I'm wondering, some words sound 'nicer', not taking their associations into account. For example, long vowels and soft endings are considered rounder than hard vowels, like k. (This is the Bouba/kiki effect). They are also considered more pleasant.

On lists of words that people hate, short, hard consonant-ending words tend to appear, like, 'moist', 'snort', 'flap', and 'curd'.

Is there a rating system or formula that quantifies how 'nice' a word is? I think it would be useful for naming things, or helping non-native speakers with word choice.

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    This seems related to phonosemantics. Many linguistic concepts in semantics where a continuum is desired are somewhat vague. Like taboo, some are more than taboo than others but to quantify the amount reliably is difficult. 'Crap' is less taboo than 'shit' and more than 'dung' but by how much? A relative or very rough just-extremes label is probably enough. Sadly most dictionaries will only rarely note the very furthest extremes (like 'shit') if at all.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 16:03
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    @Cascabel , I really want to see that study.
    – nethawk
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 16:43
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    @NetHawk: Welcome to English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. It would appear that you have accidentally created two accounts. You should use the contact form and select “I need to merge user profiles” to have your accounts merged. In order to merge them, you will need to provide links to the two accounts. For your information, these are english.stackexchange.com/users/216307/nethawk and english.stackexchange.com/users/216314/nethawk. You’ll then be able to edit, comment on, and accept answers to this question. Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 17:19
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    I posted an answer with a different study than the one I was looking for: I will keep looking for the other. Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 17:52
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    @Cascabel There is the idea that has been kicking around since at least 1903 that "cellar-door" is the most beautiful word in the English language. Luckily the rules of EL&U preclude questions or comments that seek or express mere opinion, so I need not comment on the merits of this assertion. There is an informative discussion of it here:nytimes.com/2010/02/14/magazine/14FOB-onlanguage-t.html
    – Airymouse
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 20:03

1 Answer 1


A study was conducted and published at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013, Inherent Emotional Quality of Human Speech Sounds, in which it was demonstrated...

...that certain strings of English phonemes have an inherent, non-arbitrary emotional valence which can be predicted on the basis of dynamic changes in acoustic features.

It was partly based on the idea that animal vocalizations with higher formant positions were considered to be smaller organisms and hence less threatening than animals with vocalization with lower formant positions.

To remove any "biasing", nonsense words were used with both upward and downward F1-F2 shifts, and subjects were asked to associate the "words" with pictures, much like in the Kolher study (1929). Examples of the "words" are shown below.

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And this is an example of "words" + pictures:

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The conclusions were that:

The data presented here effectively outline a formula for constructing words and non-words that implicitly conjure positive or negative emotion. Accordingly we see potential applications of this study to a variety of educational, social, clinical, and marketing contexts.

I do not know if this study has ever been replicated; I will leave that up to you to follow up.

Below is the link to the PDF of the complete Meyers-Shulz study.



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