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February 14, 2010

Cellar Door

I'm still here!

If you follow this blog and you ever notice a long break in blog posts, do not fret, it's not because I've run out of ideas. Every time I think of something worth writing about I write it down, and right now my list is expanding much faster than my actual "posting speed" on The Missing N. If there is silence from my side it is usually because I have limited free time, not because I have exhausted my inspiration. Far from it.

So I'm back, just in time to celebrate the one year anniversary of this blog that I started on the 13th February 2009. Blog anniversaries are usually measured in number of posts, I know, but that doesn't change the fact that this blog has been running for 366 days and is still alive. Hooray!

Not so long ago, during the free time that I spent engaged in less introverted activities than writing blog posts,  I went to the cinema with some friends to watch 'Donnie Darko'. It's a good movie, with an twisted plot and a grandiose ending that gets you thinking, and blah blah blah. But we're not here to discuss the quality of 'Donnie Darko'. We're here to look at a specific scene. Don't worry if you haven't seen the film: what I'm about to say contains no spoilers and requires no background knowledge of the film whatsoever.

There is a scene towards the middle of the movie in which Donnie Darko is sitting in a classroom, alone with a teacher. The blackboard behind the girl reads 'Cellar Door'.

Cellar Door from Donnie Darko


I smiled to myself when I saw it, because I'm a language freak and I recognized the reference. I was thinking that the director might have left it there as some kind of inside joke, when Donnie Darko suddenly enquires about the significance of these words.

- What's 'cellar door'?
- A famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of History, that 'cellar door' is the most beautiful.

They almost had it right. Cellar door is indeed said to be one of the most beautiful words in the English language. This claim is linked to the field of Phono-Aesthetics, the study of beauty within sounds. The idea is that when you remove the meaning of a word, its connotations and the details of its spelling, you're left with a sound that may or may not be pleasant to the human ear. In poetry, rhymes, alliterations and meters are all examples of phonoaesthetics. Edgar Allan Poe purportedly chose the name 'Lenore' more because of its sinister sound than anything else. Thus, although it may not follow as strict a scientific procedure as other areas of linguistics, phonoaesthetics is alive and kicking, and 'Cellar Door' is one of its most classic examples. Say it out loud. Whisper it. Forget the meaning, forget the spelling. Whisper it again. A lot of people will agree that those two words together have a certain ring to them, some kind of magical touch. This is what the teacher is trying to say in 'Donnie Darko'.

But "a famous linguist"? The claim was first put forward by... J. R. R. Tolkien! Now Tolkien was indeed, to a certain extent, a linguist. A philologist to be precise, someone who has studied the historical development of languages. He was familiar with a variety of languages, dead or still spoken, invented artificial languages for his works, and wrote essays on linguistics and phonoaesthetics. Nevertheless, I daresay that Tolkien, author of the world-known saga "Lord of the Rings", was not as well-known for his qualities as a linguist than for his skills as an author and his pioneering of the entire Fantasy genre. Most everyone has heard, if not read, 'The Hobbit', but few are those who know about Tolkien's essay on English and Welsh from 1955. So perhaps the producers/scriptwriters of Donnie Darko should have gone for "famous writer" instead of "famous linguist". It never hurts to do a little research before writing the dialogue to a film.

Then of course there the irony that the dialogue in 'Donnie Darko' takes place exclusively in American, and 'Cellar door' loses a great deal of its phonetic pleasantness when uttered in American, due to the American way of pronouncing the 'r' at the end of each word. The comedy is taken to a further level in the translations of the movie, such as the French one, where the phrase 'Cellar door' has been replaced with "Porte de cellier", effectively missing the whole point of phonoaesthetics.

For those interested, the first reference the beauty of 'Cellar Door' appears in the essay mentioned above. The context is as follows:

Most English-speaking people...will admit that cellar dooris '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 doorsare 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.

And for those intrigued by my first YouTube book reviews: the second one, The Martian Chronicles, has been put online.


November 28, 2009

Minor Frustrations #2

Follow-up to Minor Frustrations #1 from The Missing N

Brace for impact: Tomorrow starts a 6-day nightmare. Between Sunday morning and Friday afternoon, I have the following: three Maths assignments (so far I have only managed to finish one), two tests, one programming assignment, a concert, and a Student-Staff-Liaison-Committee meeting. Not to mention my usual unforgiving timetable. As it has been a while since my last post, and as I won't be able to post much next week, I thought I'd post a short blog entry now. And given the short amount of time I want to spend on this, the stressful circumstances and my current frustration at my Algebra assignment, I thought a little rant would be appropriate. A completely unrelated, but nonetheless heartfelt, rant.

I mentally frown at people who... comment on movies while watching them. Some people seem to be unable to help themselves, and I do my best not to get angry at them, but it is something that can really spoil a movie for me. Maybe they see it differently, but to me the whole idea behind watching a film is that you pay fully attention to what is being said and what is going on on the screen. The strength of a visual medium like a movie, is its power of immersion. You see events taking place before your very eyes and you hear the accompanying dialogue, noise and soundtrack; in short, you feel sucked into the screen, and the external world suddenly stops existing. You forget that it is, after all, just a movie.

Therefore, I find it terribly frustrating when someone on the couch next to you suddenly yells "Oh god, did you see that!?". Not only is it a rather silly question, it also instantaneously breaks the wonderful spell under which the film may have put you, and yanks you back to reality, to the fact that you are in fact sitting/lying in a room and staring at a TV or a computer screen, and that whatever what you see taking place is to some extent... fake. The magic is momentarily lost, and it always takes little a while to dive back into the movie.

Especially if the blabbermouth keeps talking.

I have come to realise, though, that those people who enjoy talking during movies do not do it intentionally. It is for them a spontaneous thing that they do not think about, and which is as much a part of the movie-watching as the silence is for me. And as I talked about in the previous Minor Frustrations post, this isn't an all-important issue in my life. Rather, it's one of those things you don't care that much about but that you feel good complaining about. There.


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