This article characterizes the aesthetic properties of English words. One thousand adult speakers of American English reported their favorite words and justified their selections. Each word was coded for phonological characteristics, valence, and frequency of occurrence and compared with words from a corpus of everyday English from Reader’s Digest. The participants’ stated reasons for their selections were categorized as utilitarian (meaning, use) or aesthetic (form). Compared to the word types in the Reader’s Digest corpus, the favorite words were longer and lower in frequency of occurrence. They were less likely to include a sonorant consonant but more likely to include a repeated consonant. Consonant clusters were sparser among the favorite words. The majority of people justified their favorite words on utilitarian grounds, suggesting some difficulty considering form apart from meaning. The best predictors of aesthetic justifications were lower valence, lower frequency, longer length, higher sonority, and a higher density of lax vowels. People value words for the work they do—the meanings they convey. Nevertheless, people can appreciate words as objects, and when they do, novelty and musicality are privileged. This study informs our understanding of the aesthetic function of language and situates that function into a broader consideration of aesthetic appreciation.
Favorite Words as a Window onto the Aesthetic Function of Language
Karla K. Mcgregor is a senior scientist and director of the Center for Childhood Deafness, Language, and Learning at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, and professor emerita at the University of Iowa. A speech-language pathologist by training, she conducts research on the word learning abilities of people with Developmental Language Disorder. She is a logophile whose favorite word is shenanigans. Email: karla.mcgregor @boystown.org.
Timothy Arbisi-Kelm is a senior research associate in the Center for Childhood Deafness, Language, and Learning Research at Boys Town National Research Hospital. He earned his Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and completed a postdoctoral training in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His research interests are in phonological and lexical development and the role of prosody in language disorders. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bogi Perelmutter is a psycholinguist interested in Developmental Language Disorder and other forms of atypical development in adolescence and adulthood, assistive technology, disability inclusion, and research methods including mixed-methods studies, systematic reviews, and the use of qualitative data in the health sciences. Email: email@example.com.
Jacob Oleson is professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Iowa as well as director of the Center for Public Health Statistics in the College of Public Health. His current research activities are focused on longitudinal and repeated measures studies of speech and language development and on the development of Bayesian hierarchical models of correlated data. These correlated data models include linear and nonlinear mixed models, spatial and spatio-temporal models, and infectious disease epidemic modeling. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karla K. McGregor, Timothy Arbisi-Kelm, Bogi Perelmutter, Jacob Oleson; Favorite Words as a Window onto the Aesthetic Function of Language. American Speech 1 August 2019; 94 (3): 380–396. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-7603218
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