One of the reasons I initially became a linguist was the sound of language – the  phonological and phonetic play of certain sounds, their acoustic impression.  (Oddly enough, I went on to work instead on research in word structure and meaning …. but that’s another story.)

I had, and still have, distinct likes and dislikes for the sound of particular accents, regional English as well as non-native speaker English, and for the sound of particular languages as spoken by their native speakers.

Recently I met someone who spoke, very subtly, with what was to my ear a beautiful American regional accent.  This encounter started me thinking more concretely about the linguistics of my reaction to the beauty of sound or lack thereof.  Presumably we all react in some aesthetic way to what we hear.  This is different than what some call sound symbolism,  that is, the meaningful associations we might have with particular sounds – say to the high short [I] sound in ‘twinkle’ vs. the long round [u] sound in ‘food’.  Rather, I’m describing more of a sensory reaction, similar to one we might have for music.

It is interesting to consider that our sensory reactions to the pure sounds of words may play a role, at least subconsciously, in whether a name appeals to us – we like the sound of it, like to say it.   This is only speculation, not backed up by any research study that I know of.  But my own visceral reactions to the sound of language are strong enough that I was intrigued to try to nail down just what I was reacting to, from a scientific point of view.

The accent I recently encountered comes from Birmingham, Alabama.  One prominent difference between this accent and mine lies in vowel length.  Where I have a short vowel in ‘kid’ this speaker has a longer sound ‘keed’  (or [kId] vs. [ki:d], in phonetic notation).  Where I have a short vowel in ‘vet’ she has a longer vowel, a diphthong made of the ‘a’ sound in ‘ash’ plus the ‘u’ sound in ‘tug’.  In the word ‘time’, instead of a diphthong [ay], she has a long [a:] and says [ta:m].   I seem to have been reacting to the difference in vowel length:  with my accent as the baseline, vowels that sounded longer than mine in the same words had an aesthetically pleasant sound to me.

In still other words our vowels differed not in length but in the position of the tongue in producing the vowels.  Where I have [ey] in ‘name’, she had something more like the ‘u’ in ‘tug’, giving a ‘uy’ sound in ‘name’ (lower and further back than my vowel).  In the word ‘gently’, she pronounced the first vowel as the ‘i’ in ‘pin’ (higher than my vowel).

My ear liked when it heard longer vowels, or vowels in different positions, than it usually heard in those same words.  In contrast, even as a native New Yorker, I admit that the overly rounded sound in Long Island ‘coffee’, with an initial [kw] sound – perhaps pleasing in its familiarity to me – is not the prettiest.  I also react strongly to accents from native speakers of certain other languages that tend to shorten, or ‘clip’, English vowels, these don’t have a pleasing sound to me.

Short vowels are not inherently bad, in fact sometimes short is very good, e.g. ‘Bitcoin’ is a great name for the internet currency.  But there does appear to be an aesthetic pleasantness derived from words that play around with comparative length and vowel position.  Very interesting to consider how this aesthetic observation might be captured to develop a particular type of soundprint for a name.