Euphony is the opposite of cacophony, and it’s a word you hear a lot less often. Why is that? The reason, I think, is simple. When something sounds bad, or at least discordant (not quite the same thing), you notice it; it sticks out. When something sounds good, when it works aesthetically, yes it can draw your ear, but in most cases, because it works you don’t really notice it. We notice a lot more cacophonous than euphonious sounds.
I read something awhile back (I can’t remember where) about an experiment in which both Polish and English babies were placed side-by-side, and each group was played sentences from the other’s language. The Polish babies were exposed to people speaking English sentences that were correctly spoken and those which were in some way wrong (grammatically, syntactically), and vice versa.
The researchers found that when the babies of English-speaking parents heard an incorrect Polish sentence, they would cry or otherwise register displeasure or confusion. The Polish babies would also whine and cry when they heard incorrectly spoken English sentences.
Babies, of course, cry quite a lot for reasons that have nothing to do with their quest for bilingual perfectionism; they are still working on mastering monolingualism, after all. But I think the point of the exercise was to show that babies had an instinctive capacity to know which sentences sounded right and which ones didn’t; that this was innate, and that in some ways learning a language was the process of selecting which sounds to listen to and which ones to filter out.
My guess is if you were to play the same sentences for the parents of these children (or for these same children as adults), they would not register disgust or frustration at hearing incorrectly spoken sentences in the foreign tongue. Not only would they not cry or whine (being adults) but they would barely listen to the sentences in the foreign tongue. They wouldn’t be able to listen at first; it would not so much have no scansion, as it would reach their ears the way the voices of adults struck the children in the Peanuts cartoons of Charles Schulz, like someone blowing into a trombone with a mute in a bell.
Part of language acquisition (whether you think it’s instinctive or social or some combination of the two) is learning not just which sounds to pay attention to, but which to ignore. Those factory-direct babies not only lacked the capacity to listen only or especially to those speaking their own language; they were still listening to everything as well as learning to navigate their four other senses, working their way through an unfiltered and intense miasma of light and sound and smells that only synesthetics experience as adults.
But still, even for the adults in body and mind, there is a time and a place to recall that childhood sensory array; not in logjam traffic on the highway, but maybe lakeside on a Sunday afternoon.
Returning to language, Charles Baudelaire once said that “genius is childhood recaptured at will.” Foreign language acquisition is, I think, the mind (and ears) of a newborn recaptured through hard work and a lot of listening.
Let me give you an example.
A few years back I was at a convenience store here in America with my girlfriend who was from Germany. We were speaking in German (she spoke it better than English) and the cashier, an older woman, said, “It just sounds like ‘choka choka choka’ to me” (I can’t remember the exact “bar-bar”/”blah-blah” onomatopoeia she used).
German definitely sounded like that to me when I first tried to learn it, just a bunch of fricatives punctuated by plosive pops and a lot of guttural, umlaut-laden low troughs (more Bavarian alphorn than trombone with a mute in the bell), as well as throat clearing sounds to rival the perorations of a Klingon rabbi.
But now, after years of much reading and writing in German, after speaking it and listening to it for so long, German does not sound like anything to me. I just pick up the information being conveyed by the speaker. Varying degrees of effort are required of course, some difference in listening to a meteorologist versus listening to someone recite an expressionist poem.
I have not learned anything so much as I have become able to hear things I previously tuned out because I had no need to learn about them, or curiosity about them.
You can apply this idea of the crying baby to aesthetics as much as to linguistics, attuning the ear and the eye better to what works and what doesn’t, what sentences or words or colors or sounds would piss off the ward full of babies and which ones are sonorous and would thus leave them cooing.
Some science fiction writer (I think Ray Bradbury) had a story about some adults who wish to be children again, thinking that, once granted their wish, they would once more step back into a world of innocence and encharmed magic.
They get their wish be kids again, but end up doubled over in fear, overwhelmed in the swell of emotions washing over them. I imagine that if this wish were actually granted to someone, they would not just experience emotional turmoil, but true sensory overload, a kind of perverse instantiation that could give a genus malus a chance to really roll up his sleeves and go to town when a credulous and greedy human rubbed his lamp and asked to “be a kid again”.
I don’t know about you, but the emotions that I have, especially the deeply imbedded ones that go back to childhood, feel dulled these days, like echoes of what they once were. And I don’t exactly bemoan this state all the time, since I cannot afford to feel anything now as deeply as I did back then. And I mean “afford” literally. If I enjoyed playing in a pile of leaves or watching ants crawl today as much as I did thirty years ago, I might find it fun for a while but I would also probably end my days homeless in a park, prodding ant colonies with twigs and stuffing dead leaves into my pants (I may still end up doing that, actually).
Returning to the subject of this meandering blog entry, the goal should not just be to seek out euphonia and eschew cacophony.
An overflow of euphony can become treacly, the harmonious sounds somehow eventually becoming grating, simply because writing must be varied, modulated, and some contrast must be displayed to heighten the sonorous, leavening it with the dissonant. Call it linguistic chiaroscuro, if you like painting metaphors. Call it the “changeup,” if you like baseball.
“The slick polish grates,” as I think the writer Charles Bukowski once said (though I think some of his detractors might argue that Buk could have stood with some polish, assuming he didn’t try to drink it).
My ultimate point here is that there is some paradox involved in the effort of learning what sounds good, what works, since what works by its very nature doesn’t draw attention to itself, and is therefore harder to notice (let alone study) than what doesn’t work.
But it’s still there, waiting to be heard and learned, spoken and written.