We are all familiar with the term ‘onomatopoeia.’  In English, many words have unpleasant connotations.  For example, it’s hard to imagine any use of the word ‘stinking’ that does not, in some way, induce a feeling of revulsion. However, when we learn a foreign language, we don’t have these same preconceptions, so we approach each new word without fear or the potential for disgust.

In a recent article on theconversation.com, some research by the British linguist David Crystal on phonaesthetics made for interesting reading. Phonaesthetics is the study of what makes certain sounds beautiful, and Mr Crystal noted that the most popular words have positive connotations. More specifically, he found that what these words have in common is generally “two or three syllables, short vowels, easy-to-produce consonantal sounds such as /l/, /s/ and /m/. 

None of these sounds – or “phonemes” – require much energy or effort to be pronounced and so evoke natural and peaceful tones. Some examples are: autumn, melody, lullaby, velvet, luminous, tranquil, marigold, whisper, gossamer, caress.”

The sibilant (the ‘hissing’ sound of the letter ‘s’ or ‘sh’) is something that sometimes helps make words sound pleasant, as for example in a phrase like “the soothing sounds of the sea.” Perhaps it’s also behind the popularity of Sean Connery as James Bond, with the Scotsman’s lisp making his words seem, shomehow, more appealing (although to be fair, his looks may have had something to do with it as well!).

That Scottish (more specifically, Edinburgh) accent was one of the factors behind Connery’s success.  It’s a fact that the Scottish accent is one of the most trusted when it comes to call centre staff, yet, of course, there is no such thing as a Scottish accent: rather there are a multiplicity of various regional Scottish accents, ranging from Doric in the North-East (incomprehensible when spoken quickly by a native!) to Dundonian, the well-known Glaswegian and the Highland lilts that vary from a  slightly more clipped accent in Inverness to the really soft sounds that are found in the Western Isles.

Interestingly, because Scots pronounce ‘ch’ differently from other English speakers, they are able to speak many Spanish words with a more realistic Spanish accent than those from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That ‘ch’ sound is famously heard in the word ‘loch’ (the Scots’ word for lake). It is not simply a ‘k’ sound, but a noise at the back of the throat not found in standard English, although it does appear in other languages such as Greek and Farsi. PG Wodehouse famously described his archetypal valet Jeeves as making a noise “a very old sheep clearing its throat on a distant mountain top.” Start with that sound-image and you are halfway there: the next stop is a job in a Scottish call centre or, better still, in the language industry!

Fiona Woodford, Head of Languages, Global Connects