Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

My favourite word

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I have repeatedly heard “cellar door”w called the most beautiful word of the English language. Few people would argue that there is any particular merit to its meaning; others would protest that it is, in fact, two words. Yet, others make the case that the pure sound and flow of the pronounced word would make it stand-out.

They have a point—with the right pronunciation. Obviously, among the countless dialects of English, not all yield the same result. In my ears, even using a too rhotic pronunciation would break the word.

Looking at my native Swedish, however, there is very similar word of excelling beauty: Pärlemor.

With a similar flow and many almost-matches in vowel and consonant sounds, it is equally pleasing phonetically. (As a rough pronunciation guide, join together “pair”, the “le” of “lemon”, and “moor”.) In a twist, it actually works quite well with the Swedish rhotic pronunciation.

When we go beyond the pure sound, however, there is no comparison: On the one hand, something boring and mundane, often even ugly. On the other … mother-of-pearl. (Both in part and as a whole: “Pearlsmother” would be the literal translation.)

Mother-of-pearl is a material of beauty in its own right and the source of even greater beauty; and that beauty is salient through the “pearl”/“pärle” part of the word. Even the way that it creates valuable pearls from an intruding irritant has something poetic and symbolic about it. Further, “pärla” (the base form of the noun) is also a verb, meaning to purl or to sparkle, “en pärlande bäck”—“a purling brook”, “ett pärlande vin”—“a sparkling wine”. In a way, the word it self flows from the lips in a way that makes me think of water flowing through a shallow bed, breaking over small rocks, and glittering with reflected sunlight. My associations to water are strengthened both by the aquatic nature of oysters and by the story “Bäckahästens pärlor”, which I encountered as a child. (I believe this story to be “The kelpie’s pearls” by Mollie Hunterw. “Bäckahäst” literally means “brook horse”, similar to the Scottish “water horse” each uisgew.)

Now, when I hear “pärlemor”, my mind is filled with images of pearls and mother-of-pearl, purling water, sparkling wine, … When I hear “cellar door”, well, in a best case scenario, I see a door—in a worst case, it may be the hatch to an earth cellar. Indeed, as “pärlemor” is my favourite word, “mother-of-pearl” may well be my favourite English word: It brings me many of the same associations as “pärlemor” and is not without “phonetic beauty” of its own.

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Written by michaeleriksson

March 4, 2011 at 7:49 pm

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