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Where I grew up (UK) there was a pub called The Drysalters. I always liked this name without having any idea what a drysalter was, or having any association or emotional connection to the pub itself.

I have just heard a BBC Radio 4 programme discussing drysalters which said exactly the same thing; that the word is evocative and pleasant to the ear (and ought to be reclaimed - it has fallen out of use).

I know JRR Tolkien famously said cellar door was the most beautiful combination of sounds in English, and this has already been discussed on the English Language & Usage site. This has led me to a potted history of phonoaesthetics on Wikipedia.

There seem to be combinations of sounds or words which are pleasant (or unpleasant) to the ear. Although it might sometimes be because of association (Wikipedia has some interesting reasons why the door to the cellar might be evocative), this cannot be the only reason (as in my case with drysalters).

My question is this:

Certain words can find their origins far back in the roots of Indo-European languages, the most obvious one being the ma sound of so many words meaning 'mother'. Is there any traceable reason why phonoaesthetic words are so attractive? Do those particular sounds have their roots deep in the first languages?

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    I think /ma/, and such variants, have more to do with being easily articulated by children. As for the aesthetics of certain sounds, I'm not sure. Colin Fine's answer here about dialect prestige and acoustics is interesting, if not totally related: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/1841/… – Danger Fourpence Apr 8 '13 at 14:41
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    Note that association may still play a role in your drysalter example, in the sense that you may associate some of the sounds in that word with certain words you do know. – musicallinguist Apr 8 '13 at 17:51
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    People are likelier to agree on which words are ugly than on which ones are beautiful. There are combinations of sounds that are associated loosely but consistently with semantic categories, and a fair number of these categories are pejorative, people being what they are. For instance, few -ump words are lovely, on the whole; and there's enough noise and collision in kl- words](umich.edu/~jlawler/kl-chart.pdf) to make pejoration a reasonable category. Beauty, however, is still in the mind of the beholder, not their vocabulary. – jlawler Apr 8 '13 at 19:53
  • Not the same, but it's worth looking at John Mitchell on Euphonics: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_symbolism – David Garner Jan 21 '15 at 20:40

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