I was talking with my mother a couple of days ago about words and language.
In part, it was because she belittled me (no, not really) about my computer-wise incompetence. For someone who seems to be pretty smart about a thing or two, I’m just about as dumb as it’s possible to be when it comes to computers. Anyway, she was explaining something to me, and had to dumb it down to the level of about a five-year old. ‘Scool, I know I’m retarded like that.
A little while later, while she was still working on her computer, she opened the door for me by asking about how to make a sentence better (or along those lines), which gave me my opening to talk about the ways in which sentences can be constructed and talked to her in much the same manner which she had earlier talked to me. (Ok, I’m petty. ‘Scool; I’m a person of many flaws).
Finally, I told her that some words are ugly and others are pretty. She laughed at me, and told me that now I was going too far. But it’s true, I insisted…words like ugly look physically unattractive when written down. Scoffing, she got back to work and the conversation was dropped for a little while.
But then later, she told me that ugly did look pretty unattractive. We went through a number of other words, and it was really strange to see the way perceptions can change. I’m not sure she bought all of my spiel – hell, I’m pretty sure I didn’t buy most of it – but it’s a neat thing to think about. Some words just are inherently more pleasing than others.
What would be interesting to me (and I don’t want to know badly enough to actually do the research – laziness, I know) is if, stripped of all context, words still appear beautiful or ugly to non-speakers of a language as to those who are fluent in it. I.e., does ugly look physically unpleasing to me because of the connotations of ‘ugly’, or would it look physically unpleasing to anyone, even someone who had never encountered the word and didn’t know what it meant? My money’s on them not finding it as unpleasant as an English-speaker, who could call up memories, images, thoughts about what ‘ugly’ was, and then let that affect their judgment.
Having done a brief google search, this looks interesting, but doesn’t answer my question. Another google search suggests that diarrhea is a word found beautiful by many non-native speakers, but I couldn’t come up with anything more than a couple of blogs referencing a study; maybe my google-fu is weak and someone can come up with something on this actual study.
In any case, it’s something interesting to ponder. Especially when writing, and you want to create a certain mood, using one word in place of another could change the whole thing, just because of how it looked.
(fwiw, I don’t find ‘pretty’ that visually pleasing).