The way words sound is critical to their effectiveness. How they are arranged is also critical. Language is musical; sentences are rhythmic. We don’t usually think in these terms though. But poets know it. Rappers know it. And writers of prose, if they’re good, they know it too.
I’m currently reading Seth Godin’s latest book, Linchpin, and it’s clear he knows it. You’ll see longer, sometimes clausal sentences followed by one or two short, punctuation-like sentences. Writers often do this. (I just did it there.) It’s like a joke: set up followed by a quick punchline. Doing this emphasizes your key point. Hopefully, it makes it memorable.
Words acquire their music by an arrangement of consonants and vowels and accents, some hard (“eat”) and some soft (“where”). A word itself has a certain rhythm, a beat or combination of them, and in a sentence can help create a more complex rhythm as it sits side by side with other words and their rhythm(s).
It all combines to create the music of words.
French is an interesting language (sometimes called one of the romance languages). We associate it with softness, I think, and even elegance – especially when we don’t actually speak it. We don’t understand the meaning but we hear how it sounds and the sound alone carries a meaning, though it’s often wrongly interpreted.
For example, let’s suppose a restaurant is opening. We’re going to call the restaurant, La merde de chien. Now, if we don’t speak French and are utterly unfamiliar with it, we don’t know what that means. But it sounds as if it might be elegant. Knowing nothing about the restaurant, we might assume it’s a fine dining establishment. Maybe it specializes in French cuisine.
We just don’t know but we do know that La merde de chien sounds as if it could be a top drawer place. There are so many soft sounds in La merde de chien. We might picture soft lighting. We might imagine a piano or a string quartet playing quietly in a corner.
We would imagine something altogether different if we knew it meant Dog Poop.
If we know what La merde de chien means it will strike us that the sound and the meaning are at cross-purposes. (I’m assuming an English speaking person’s perspective here.) Sometimes that is the effect we want. It’s an effect I wanted here. I wanted sound and meaning to disagree as a way to illustrate how the sound of words works.
The words we choose are guided by our purpose. What do we want them to do? What message are they meant to convey? This should determine the words we choose – not simply for their dictionary meaning but also for how the sound of the words also conveys the meaning.
Two more examples … Why do we usually call them PCs and not personal computers? Because personal computer is six syllables with really only one hard sound (the u in computer). It’s a bit soft and clunky. PC is two syllables, both accented and rolls off the tongue with ease. It has a catchier rhythm, like a jingle or pop song.
Why call a Macintosh a Mac? Why Mac and not Tosh? Mac is one syllable, one beat. Tosh is also one syllable, one beat but Mac ends with a hard sound, Tosh with a soft sound. Macintosh has a better rhythm than personal computer but, like Tosh, ends softly. Mac doesn’t. It is hard and it sounds like what Apple would like us to think about their computers: tough and efficient and effective. It’s a period. All those other words are commas.
A final, perfect example of the music of words, is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. If you read the text you’ll hear how, while called a speech, it is really a poem. And a poem is really just a fancy word for song.
Why would Lincoln say, “Four score and seven years ago …” and not simply, “Eighty-seven years ago …?” Why would he conclude with the repetition of, “… government of the people, by the people, for the people …?”
It was for the music of it. It was for the sound. When sound and meaning intersect and are one, words resonate. They stick in the mind and they’re remembered.
They work like all get out.