Cellar door

Cellar door

The English compound "cellar door" (RP: IPA| [ˈsɛləˌdɔ:] but see discussion) plays a certain role in discussions of phonoaesthetics; a widely repeated claim first put forward by J. R. R. Tolkien in his essay "English and Welsh" (1955) holds that its sound is intrinsically beautiful.


"Cellar door" is a combination of words in the English language once characterized by J. R. R. Tolkien to have an especially beautiful sound. In his 1955 essay "English and Welsh", commenting on his affection towards the Welsh language, Tolkien wrote:

: "Most English-speaking people...will admit that "cellar door" is '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 doors" are 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."

Tolkien also once used the phrase to illustrate a point about his writing process during an interview:

:"Supposing you say some quite ordinary words to me - 'cellar door', say. From that, I might think of a name, 'Selador', and from that a character, a situation begins to grow." [cite web|last=Cater|first=Bill|date=April 12, 2001|url=http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2001/12/04/batolk04.xml|title=We talked of love, death, and fairy tales|work=UK Telegraph|accessdate=2006-03-13]

Tolkien's discourse is the most likely origin of this concept and the only documented one. Further insights into why Tolkien found the word "cellar-door" aesthetically pleasing can be found in considering texts in his constructed language of Quenya. The poem Namárië opens with the words:

:"Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen, yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron! Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva." [J. R. R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring"]

Tolkien's text contains a large number of sonorants and a paucity of stop consonants; only the brief stops /t/ and /d/ appear in the opening of his text. It contains many open syllables and few consonant clusters. Vowels are mainly monophthongs, and few diphthongs or other vowel sounds more complex in articulation appear here. These same phonetic features distinguish the English word "cellar-door". Note also that Tolkien's pronunciation of that word would not feature any rhotic sound, since he was speaking with non-rhotic accent: IPA| [ˈselə ˌdɔː] .

Compare this text with another poem in one of Tolkien's constructed languages, the evil inscription of the One Ring in his Black Speech of Mordor:

:"Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul, ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul."

This text contains many consonant clusters (/zg/, /θr/, /kr/) and a far larger variety of stop consonants.


Nonetheless, this phrase has been subject to a legendary degree of misattribution. The story may be traced to 1989, with R. Lederer's "Crazy English" [Richard Lederer, "Crazy English" (1989), revised edition (1998), ISBN 978-0671023232.] alluding to a survey, conducted in the 1940s, probing the word in the English language generally thought to be the most beautiful. Contributing to this survey, American writer H. L. Mencken supposedly claimed that a Chinese student, who knew little or no English, especially liked the phrase "cellar door" — not for what it meant, but rather for how it sounded. Some accounts describe the immigrant as Italian rather than Chinese.

In 1991, Jacques Barzun repeated the claim, attributing it to a "Japanese friend"::I discovered its illusory character when many years ago a Japanese friend with whom I often discussed literature told me that to him and some of his English-speaking friends the most beautiful word in our language was “cellardoor.” It was not beautiful to me and I wondered where its evocative power lay for the Japanese. Was it because they find l and r difficult to pronounce, and the word thus acquires remoteness and enchantment? I asked, and learned also that Tatsuo Sakuma, my friend, had never seen an American cellar door, either inside a house or outside — the usual two flaps on a sloping ledge. No doubt that lack of visual familiarity added to the word’s appeal. He also enjoyed going to restaurants and hearing the waiter ask if he would like salad or roast vegetables, because again the phrase 'salad or' could be heard. I concluded that its charmlessness to speakers of English lay simply in its meaning. It has the l and r sounds and d and long o dear to the analysts of verse music, but it is prosaic. Compare it with “celandine,” where the image of the flower at once makes the sound lovely. [Jacques Barzun, "An Essay on French Verse for Readers of English Poetry" (New Directions, 1991). ISBN 0-8112-1157-6]

The remark is attributed to "a famous linguist" in the dialogue script of "Donnie Darko" (2001). When asked about the origin of the phrase, the film director attributed it to Edgar Allan Poe [Ross Smith, "Inside Language", Walking Tree Publishers (2007), p. 65).] .

It also features in Neil Young's song The Needle and the Damage Done, The House that Dripped Blood by The Mountain Goats and Talk Dirty to Me by Poison. It is also used in the Lemonheads "It's A Shame About Ray".


External links

* [http://orangecow.org/pythonet/sketches/woodytin.htm Transcript of Monty Python "Woody and Tinny Words" sketch]

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