Phonaesthetics (Word Sounds)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Black and white photo of the cast of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
The cast of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail.".

 Archive Photos / Getty Images

In language studies, phonaesthetics is the study of the positive (euphonious) and negative (cacophonous) sounds of letters, words, and combinations of letters and words. Also spelled phonesthetics.  

Linguist David Crystal defines phonaesthetics as "the study of the aesthetic properties of sound, especially the sound symbolism attributable to individual sounds, sound clusters or sound types. Examples include the implication of smallness in the close vowels of such words as teeny weeny, and the unpleasant associations of the consonant cluster /sl-/ in such words as slime, slug and slush" (A Dictionary of Language, 2001). 


From the Greek phōnē+aisthētikē,  "voice-sound" +  "aesthetics

Examples and Observations

Sound Quality (Timbre)

"We speak of words as soft, smooth,  rough, sonorous, harsh, guttural, explosive. About individual words not much can be said--even about 'cellar-door,' which is reputed to be one of the most beautiful-sounding words in our language. With a sequence of words, especially one that shapes itself into a meaningful sentence or line of verse, the sound becomes more determinate and controlled.

The still, sad music of humanity
(Wordsworth, 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey')

naturally calls for a grave and quiet reading.  The sound-quality of a discourse is, then, a regional quality that depends in part upon the qualities of its words and also upon [sound-similarity and sound-pattern]."
(Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 2nd ed. Hackett, 1981)

Phonaesthetics and the Adopted Names of Actors

"Quite a few actors have changed their names simply because they didn't like the one they already had...
"There is a tendency for men to avoid gentle continuant sounds, such as m and l, when looking for new names, and to go in for the hard-sounding 'plosive' consonants, such as k and g. Maurice Micklewhite became Michael Caine, Marion Michael Morrison became John Wayne, Alexander Archibald Leach became Cary Grant, Julius Ullman became Douglas Fairbanks.
"Women tend to go the other way. Dorothy Kaumeyer became Dorothy Lamour. Hedwig Kiesler became Hedy Lamarr. Norma Jean Baker became Marilyn Monroe.
"Actually, Roy Rogers is a bit weak, compared with most cowboy names. Cowboys tend to be full of plosives and short vowels--Bill, Bob, Buck, Chuck, Clint, Jack, Jim, Like, Tex, Tom, Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Kit Carson. Roy doesn't quite explode from the lips in the same way. His horse, Trigger, actually does rather better.
"These are only tendencies, of course. There are plenty of exceptions."
(David Crystal, By Hook or by Crook: A Journey in Search of English. Overlook Press, 2008)

Phonaesthetics and Nicknames

"[N]icknames incorporate more pleasant and gentle sounds than full names for both men and women. One reason for this is the [i:] ending characteristic of so many nicknames (Nicky, Billy, Jenny, Peggy). Crystal (1993) noted the distinctly masculine characteristics of the nickname Bob. Bob is easy for children to pronounce because its repeated , [b], is mastered early (Whissell 2003b). Phonaesthetically, [b] is an unpleasant sound and the central vowel of the name is active and cheerful. Bob is, therefore, a prototypical masculine nickname, both in terms of the phonaesthetic system employed here and in terms of Crystal's criteria. DeKlerk and Bosch (1997) argue for the importance of phonaesthetics in the assignment of nicknames, and point to the positive social intent of name-givers as a main concomitant of this assignment."​ (Cynthia Whissell, "Choosing a Name: How Name-Givers' Feelings Influence Their Selections." The Oxford Handbook of the Word, ed. John R. Taylor. Oxford University Press, 2015)

Phonesthesia and Brand Names

  • "The loose association of phonesthesia, applied to bigger chunks of sound, are ... the source of an unignorable trend in brand names ...​
    "Previously, companies named their brands after their founders (Ford, Edison, Westinghouse), or with a descriptor that conveyed their immensity (General Motors, United Airlines, U.S. Steel), or by a portmanteau that identified a new technology (Microsoft, Instamatic, Polavision), or with a metaphor or metonym connoting a quality they wished to ascribe (Impala, Newport, Princess, Trailblazer, Rebel). But today they seek to convey a je ne sais quoi using faux-Greek and Latinate neologisms built out of word fragments that are supposed to connote certain qualities without allowing people to put their finger on what they are. . . . Acura--accurate? acute? What does that have to do with a car? Verizon--a veritable horizon? Does it mean that good phone service will recede into the distance forever? Viagra--virility? vigor? viable? Are we supposed to think it will make a man ejaculate like Niagara Falls? The most egregious example is the renaming of the Philip Morris parent company as Altria, presumably to switch its image from bad people who sell addictive carcinogens to a place or state marked by altruism and other lofty values." (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature. Viking, 2007)
  • "Certainly, euphony should be a consideration in choosing a brand name. Lamolay sounds better than Tarytak for a toilet paper even though it has the same number of letters." (John O'Shaughnessy, Consumer Behaviour: Perspectives, Findings and Explanations. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

Sound and Sense

"[T]he poet ... knows when the sound is carrying his sense, even if he doesn't know why. In creating his names and his verse, [J. R. R.] Tolkien was exercising both skills, in pursuit of what he called 'phonaesthetic pleasure' (Letters 176).
"To illustrate, let's turn back to our abandoned palato-velars. The phonaesthetics of the post-liquid palato-velar is a thing of beauty. It captured the heart of a young Texas poet with the unlikely name of Tom Jones when he was in college, and he filled a whole song with them, which became the opening song of The Fantasticks, the longest running musical in the history of the New York stage. The song was called 'Try to Remember.' The refrain was the single word we have looked at in its transformation from Old to Modern English: follow, follow, follow. In each stanza Jones crammed as many of the mutated-liquid words he could: first mellow, yellow, fellow, then willow, pillow, billow, and then follow and hollow, finally ending where the song began with mellow. . . .
"Tolkien does not incorporate quite so many of these mutated palatovelar words in any one place, but the mention of the word willow should signal to any Tolkien reader where I am going next: to the old Willowman of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and 'The Old Forest' chapter of The Lord of the Rings ..."
(John R. Holmes, "'Inside a Song': Tolkien's Phonaesthetics." Middle-Earth Minstrel: Essays on Music in Tolkien, ed. by Bradford Lee Eden. McFarland, 2010) 

An Alternative View: Noisiness

"Many of those who have written about the topics of iconicity, sound symbolism, phonaesthetics and phonosemantics write as though to unfold the latent surplus of meaning contained in certain sounds, letters or groups of letters. But iconic language is in the literal sense idiotic, speaking the idiom of the blindly singular, of purely accidental and idiomatic noise. It may well be that certain clusters of sounds seem charged with certain kinds of meaningfulness--i seems to connote littleness, gl- seems to be associated with light, and gr- with irascibility--but the way these sounds work is by first signifying, not particular sound-qualities, but an abstract quality of noisiness as such--the sound of just sounding."
(Steven Connor, Beyond Words: Sobs, Hums, Stutters and Other Vocalizations. Reaktion Books, 2014)   

Monty Python and the Lighter Side of Phonaesthetics

"When the Pythons are not making words and names take on new meanings, they are likely commenting upon the inherent qualities of words themselves. One fine example appears in the 'Woody and Tinny Words' sketch (ep. 42), in which an upper-middle-class family voice their opinions regarding the pleasure (or displeasure) derived simply from saying and hearing various words. For fun, try to see which of the following words sound woody (confidence building!) and which sound tinny (dreadful):

SET ONE: gorn, sausage, caribou, intercourse, pert, thighs, botty, erogenous, zone, concubine, loose women, ocelot, wasp, yowling
SET TWO: newspaper, litterbin, tin, antelope, seemly, prodding, vacuum, leap, bound, vole, recidivist, tit, Simkins*

"The euphony or cacophony of words (what the Oxbridge scholars in Python--and probably Gilliam, too, why not?--would have known as phonaesthetics, the study of positive and negative sounds in human speech) may lead users to project certain connotations upon individual words (Crystal, 1995, 8-12). Such phonaesthetic connotative projection devolves, in this skit, into a practically visible form of mental masturbation, wherein the father (Chapman) must be doused with a bucket of water to be calmed down after cogitating upon too many 'woody sounding' words. As he sagely notes, ' ... it's a funny thing ... all the naughty words sound woody.' It's a theory not entirely without justification (the understanding of how linguistic connotations are often derived from sounds, not the masturbatory powers of individual words! Bloody pervert.)
"* Answer key: set one = woody: set two = tinny"
(Brian Cogan and Jeff Massey, Everything I Ever Needed to Know About _____ I Learned From Monty Python. Thomas Dunne Books, 2014)    

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Phonaesthetics (Word Sounds)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Phonaesthetics (Word Sounds). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Phonaesthetics (Word Sounds)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).