Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 21, 1888
This text is also available in PDF
(774 KB) Opens in new window
– 418 –

Art. LVI.—On the Mental Effects of certain Vowel-sounds.

[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 13th August, 1888.]

There is in souls a sympathy with sounds,
And as the mind is pitched the ear is pleased
With melting airs or martial, brisk or grave.
Some chord in unison with what we hear
Is touched within us, and the heart replies.
Cowper: The Winter Walk.

I would ask you to accompany me to-night into one of the less trodden byways of language. For aught I know the subject may have been dealt with by those of wider knowledge and research; but, if so, I have not met with any record of their observations and conclusions. It touches upon one of the more subtle external qualities of poetry and oratory—the mental effects of certain vowel-sounds.

It is not a new observation that there is a close correspondence between poetry and music, and in order to establish my position I shall treat that correspondence as an actual reality, and not as a mere imaginary parallel. As Pope has said,—

Music resembles poetry—in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master-hand alone can reach.
Essay on Criticism.

And a great living poet has drawn a beautiful parallel between the relation of poetry and music and the relation of the sexes:—

Till at the last she set herself to man,
Like perfect music unto noble words.
Tennyson: The Princess.

The same image is to be found in Dryden and other English poets.

– 419 –

In the expression of thought, either in prose or poetry, and particularly in the latter, much depends on the dress. The measure and cadence should be in harmony with the subject. The narrative style of the ballad is altogether unlike the narrative passages of the epic, not only in measure, but in language. Certain artifices of style, alliterative and otherwise, are well known. In a passage so familiar as to be almost hackneyed Pope has shown how, even without changing the measure, the sentiment may be emphasized by the sound of the words:—

'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore
The hoarse rough verse should like the torrent roar;
When Ajax strives some rock's vast weight to throw,
The line, too, labours, and the words move slow;
Not so when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o'er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Essay on Criticism.

The effect of this passage is chiefly produced by the choice of consonants; the “labouring lines” being burdened with those uncouth clusters of consonantal sounds which are so difficult to the foreigner, and oftentimes by no means easy to the native. But in the works of the modern masters of English verse there are much more subtle devices than this—so refined as almost to defy analysis. In the skilful use of merely imitative words and measures Tennyson is preeminent. The ripple and dash of his poem, “The Brook,” and the celebrated imitation of the “horse's hoofs as they canter and canter away,” in the “Northern Farmer,” are cases in point.

Much has been written on the subject of imitative words, and there is no doubt that (as in the passage just quoted from Pope) they impart a degree of force and vivid expression to both verse and prose. But imitative words are the crudest and most imperfect form of language. It is the child who has not attained the full power of speech who talks of the “moo” and the “bow-wow;” and poetry or oratory which mainly relies on imitative expression for effect is as false in art as “descriptive music” of the “Battle of Prague” order, which gives realistic imitations of cannonading and the “groans of the wounded.”

All will admit that in true music—in such a composition, for example, as Beethoven's “Moonlight Sonata”—there are subtleties appealing to the emotions immeasurably beyond anything of the superficial “descriptive” order. The whole composition was suggested by the moonlight streaming through

– 420 –

a window: it would not suggest the same concrete idea to a hearer, but it could not fail, when interpreted by a skilled hand, to awaken a train of feelings parallel to those which inspired the composer—of calm, of meditative repose, and, again, of high aspiration and triumphant hope and trust. To dissect the composition chord by chord and note by note in order to discover its secret charm would be a vain task. The intuitive perceptions of the master could not fail—the sentiment is there, though it defy analysis.

Still, the notes of the musical scale have been thus analysed, and their mental effect in relation to the key-note approximately determined.* According as one or the other tone or group of sympathetic tones predominate, the character of the composition is lively or sad, melancholy or triumphant. The process of analysis is by no means easy, as the individual characters of the tones may be indefinitely qualified by their order of succession, their modulations and harmonies, the relative stress which is placed upon them, and even by the general time of the composition.

It is my object in the present paper to show that similar mental effects are produced by the vowel-sounds of the language, and that their qualities are modified in a parallel manner by succession and emphasis, and to some extent by the consonants with which they are associated. This being admitted, it follows that we have in language an inherent element of expression, both mental and musical, far more subtle than any mere trick of imitative or alliterative words, and, though in itself but an external quality of poetry or oratory, yet possessing an importance fully equal to that of measure or cadence.

I have met with the statement, which my own observation confirms, that there is what may be called a “gamut” of vowels, differing slightly in pitch with each individual, and differing markedly in the case of varying languages and dialects. It is the vowel-sounds (or, more correctly, the vowel-pitch) of a foreign tongue that the learner has the greatest difficulty in acquiring. The ordinary Englishman attempting to imitate the speech of a Scotsman, an Irishman, or a German, contents himself with exaggerating a few of the characteristic peculiarities, and the imitation is a failure; while the genuine dialect will be betrayed by a single monosyllable. This can only be accounted for by the difference of “pitch,” which extends throughout the vocal scale.

Swedenborg—whose marvellous insight in almost every

[Footnote] * Curwen thus defines the mental effect of the notes of the scale: “Doh, the strong or firm tone; ray, rousing and hopeful; me, steady and calm; fah, desolate or awe-inspiring; soh, grand or bright tone; lah, sad or weeping tone; te, piercing or sensitive tone.”

– 421 –

branch of natural science is gradually becoming better appreciated—says that consonants are the essentials of speech; and that vowel-sounds—which are the only sounds the inferior animals utter—have a reference or correspondence to the affections. Much may be said in support of both these propositions.

In the earlier historic ages the Semitic tongues were written and read (as our own language is to-day, habitually, by shorthand writers) without vowels. But it is a singular fact that the subtler shades of meaning in the old Hebrew and kindred dialects were indicated by the unwritten vowels, and that the reader, according to his understanding of the text, would vary even to occasionally reversing the meaning.

It is to the vowel-sounds that language owes its beauty and expression; and in considering their mental effect we have first to divide them into two classes, the long and the short—every long and full vowel having its corresponding clipped and shortened form. It is only upon the vowels that we can dwell, either in speech or song, and, what is more important still, only upon the long vowels. The short sounds are always curt, brief, and abridged. And the first observation I would make is, that—

In dignified, stately, and solemn composition, the long vowels predominate, especially in the accented syllables.

In trivial, light, and burlesque composition, the short vowel-sounds predominate, even in the accented syllables—sometimes to the almost entire exclusion of the long vowels.

As a specimen of dignified composition, take the opening lines of our great English epic:—

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe—–

Here all the line-endings, and nearly all the accented syllables, fall on long vowels. Let us now take a rhymed poem by one of the masters of English verse:—

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day;
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea;
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me,

And again,—

Hark how the sacred calm that breathes around
Bids every fierce tumultuous passion cease,
In still small accents whispering from the ground
A grateful earnest of eternal peace.

And so on throughout the composition. But observe the selection of vowels in “A Long Story,” a nonsensical poem by the same author:—

– 422 –

The words too eager to unriddle,
The poet felt a strange disorder—
Transparent birdlime formed the middle,
And chains invisible the border.

The godhead would have backed his quarrel,
But, with a blush on recollection,
Owned that his quiver and his laurel
'Gainst four such eyes was no protection.

Each of these stanzas contains thirty-six syllables. In the first all the vowels are short except five; in the second, all except one! And the loose swing of the measure is quite in keeping.

Let us quote Cowper:—

Would I had fall'n upon those happier days
That poets celebrate, those golden times,
And those Arcadian scenes, that Maro sings,
And Sidney, warbler of poetic prose.
Winter Evening.

Here, again, the long vowels have the great predominance; but turn to any stanza of “John Gilpin,” by the same writer, and the short vowels will be found to characterize the whole composition.

It is scarcely necessary further to multiply examples; but I cannot refrain from noting two of the finest of modern hymns—Lyte's

Abide with me,—fast falls the eventide,

and Newman's

Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom.

Tennyson's poem of “The Brook,” already referred to, is a marvel of imitative language. The dash and ripple of the measure is unparalleled in English verse. Sustained notes would be out of keeping with the character of the piece, and accordingly we find a most surprising preponderance of short vowels. At the same time they are managed with such consummate skill that the effect of pettiness and triviality, so noticeable in the examples already quoted, is nowhere to be found throughout the poem.

By thirty hills I hurry down,
Or slip between the ridges,
By twenty thorps, a little town,
And half a hundred bridges.
Till last by Philip's farm I flow
To join the brimming river—
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.

In these two stanzas there is scarcely a long vowel. Contrast with this the same writer's

Home they brought her warrior dead,

and his

– 423 –

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!

Note the long vowel thrice repeated in the first line, like the opening chords of the “Dead March.” The second line is even more remarkable. With just one short vowel, like a grace-note, cutting it off from the first line, it contains the extraordinary number of six consecutive long vowels.

Thus I have shown that in the mere selection of long and short vowels (apart from the other qualities of composition) there is produced a definite mental effect. And we have no more reason to deride the old lady who “found much comfort in that beautiful word ‘Mesopotamia’”—which is mysterious, sonorous, and full of long vowels—than to ridicule the musical enthusiast who is “elevated” or “consoled” by the subtle and far-reaching power of a musical composition. We derive much of our delight in fine poetry from a precisely similar cause.

It would be interesting to follow this inquiry as regards the predominating vowel-sound in English. Those who use a phonetic system of spelling could supply this information. The preponderating use of the symbol e in our ordinary writing has no real significance; for not only has it five different powers, but it is extensively used as a modifying character in diphthongs, besides, in its capacity of silent final, merely indicating the lengthening of a vowel.

Before proceeding to the second part of my task—an endeavour to define the characteristic effect of certain vowels—I would advance two more propositions, following as a natural corollary to those already laid down.

There is a distinct affinity between the long vowels and words relating to the higher emotions and intellectual qualities.

The short vowels, on the other hand, characterize words referring to the lower propensities; to such as embody trivial and frivolous ideas; and to the language of cant and slang, abuse and vituperation. And, further,—

That each vowel, long or short, has its own specific mental effect.

Beginning at one extreme of the vocal scale, I take first the long a in far. This sound is the first in all alphabets, and is the highest and finest in mental effect. It is pre-eminently the vowel of dignity—of meditative, serious, and melancholy composition. This quality has been freely (though doubtless intuitively) made use of in poetic composition. The sound is duplicated with fine effect in a well-known line by Wordsworth,—

Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.

And in the Authorised Version of the Scriptures—the grandest piece of musical prose composition in the English language—

– 424 –

we have a finer illustration still, where the vowel is thrice repeated, in the manner of a crescendo:—

Underneath are the everlasting arms.—Deut. xxxiii. 37.

This vowel, which contributes more than any other to dignity in composition, is in marked contrast to the short a in fat, to which I shall hereafter more particularly refer. Hence the practice—which is, or was, fashionable in America, and of which we have all met with examples—of entirely eliminating this sound, and substituting the short a, is a serious degradation of the language. Were there no distinctions in mental effect a change like this would be immaterial; but we know that it is of real significance. When we hear any one speak of the lăst, of an ănser for answer, or of păstors and măsters, we are conscious of affectation and effeminacy on the part of the speaker. Compare the doubled long a in taskmaster with the doubled short vowel in rapscallion, and note the contrast. This long vowel a is the predominant and characteristic sound in the Maori language, and is generally the vowel selected for the long-drawn note in their songs and chants.

The full o is marked by a bold and resolute quality; involving also the ideas of vastness, mystery, and solemnity. We have it in such words as the open ocean, audit meets us in the roll of its foaming waves. It is the key-note of words like bold, noble, rover, roam, foeman; and its minor undertone comes in in words like dole, moan, and woe. Gold, which, related to gules, was commonly pronounced “good” a century ago, has fallen into this category—partly, no doubt, on account of its spelling, but, I am inclined to think, partly also from a perception of the vowel-quality of the o. In dignity and gravity this sound is second only to the a in far, and is bolder, fuller, and more open in quality.

Fuller still is the broad a in fall. This is one of the vowels that has a definite meaning in the form of a monosyllable, and that word—awe—fairly indicates its quality. It is the vowel of sublimity, a sound entering largely into hymns and the loftier kinds of poetical composition, and appeals to the faculty of “veneration.” As a familiar instance of the free use of this sound, and its characteristic effect, may be cited the popular hymn of praise, “Crown Him Lord of all.”

The long e is the vowel of brightness and clearness, “sweetness and light”—giving its distinctive character to words like free and glee. It is the vowel of the sea (by no means synonymous with “ocean”) and its deeps, of the creek, the stream, the mountain peak and valley steep, the mead, the tree, and the passing breeze. It glitters in the sheen of steel, and chills us in the freezing sleet. In the early spring and through the summer it is the note of Nature, meeting us everywhere

– 425 –

in the song of birds and in the piercing and reedy notes cricket and cicada.

The long a in fate I cannot at present more precisely define than to note that it is characteristic of many words associated with the qualities of firmness and stability.

I pass on now to the short vowels.

Triviality is indicated by the short i. We have abundance of instances: pretty, fribble, dibble, quibble, nibble, fiddle, higgle, giggle, snigger, flicker, flipper, flippant, tipple, slipshod, milksop, silly, swill, sip, snip, nit, nip, jig, prig, tiff, whiff, and nearly the whole class of affixed diminutives. Impudent is vulgarly transformed to “impident,” thus unconsciously doubling the characteristic vowel.

The short a wholly lacks the dignity of the long and full sound of the vowel. A whole string of vituperative epithets owe a portion of their sting to the offensive quality of this vowel: slattern, drab, hag, harridan, for example, and the extremely objectionable blackguard, in its present wide range of substantive, adjective, and verb. In qualities we have an unpleasant list: clammy, flabby, scabby, haggard, scrannel; in verbs, to nag and to haggle.

Lastly, I come to the short u, which can boast of a whole vocabulary of contempt and opprobrium—contempt, however, being the ruling characteristic. First we have a small menagerie of unpleasant animals of low degree, whose names are applied freely to humanity: grub, slug, bug, and skunk, for example. The same vowel characterizes mud, muck, puddle, slush, and sludge, a painful swelling called mumps, and an unpleasant internal disorder vulgarly called mulligrubs (again note the doubling of the characteristic vowel). In the same category may be found a whole collection of terms indicative of various degrees of stupidity—to blunder, to muddle, to mull; a muff, duffer, and the expressive Scottish term (to which I know of no English equivalent)—a sumph. To funk is a slang term expressive of cowardice. Objectionable qualities of character are indicated by a long list of similar words, and the vocabulary of slang would be poor indeed without this characteristic vowel. A disagreeable woman is an old frump; a man is an old buffer, hunks, or curmudgeon. He is frequently in the dumps, is gruff, grudging, grumbling, grumpy, sulky, sullen, and readily huffed: he may also be smug, and bumptious. We should feel uncomfortable if in a lonely spot we found ourselves followed by a hulking fellow, armed with cudgel or bludgeon. The contemptuous quality of the vowel seems to be emphasized by the consonant g and the compound dg; for, in addition to words already quoted, we have budge, fudge, drudge, dudgeon, gudgeon. Applied to a female we have slut and hussy (the latter corrupted from the honourable word

– 426 –

“housewife”). A cur of doubtful pedigree is a mongrel. I need make no apology here for introducing a number of slang expressions, as these forcibly illustrate the point. In several striking instances the original vowel has been exchanged for the low vowel of contempt: as cuss for “curse,” bust for “burst,” and buss for the French “baiser.” In vituperative slang a countenance becomes an ugly mug, an ear a lug, a prison a jug, and a pugilist a pug. And this little group suggests to me one of the most vividly-descriptive stanzas in that magnificent old poem “The Faery Queen,” where a monosyllable of this class is brought in with striking effect. The Red Cross Knight meets with the foul monster Error in her den, surrounded by her misshapen brood—

And as she lay upon the dirty ground
Her huge long tail her den all overspread,
Yet was in knots and many boughts upwound,
Pointed with mortal sting: of her there bred
A thousand young ones, which she daily fed
Sucking upon her poisonous dugs; each one
Of divers shapes, yet all ill-favoured—–

The word is in the most absolute harmony with the repulsive imagery of the passage.

Every newspaper-reader, unfortunately, is of necessity familiar with current slang; and a recent example in an editorial article supplies an excellent illustration of my present point. The writer, it must be admitted, had a difficult task. He had to reply to an article concerning an act of scandalous extravagance, and could not venture either to dispute the facts or controvert the principles. So he simply said that the rival editor was a mugwump. This was unanswerable. “Mugwump,” it is true, is not in the dictionaries, and has no defined meaning; but the duplication of the vowel (which we find also in the weaker word humbug, also of unknown etymology) conveys an unmistakable mental impression. The word is American, and, if not new-minted by some inventive genius, is probably (like “wigwam”) a corrupted native term. It is a valuable example of the vowel of contempt.*

We need not seek for proofs of the general truth of the propositions I have advanced. The idea having been suggested, confirmations will crowd upon you. Leaving out of consideration those Scripture passages which, as a Roman Catholic writer has said, “ring in the memory like the

[Footnote] * There are two striking exceptions to the contemptuous use of this vowel—judge and just, and their compounds. For such noble words as judgment and justice to stand among the outcasts of the language is a kind of contempt of Court. Trust is another fine word in similar bad company. I can recall no other exceptions of any importance.

– 427 –

music of church-bells,” we have only to examine some of those

… jewels five worlds long
That on the stretched forefinger of all time
Sparkle for ever.

Wherein lies the charm of their vitality? Not in the sentiment—expressed a thousand times before in as many forms. Surely not in any more jingle of rhyming or alliterative words. It will be found to be deeper—in the subtle melody of the vowels, each appealing to its own specific emotion of the mind. Take the simple phrase, “Hearths and homes.” Here we find a sentiment appealing to the highest and purest emotions of the mind, emphasized and enforced by the two noblest and loftiest notes of the vowel-scale. The melody of the tones being in perfect harmony with the sentiment, the two are wedded, and, thus divinely joined by a natural law, they cannot be put asunder.*

Here, I think, we may find the key to the origin of alliteration both in poetry and prose. When we group together epithets like grasping and greedy, griping and grudging, clammy and flabby, we are not following a mere artificial trick of composition, but acting upon an instinctive perception of one of the subtler laws of language itself. And, acknowledging that there is in each of the vowel-sounds a quality answering to a certain mental state, we raise the interjection, despised by grammarians, to the dignity of a “part of speech” in no wise inferior to the onomatopoetic substantive or adjective. It is not by accident, nor is it by mere rhetorical trick, that the preacher exclaims, “Ah, how sad the condition!” or, “Oh, how grand the thought!” No correct speaker would interchange these interjections.

[Footnote] * On the occasion of this paper being read, a member of the Institute, commenting thereon, instanced Longfellow's “Evangeline” as a poem abounding in illustrations, and quoted as an example the following beautiful passage:—

Then from a neighbouring thicket the mocking-bird, wildest of singers,
Swinging aloft on a willow-spray that jung o'er the water,
Shook from his little throat such floods of delirious music
That the whole air and the woods and the waves seemed silent to listen.
Plaintive at first were the notes and sad; then soaring to maduess
Seemed they to follow or guide the revel of frenzied Bacchantes.
Single notes were then heard, in sorrowful, low lamentation;
Till, having gathered them all, he flung them abroad in derision,
As when, after a storm, a gust of wind through the tree-tops
Shakes down the rattling rain in a crystal shower on the branches.

[Footnote] The whole poem affords a striking and beautiful example of the artistic use of vowel-music. In one line especially, since reading this paper, I have found a remarkable confirmation of the characters here ascribed to the long vowels:—

[Footnote] Over the laws of the land and the hearts and homes of the people.

[Footnote] Each of the long vowels analysed in this article occurs in this line, and each one in the precise mental character which is its peculiar and especial characteristic.

– 428 –

This occult vowel-quality, it may be, accounts also for certain grammatical irregularities otherwise to all appearance quite arbitrary. As, for example, the varying past participle in the case of verbs precisely similar in form. Thus wink, winked; think, thought; sink, sunk; drink, drunk. And it is to this characteristic quality of vowel-sounds in suggesting mental impressions that “nonsense verses” may be made to appear so like sense, and also that much egregious and unconscious nonsense in rhyme passes muster as poetry. (Look through some of our most popular hymn-books—and weep!)

The fancy names of fiction strongly bear out my argument. In the names of objectionable and paltry characters the short vowels are freely used, often duplicated, and grouped with uncouth combinations of consonants. Samuel Warren gives us Tittlebat Titmouse, Huckaback, Tagrag, Messrs. Quirk, Gammon, and Snap, &c. Dickens's novels abound with names of this class: Quilp, Podsnap, Winkle, Stiggins, Chadband, and scores of others might be cited. Meaningless though the name frequently is, the ludicrous or contemptible reference cannot fail to strike the reader.

In the Maori—a soft and euphonious tongue—as I have already remarked, the long a predominates. As commonly spoken by the pakeha, it possesses no beauty, but is hopelessly vulgarised. Why ? Chiefly because the short u, the lowest sound in the vowel-scale (which I have never detected in Maori), is freely introduced. Mānga and māũnga are both alike mŭnga in the mouth of the pakeha. Even the full sound of o is degraded to the same coarse and contemptuous vowel. In Captain Cruise's voyages (1823) the name of the chief Hongi is uniformly written “Shungie.”

I have one more remark to add—that by a natural process of gradual development we may expect the influence of these qualities upon our language to become still more marked in the future. The continual selection by the best poets and writers of certain appropriate vocal sounds to express particular mental conditions, will add a traditional to an inherent quality. It is so in music, where the power of association is strongly marked. It is impossible, for instance, that Handel's “Dead March” could have affected its first hearers with the tremendous and overwhelming power that it exercises upon our emotions to-day. They might fully appreciate its grand and solemn chords, but it could not move them as it moves us, to whom it comes each time laden with a new addition to its past burden of sad associations. And here, as in other respects, the parallel between language and music will be found upon examination to hold good.