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Sabriane's avatar

For those who are into linguistics: What is the term that describes the way a word sounds?

Asked by Sabriane (25points) June 3rd, 2011

This may sound like an awfully simply question to google, but believe you me when I say that Google has not been very helpful where this is concerned.

In any case, I want to know what the term is which describes the way a word sounds as you are reading it. Like… the word “mellifluous” is used to describe sounds or passages which are melodic in quality, but what of the word “mellifluous” itself? The word itself has a very musical feel to it, and it is the term which encapsulates this concept I’m looking for.

In context, I want to say something like, “I hate/love the word ‘mellifluous’ simply because of its _______”.

It’s almost like “pronunciation”, but isn’t. And I’m sure that there’s a better way to phrase it than “I hate/love the word ‘mellifluous’ simply because of the way it sounds”.

In fact, on second thought, even my title may be misleading. This isn’t exactly a linguistics issue is it? It seems more of a subset under linguistics. Almost like… “etymology”, which is the study of words, but it isn’t.

Forgive me; I’m feeling rather Flaubertian right now.

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18 Answers

JLeslie's avatar

The way it rolls off the tongue.



jaytkay's avatar

I think I know what you are getting at and I like it and I don’t have a good answer so I am just going to throw out some words for discussion


laureth's avatar


The WiseGeek page is here.

gasman's avatar

According to Merriam-Webster online, mellifluous is from Greek combining “honey” with “to flow.” The scientific name for the honeybee is Apis mellifera. “Sugar diabetes” is diabetes mellitus.”

A beautiful sounding word or name is said to be euphonious.

Jeruba's avatar

If I were writing your sentence, @Sabriane, honestly, I would just say “I love the word ‘mellifluous’ simply because of its sound.”

I don’t think that choice is limited by any paucity of vocabulary or lack of precision. Rather, I simply think it’s the right word.

Sabriane's avatar

@JLeslie “The way it rolls off the tongue” is almost like “the way it sounds”, so unfortunately not. “Musical” and “rhythm” are also not what I’m looking for.

@jaytkay Nice words but I’m sorry, it’s not the one I’m looking for!

@laureth “Onomatopoeia” is the way a word is pronounced, but it’s a very technical and scientific term. The one I’m looking for has more literary connotations to it.

@gasman In which case I’d say that I like the word “mellifluous” because of its euphonious quality. But you see, “euphonious” is an adjective. I’m looking for a noun.

@Jeruba I know that that’s one way to say it, but something is just nagging at the back of my head, telling that there’s yet another way to phrase it. I apologise; whenever I get into a writing mood I start agonising over le mot juste.

Judi's avatar


gasman's avatar

@Sabriane You can make the noun “euphony,” but it’s uncommon. How about “pleasing sound?”

Jeruba's avatar

“Euphony” is a perfectly acceptable noun. I think “sound” takes in all those elements you’re talking about.

[Edit] Laurence Perrine’s classic introduction to poetry is called Sound and Sense. He intended the former term to encompass all the heard aspects of language.

jaytkay's avatar

Mellifluous and euphonious have positive denotations. I think the question asks for a neutral term.

@Jeruba is correct, you could just write around the problem, there’s no reason to insist on a single word.

But this is now sport. What is THE word?

Sabriane's avatar

Upon further reflection, I realise that there was something VERY important I forgot to add to the question which will clarify issues a lot.

Let’s say that the word “mellifluous” almost sounds like another word, “malleafluent” which means “fluent in many different types of metallurgy” (yes I just made it up). Now let’s say I happen to be a huge fan of metallurgy, and therefore like “mellifluous” simply because it sounds similar to “malleafluent”. Is there a term for this quality of the word “mellifluous”? Or should I just say that I like it because of its associations with the word “malleafluent”?

morphail's avatar

This isn’t about linguistics or etymology. Linguistics tends to be neutral when describing sound.

jaytkay's avatar

More words to chew on:


What’s the linguistic equivalent?

keobooks's avatar

I’ve used resonance and texture to describe how I choose which words to use when I speak. To me, certain words feel more right on the tongue than others simply because they resonate well or have a rich texture to them. There are other words that I dislike because they don’t ‘feel’ right when I say them or think about them.

I’m wondering if some people are more sensitive to the sound of a word than others. My husband says that he doesn’t understand how I choose my words by their melodic quality.
He also doesn’t understand why there are some words that seem very generic or unimpressive that I love.

For some inexplicable reason, I love the word ‘yarn ball’. I’m not into knitting or any sort of yarn craft. And the word yarn all by itself doesn’t feel the same, but ‘yarn ball’ is my ‘cellar door’

Jeruba's avatar

@Sabriane, your further clarification makes me think that perhaps you are enjoying a pleasing echo of a word that already has a favorable aura for you.

I’ve noticed that people’s choice of names for their children sometimes show this kind of echo. I don’t want to ask intrusive questions, so I don’t know if it’s intentional or not. I think it most likely just sounds good to them without their being explicitly aware of the resemblance (in much the same way that some people who look enough alike to be siblings are attracted to one another—a sort of innocent, unconscious narcissism). I can think of such cases as a woman named Jane who called her son Shane. Another that stuck with me was a single parent of a daughter—just the two of them against the world, it seemed. The woman’s name was Ina (pronounced eye-na), and her daughter’s name was Sheena. I heard distinctly “I” and “she.”

LostInParadise's avatar

I don’t think there is a term from what you are describing. I would say the words are self-describing. In general, the sound of a word bears no relationship to what it refers to, but I think there is a tendency to link pronunciation to signification when possible. If a non-English speaker were asked to distinguish the meanings of soft and hard, I don’t think it would be difficult. The same with cold and warm, and smooth and rough.

shariw's avatar

phonetically: how the word and it’s individual syllables are pronounced
ambiance: the mood that the word sets
eloquence: A person’s style of saying things/ Pleasant to listen to

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