them something completely unexpected, an awareness that language can be fun.

 

1 You may think this notion of both of them somehow referring to weapons is utter rubbish; you may be right, but there is one thing that the remark caused you to do, and that is think about two words people often use. That proves there may be a linguist hiding in you.

 

 


© Copyright 2019 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.

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