How Words Shape the Way We Experience the World

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I’ve always considered words to be beautiful — the way they’re used, the way they sound and the way they can be used to shape our experience of the world around us.

I started thinking about this more after reading a brief in Tuesday’s St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times mentioning a Mississippi State University survey that looked at which words were “pretty” and which ones were “ugly.”

The Times reported:

“When classics professor Robert Wolverton asked students in his annual survey to list beautiful and ugly words, “eloquent” was a favorable choice for six of the 75 students that responded. A total of 148 words were deemed beautiful, including love” (for votes), “symphony” (four) and, strangely enough, “beautiful” (three votes). “Vomit” got six votes for ugly, followed by “puke” (five), “moist” (five), “ugly” (four, possible some of the same people who said “beautiful” was beautiful.)

The survey results reminded me of a recent National Public Radio story about the words people use to describe the word “bridge.” When Germans hear the word “bridge” — or die brucke — they’re likely to associate it with words such as “elegant,” “slender” and “peaceful” because of its feminine association. Hispanics, on the other hand, hear the word “bridge” — or el puente — and are likely to think of more masculine words such as “strong,” “dangerous” and “sturdy.” In short, we characterize nouns based on their grammatical gender.

NPR reported:

… the grammar we learn from our parents, whether we realize it or not, affects our sensual experience of the world. Spaniards and Germans can see the same things, wear the same cloths, eat the same foods and use the same machines. But deep down, they are having very different feelings about the world about them.

In reading that passage, I can’t help but wonder if native English speakers would have a more sensual experience of the world if our language feminized and masculinized words. Would we perceive places and things differently if we could more easily conjure up a variety of words to explain what we see? Would it be easier for us to detect beauty and ugliness in a befuddling world?

It’s a lot easier to think that a word sounds beautiful or ugly, or masculine or feminine, if you know the meaning of the word. I read a while ago, for instance, that said non-English speakers surveyed found “diarrhea” to be one of the most beautiful words in the English language. It makes sense when you think about it; the word sounds euphonious if we disregard what “diarrhea” actually looks like and means. “Syphillis” is another word that I’ve always thought sounded pretty despite its ugly definition.

Some other words I find beautiful are: “autumn,” “blossom,” “calm,” “embrace,” “gladiola,” “melody” and “mother.” These words make me happy, and make me think positive thoughts when I hear calming melodies, see gladiolas blossoming or feel a mom’s embrace.

Maybe my experience with these words adds to the beauty of the way they sound rather than the other way around. Or maybe I’m just too much of a word geek …

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