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.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Krystakia

    I like this post a lot, more because I’ve always been truly fascinated with words and sounds than anything else. I had actually heard about “Cellar door” being some of the softest, loveliest words ever spoken but I didn’t know that it was Tolkien who revealed it. Poor French…their silly overcompensating extra words, I’m sure, make them lose a lot more than just cellar door. It’s hard for me to even imagine a poem translated into French, or German for that matter. I don’t remember exactly how you say it, but even “I love you” sounds disgusting and quite possibly deadly in German. XD

    Aside from that though, what are some of your favorite words? Any in particular that you deem truly appealing?

    I’ve yet to watch the other video again, actually I’ve yet to see all of your videos thus far, but I shall try to watch this one. Also I will say that in the review I did watch, the display you were setting up on the table was pretty funny.

    15 Feb 2010, 01:56

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