On the Scientific Beautification of Personal Names:
A Study in Experimental Phonosthetic Onomastics
Heidi Ideo & Velma Phlembotaine
Graduate Students, Department of Linguistics
West Virginia University Institute of General and Remedial Studies at Cowen-Addison
While there has been some important work done on phonetic aesthetics or phonosthetics, that is, the scientific study of the phonetic aspects of verbal beauty, the field has heretofore failed to advance to the point that it is able to allow for consciously-directed scientific beautification of language. In an effort to remedy this defect, we collected as many lists of beautiful English words as we could find. Each word was transcribed in both General American and RP readings and a basic feature analysis applied. A general word template was set up distinguishing syllable number, syllable position, and segment features, from which a ranking of segments and of features at each position and in each prosodic environment was established. This was then applied to an institutional digital dictionary to generate a list of all words falling above a cumulative score based on the rankings, as well as similar words for comparison and dissimilar words to provide a baseline.
These lists were then tested by having 463 paid subjects at our university rank each word on a scale of 0 to 10 in terms of beauty. The presence of many minimal sets allowed us to establish for each position and prosodic condition exactly which sounds worked best. Thus, for example, it was discovered that laterals are highly favored in coda position, while labials are highly preferred word-initially. The average scores for vole (9.43), bole (8.67), mole (7.82), foal (6.02), and pole (5.43) are a typical example. Similarly, very high scores for bulbous (8.84), uvula (7.99), voluminous (9.12), lull (8.87), lilt (7.65), and vellum (9.64) were of crucial importance for rankings of segments in various positions. This then allowed us to construct the most beautiful English word given any number of syllables and stress pattern; moreover, it was established that words in four syllables with secondary stress on the first syllable and primary stress on the third have the most beautiful prosodic pattern.
Once we had reached this point, we were asked by our department head exactly what use our research has. As she pointed out, apart from poets and weird people on the Interwebs, who cares? More to the point, how does our research aid in any way the task of fluent verbal communication? And furthermore, what did all the money go to pay for? After a few weeks hiding from her, we were tracked down and quickly answered that funding should not be cut because our research was very useful for improving proper names. This bought us another week that we used to perform a similar analysis and experiment on all the women’s names listed in several baby-name books.
Thus, we would like to take this opportunity to announce to the public the results of this latter phonosthetic onomastic study, which we firmly believe will become the most popular girl’s name in the United States in the next year and remain No. 1 until American English evolves entirely different phonotactic constraints. With a theoretical maximum phonosthetic score and an experimentally-confirmed score of 9.96, the most beautiful possible woman’s name in English is “Vulvabella.”