Luckily, I don't think anyone involved was trying to make a claim quite that strong. But something about the way we keep attributing certain qualities to our attraction to languages makes the analytical side of me squirm a little. It's a beautiful concept, and it's true, I like Italian. There are peculiarities of it that interest me — "pretty" elisions, et cetera — that don't exist in English. But really, why do I like it? Why do I experience this "taste" we keep talking about? On the whole, I can easily define my attraction to the language as something practical and explainable in very rational terms. But how, then, do I explain phenomena like ben sviluppato, a phrase that I knew the meaning of the first time I encountered it in reading, simply because I thought "sviluppato" sounded like it ought to mean "well-developed"?
A good guess? Context? Probably. But if I put aside the notion that the way my brain latches on to certain words because of something in my blood, how do I explain why I characterize "burrasca" as sounding like a strong gust of wind? That "sorriso" sounds like a smile? What is this term I keep using, and what do I even mean by it?
After frantic searching on Wikipedia, I finally discovered the Kiki Bouba Effect. All right, you say. Now she's really gone off her rocker. But give me a moment.
I'm going to show you a picture. Before I show you it, a question: which figure is named Kiki, and which one Bouba?
Ninety-five percent of people will name the left one "Kiki" and the right one "Bouba" — and not just English speakers, it seems.[Study PDF] The difference here is that the words have been detached from their meanings. The shapes mean nothing and the words mean nothing, but our brains forge links between the two regardless.
I do not know much linguistics, and much less phonoaesthetics, but this, I think, is Tolkien's cellar door. There's nothing really shocking about this study, except that it pins down a very specific function of how we think about words. We recognize that our brains assign qualities to words that have nothing to do with their actual meaning, as with the strength we hear in the title The Lord of the Rings, or even, on a more general level, the way we characterize words and phrases in poetry as "ringing," "lilting," or "a drone."
Tolkien was masterful in his selection of words, right down to the syllabic level, where he operated when constructing his languages. The first time I read through Tolkien's indices, his "rules" for pronunciation seemed excessive. Why would it matter to the average reader? Who cares if I say Fee-a-nor or Fay-a-nor? Why would Tolkien care?
Tolkien mentions that "The Orcs, and some Dwarves, are said to have used a back or uvular r, a sound which the Eldar found distasteful" (Appendix E). While Tolkien may not have been directly aware of psychological studies like the "Kiki Bouba Effect," he was clearly very directly concerned with the unconscious effect of the way a language sounds or rolls off the tongue, so much that he even tells us that his invented beings had preferences themselves.
This is one reason among many that Aragorn was not just Aragorn, but also Strider, the Dúnadan, Estel, and Elessar. I think we can agree that even to the uninitiated in Tolkien's lore, without knowledge of the languages at hand, there is something more stately in the name King Elessar than in, say, King Strider, or, dare I suggest it, King Trotter, which sounds more like it ought to be the name of my British grandparents' schnauzer puppy than actual royalty. Each of Aragorn's names, even without a knowledge of their roots within Tolkien's languages, evokes a certain mood that says something slightly different about his character in each of these situations.
And while Tolkien admits that he did not create his worlds and languages within a vacuum, his languages do allow him a sense of continuity that would otherwise be impossible. The fact that he is not bound to any rules beyond his own allows him to manipulate the name of each place, object, character within an infinite number of variables, limited only by the restrictions he himself has laid out. And he does. We see Tolkien scratch out and revise several times in his notes, often renaming characters several times before they suit his needs. It is this level of detail that adds yet another level to Tolkien's command of our senses as we read his work.
*I don't know anything about psychology or linguistics beyond the stuff I read casually -- if anyone has any more accurate or enlightening information, please share.