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No mention of Sindarin, though
March 10, 2014 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Why we find some languages more beautiful than others.
posted by Chrysostom (96 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nem az a szép, ami szép.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:16 AM on March 10


Hmm. The author claims that learning Turkish made it "sound" more beautiful to him as a result; I'm not sure whether that may have instead him starting to respond to the meaning as well as or instead of the sound alone.

But this is definitely something I've noticed about other languages as well; languages do have a musicality, and sometimes that musicality can strike you. I've noticed I like the sounds of Japanese, but am not so taken with Mandarin or Cantonese; something about Mandarin and Cantonese sounds a little too staccato to my ear.

And I am a god-damn sucker for anything spoken in a Celtic language. To the point that I will listen to my folk albums over and over and learn to sing along; I have no idea what I'm singing, it could be "whomp bomp a loo-bomp a-whomp bam boom" for all I know, but I still never tend to care because omigod wow pretty sounds.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:21 AM on March 10 [3 favorites]


Some sounds appear in almost all languages (m, b, g, d) while others are rarer and appear in fewer languages (e.g., Swedish sj, German/Dutch ch/g as in Buch, English th).
Which English "th"?
posted by Flunkie at 10:32 AM on March 10 [3 favorites]


I was immediately reminded of this comment from Sidse Babett Knudsen, star of Borgen:
... our language is one of the most ugly and limited around. You can't seduce anyone in Danish; it sounds like you are throwing up.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:34 AM on March 10 [7 favorites]


You can't seduce anyone in Danish; it sounds like you are throwing up.

In Scandinavia, it is joked that Danish is what you're speaking if you try to speak Swedish or Norwegian with a hot potato in your mouth.
posted by acb at 10:36 AM on March 10


Yes, but a Dane needs merely to wave a slab of bacon suggestively and seduction is accomplished.
posted by Wolfdog at 10:37 AM on March 10 [9 favorites]


Wow, I didn't realize that in German, every other sentence must end with a question mark.

The author seems to really want to conclude that you can't compare the sounds of languages without leaving your cultural baggage at the door, and therefore you shouldn't try.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 10:40 AM on March 10


I'd like to see a ranking of beauty of languages categorized by mother tongue of the ranker. That would be neat.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 10:41 AM on March 10 [10 favorites]


You can't seduce anyone in Danish; it sounds like you are throwing up.

Umm, guys...
posted by Naberius at 10:45 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Heck, even the Danes are having a hard time with Danish.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:46 AM on March 10 [5 favorites]


I just read an analogy earlier today of Portugese sounding like Spanish as pronounced by a Russian with a mouth full of marbles.

One thing that surprised me, when I spent time in Dublin, was how guttural Irish the language was in comparison to the musicality of Irish accents in English. Seemed odd that the blush of the language in Hiberno-English should be so different from the full-strength stuff. (Of course, not all Irish accents are pleasant; there was a weatherman from Kerry who I could listen to read the phone book, whereas the Belfast accent is much more nasal and harsher to my ear.)
posted by Diablevert at 10:49 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]


Tangentially - I'm very tempted to write my Irish friend and ask whether "Whomp bomp a loo-bomp a-whomp-bam-boom" translates into Irish Gaelic suddenly.

I did ask her for the translation of an Irish school's cover of Macklemore, so she may be used to this - but may be getting a little impatient.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:52 AM on March 10


Nem az a szép, ami szép.

In my mind this sounds like Paul McCartney singing played backwards.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 10:52 AM on March 10 [4 favorites]


FWIW, I remember my German teacher telling us she didn't realize that German was supposedly guttural and harsh until she moved to America.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:53 AM on March 10 [3 favorites]


Und vat is wrong mit "Schmetterling"?
posted by The Tensor at 10:54 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Hmm. The author claims that learning Turkish made it "sound" more beautiful to him as a result; I'm not sure whether that may have instead him starting to respond to the meaning as well as or instead of the sound alone.

Certainly. I think another part of it is actually listening closely to the language. People give German a bad rap for sounding harsh and gutteral, but when I hear it it's full of lovely slip-slidey fricatives like v, s, and sh. People can get a bad first impression of a language and then have an imagined idea of what it sounds like, but when you learn a language or even familiarise yourself with it, you get a better idea of how it actually sounds.
posted by Gordafarin at 10:55 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]


Russian got Cleese laid in A Fish Called Wanda. QED.
posted by clvrmnky at 10:58 AM on March 10


People can get a bad first impression of a language and then have an imagined idea of what it sounds like, but when you learn a language or even familiarise yourself with it, you get a better idea of how it actually sounds.

I don't know. German was my first language (I was raised by my mother in Germany until I was 5 and then moved to the states at the start of my primary school education, learning English as I worked through my first year of kindergarten in the US).

I hated the sound of German compared to English and actively looked forward to learning it and abandoning German. Now, my impressions may have been conditioned by the attitudes of family members on the state side or something, but as far as I can remember, I really did think German was a harsh and ugly language compared to German back when I was fluent in German and only knew English as a non-native speaker immersed in it.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:59 AM on March 10


This is an interesting article. I agree with the author.
Some people have tried to formulate rules for judging languages, but they are trapped in a dilemma: because they have to define certain criteria in order to evaluate their findings, they can never escape their own cultural programming. One example is the author Robert Beard, who dared to write a book called The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English (including, maybe not too surprisingly words like “love,” “eloquence” and “glamour”).
I used to live in San Francisco and passed through Chinatown [I sincerely hope that term doesn't offend anyone] for many years on my way to work. So my experience with Mandarin and Cantonese, neither of which I speak or understad, is limited to the phonemes - not the ideas that are communicated. I'm sure "I love you" is a beautiful thing to hear in any language.

Except maybe Welsh. Rwyf wrth fy modd i chi.
posted by vapidave at 10:59 AM on March 10 [5 favorites]


That said, when I was visiting my mom a few years before she died and first recovered something approaching fluency in German again, I was struck by how much less harsh German actually sounded in practical day-to-day speech than I remembered it as a kid; in fact, it sounds a lot more like French than you'd expect. (Maybe I got yelled at a lot as a kid and that gave me a mistaken impression of my original tongue. Or something psychological like that. But man, I sure have a distinct memory of thinking German sounded ugly in comparison.)
posted by saulgoodman at 11:03 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]


I'm sure "I love you" is a beautiful thing to hear in any language. Except maybe Welsh.

....speak for yourself, kid.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:03 AM on March 10 [4 favorites]


I'm sure "I love you" is a beautiful thing to hear in any language. Except maybe Welsh.

"Ich liebe dich" still sounds more Rammstein than Serge Gainsbourg. There's possibly a comedy skit in that.
posted by acb at 11:08 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]


There's possibly a comedy skit in that.

There are many skits. On The Bugle podcast, whenever John Oliver has the opportunity to mention anything mundane about German news, he shrieks fake German in full Hitler mode, then concludes in English, "Just a beautiful, beautiful language."
posted by Beardman at 11:12 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]


No mention of Sindarin, though

I wonder what Prof. Tolkien would have to say about this. I've noticed the "harsher" languages like Khuzdul and the Black Speech have unusual consonant groups as the article mentioned, for instance.
posted by Foosnark at 11:13 AM on March 10


I like the sound of German. I've always assumed that whole thing about it sounding ugly was just some outgrowth of anti-German sentiment resulting from the Holocaust and the world wars.

Simply by learning Turkish, I was inclined to find it more beautiful.

I've found this to be the case. I've studied French, Russian, and German, and in each case I found my aesthetic appreciation increased with my understanding. I find Russian especially beautiful. My wife has pointed out that Russian shares vowel sounds with Italian, a language non-native speakers seem to like the sound of, but I'm skeptical about that as an explanation. I think it is just that I progressed further in that language.
posted by Area Man at 11:16 AM on March 10


I've noticed one thing, German doesn't sound nearly as harsh or rough when it isn't being shouted by a Nazi in a movie.
posted by Atreides at 11:17 AM on March 10 [13 favorites]


Flunkie: "
Some sounds appear in almost all languages (m, b, g, d) while others are rarer and appear in fewer languages (e.g., Swedish sj, German/Dutch ch/g as in Buch, English th).
Which English "th"?
"

Speaking of... There's a certain... I dunno how to explain it... I've seen people pronounce "th" with an extra aspiration or... no...actually, a truncated aspiration now that I think about it. I think I notice it especially more with an 'r' sound as in "there". Maybe it's a slight 'r' roll that adds to it... Provides a bit of an aural illusion?

Does anyone know what I'm talking about. It's very distinct to me, and it's not super common, but I have noticed it in certain individuals.
posted by symbioid at 11:18 AM on March 10


I like the sound of German. I've always assumed that whole thing about it sounding ugly was just some outgrowth of anti-German sentiment resulting from the Holocaust and the world wars.

Mark Twain was hating on German long before Prussian militarism was a glint in the Kaiser's eye.
posted by acb at 11:19 AM on March 10


I've noticed one thing, German doesn't sound nearly as harsh or rough when it isn't being shouted by a Nazi in a movie.

Not only that, but German looks like the very epitome of subtle, modern sophistication when printed in a geometric sans-serif.
posted by acb at 11:21 AM on March 10 [4 favorites]


Mark Twain was hating on German long before Prussian militarism was a glint in the Kaiser's eye.

To be an awful pedant, "The Awful German Language," as it says in the link, dates from 1880, nine years after the Franco-Prussian War ended.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:26 AM on March 10 [5 favorites]


how guttural Irish the language was in comparison to the musicality of Irish accents in English

We had to learn Irish at school until we were 12, and I never liked it. It sounds guttural to me too, it's all the "achs" that come from the back of your throat, which is like German I suppose. I dropped it as soon as I was allowed. French, on the other hand, I loved because it's so lyrical and I studied that right up until I went to University.

whereas the Belfast accent is much more nasal and harsher to my ear

Hey!
posted by billiebee at 11:28 AM on March 10


Yeah - I agree - I always had that perception of German, and then I actually heard it spoken in real world usage (or video of said usage) and it was actually kinda pretty.

A language that I think is more guttural and harsh (due to the heavy "glottal"-ness of it, combined with the nasality) is Arabic.

I used to love French and it's ok now, but now that I've had exposure to a lot more languages, it's not nearly as "cool" as it used to be. Turkish is really nice to listen to, I think, I feel very calmed by it, but I have a hell of a time trying to learn/read it.

I think my two favorite languages to listen to are Russian and... well for contrast... The always delightfully harsh and angry Scots. I dunno if its my fascination with my heritage or what, but I love it!
posted by symbioid at 11:29 AM on March 10


Which English "th"?"

The 'th' in "the".

My name has that sound in it, and it's extraordinarily hard to get some peeps (definitely Americans) to pronounce it.

It sounds EXACTLY like "the", but because it's preceded by an 'A', people lose their shit and can't say it.

'Uh' + 'the' sound+ 'non'. Two syllables.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:30 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Many people think they know how Arabic sounds from movies, but oftentimes the "Arabic" spoken is Hebrew. While the languages are very similar, the "khhhkkk" (hawking? Not sure what those sounds are called) sound that Americans widely think is a hallmark of Arabic is much more prevalent in what you can call newscaster Hebrew then it is in newscaster Arabic.
posted by cell divide at 11:30 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Nothing will ever match the delicate beauty that is Tho Fan.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:32 AM on March 10


Speaking of... There's a certain... I dunno how to explain it... I've seen people pronounce "th" with an extra aspiration or... no...actually, a truncated aspiration now that I think about it. I think I notice it especially more with an 'r' sound as in "there". Maybe it's a slight 'r' roll that adds to it... Provides a bit of an aural illusion?

'th' in English is actually two sounds: the one in 'thistle' and the one in 'there'. Old English had individual letters for them ('þ' and 'ð' respectively), though they got lost somewhere along the way; we can probably blame the Normans for that. Incidentally, these two characters still exist in Icelandic and Faroese.
posted by acb at 11:32 AM on March 10 [3 favorites]


The impression of German in English speaking countries is always that of the shouty comedy German, while something as mellifluous as the Swabian accent is almost never encountered.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:33 AM on March 10 [4 favorites]


I hereby confess that, while the author has made me feel guilty for watching "German Laguage compared to Other Languages" and giggling, I have nevertheless now re-watched it 3 times and done so consistently.
posted by rongorongo at 11:37 AM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Foosnark: "I wonder what Prof. Tolkien would have to say about this."

Well, he based Sindarin largely on Welsh, and I believe he was quite fond of it. Quenya was inspired by Finnish.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:37 AM on March 10


Yeah - but I'm specifically referring to the "th" in "there" (the 'eth' phoneme in Icelandic, yes?) It actually makes sense - if it's that dental fricative. It almost sounds like a slight 'd' sound, which if you look at it, and then realize it's a "dental" fricative according to wikipedia, and that a rolled 'r' sound can have a 'd' sound, it might be some sort of cross-breeding of sounds in certain people's mental wiring so they emphasive that extra dental stoppage of 'th' in certain use cases... God - I wish I could explain it...

Oh, also - Arabic definitely isn't about the guttural "ach". I actually, like German, here more 'sh' sounds than the hard 'ch' sound. but the nasal and glottal effects make it difficult to listen to, sometimes. Very punctuated. Actually I bet Arabic rap might be very interesting with the punctuated syllablisms...
posted by symbioid at 11:41 AM on March 10


I wonder if anyone could watch Ulrich Mühe reading a Brecht poem in The Lives of Others and not think that German is capable of extreme beauty.
posted by invitapriore at 11:43 AM on March 10 [4 favorites]


Actually I bet Arabic rap might be very interesting with the punctuated syllablisms...

On a tangent: it seems that it can be claimed that every language is particularly suited to rap. I've heard that claim made about Welsh, German, French, Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese. Which leads me to wonder: are there any languages that are particularly ill-suited to bustin' rhymes in, or even which are relatively mediocre for rap purposes?
posted by acb at 11:44 AM on March 10


Also, "Hamduche" from the Cowboy Bebop OST is a gorgeous example of sung Moroccan Arabic. I suspect harshness is to a great extent culturally determined, but either way I think it'd be hard to read harshness into these examples.
posted by invitapriore at 11:47 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]


> because they have to define certain criteria in order to evaluate their findings, they can never escape their own cultural programming.

Nonsense. We escape our cultural programming all the time. That's how we all learn, for example, to do logic, science, math, and all sorts of other things. It's also how we learn to appreciate art from other cultures. Not that it's always necessary to do that, since much art from other cultures is automatically appealing...unlike some art from one's own culture...

The theory that we can't escape cultural programming is just a theory--and one that flies in the face of all sorts of known facts. We all absorb certain "programming" (though that's a weak metaphor), but we often separate ourselves from it, get perspective on it, abandon it, modify it, adopt other perspectives that are more common in other cultures, or often in no culture at all. That is, we can think, and we have at least some degree of intellectual autonomy.

The cultural imprisonment thesis is just a weak, poorly-supported theory, and it's forced to take all of the (very large number of) examples in which people escape their "programming," and assert on little evidence that they must merely be giving in to some higher-order programming, or whatever. It's an assumption, not a respectable conclusion.

That theory is an intellectual plague on the land. It's particularly bad because people don't discuss it outright, but just let it lurk in the background as an (unproven) assumption...

Grumble.

Also, I do wish that people would just decide whether they're going to be subjectivists or not when they write stuff like this. Either go ahead and embrace subjectivism, and write a short article in which you just say "de gustibus non est disputandem," or go ahead and embrace the view that there's something non-subjective afoot, and, well, discuss it. But trying to eat cake and have it too...bleh.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 11:55 AM on March 10 [3 favorites]


For a long time, every conversation I heard in Mandarin and Cantonese sounded like an argument because of the way the the tones swooped up and down. Now that I'm intermediate in Mandarin, even when I can't understand what people are saying it sounds like words instead of noise -- before, I literally couldn't tease apart the tone of voice (conveying emotion) from the tones (conveying semantics), and now that I can it makes so much difference in how the language sounds to me.
posted by Jeanne at 11:55 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]


Also, I do wish that people would just decide whether they're going to be subjectivists or not when they write stuff like this. Either go ahead and embrace subjectivism, and write a short article in which you just say "de gustibus non est disputandem," or go ahead and embrace the view that there's something non-subjective afoot, and, well, discuss it. But trying to eat cake and have it too...bleh.

Agreed! The "Bleh" response each time the author switched between positions.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 11:58 AM on March 10


"Hello, Thailand? How's everything on your end? Uh huh. That's some language you got there. And you talk like that 24/7, huh?"
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:59 AM on March 10


I lived in Northern Germany for about a year and have spent tracts of time in Switzerland, the UK and South Africa, as well as meandering about the USA.

There is to my ear almost no comparison between the stilted formal High German that you hear in things like Rosetta course media (because of course they exaggerate "difficult" phonemes; they're the ones non-native speakers mostly have trouble with), vs. the flowing, lilting conversation you'd find in a game of chess at one of the kneipes frequented by HAW students in Hamburg. And a Swiss or Swabiche speaker hollering at their cows is about as mellifluous to my ear as a New Jersey domestic argument. I could listen to a genteel Tennessee native or Oxford academic read the phone book, but the Midland, Boston and Johannesburg accents all sound harsh to me. Some of it is probably class based, some of it is probably my upbringing, but from my admittedly limited exposure I'm fairly certain there are euphonious and unlovely variants of every native tongue.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:59 AM on March 10 [5 favorites]


Listen to Fritz singing Dichterliebe and tell me again that German is an ugly language.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:01 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


I was going to point to "Est ist ein Ros entsprungen," but same diff.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:12 PM on March 10


I understand Hawaiian stole all the vowels from Welsh, (and probably from German too. Man, that's a lot of vowels, Hawaiian).
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 12:18 PM on March 10


If "Ich liebe Dich" sounds harsh and ugly to you I must conclude that it has only ever been yelled at you bei an angry German judge or drill sergeant. The "ch" sounds are often soft and breathy rather than something you would associate with hocking up a loogie.

Disclaimer: I'm German.

Also, I can confirm the Danish thing. I had a Danish girlfriend once and I was trying to learn Danish. She laughed when I told her. I gave up pretty quickly and told her it was like trying speak while throwing up. She simply nodded.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:21 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Just thought of an example in English for the soft type of German "ch" sounds. Remember how the old emperor in "Gladiator" says the word "whisper" with a hint of a "ch" in front of the "wh"? That's pretty close.

What is that phenomenon called anyhow? I have really only heard actors do it. Is it some sort of stage acting technique to more clearly delineate a sound like "wh" that otherwise ramps up from silence and could become muddy/vague for the audience?
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:34 PM on March 10


apropos of nothing it was oddly reassuring that at least to Google Earth my old apartment building on Heußweg in Eimsbüttel is apparently unchanged in the over 20 years since I lived there.
posted by lonefrontranger at 12:35 PM on March 10


People give German a bad rap for sounding harsh and gutteral, but when I hear it it's full of lovely slip-slidey fricatives like v, s, and sh. People can get a bad first impression of a language and then have an imagined idea of what it sounds like, but when you learn a language or even familiarise yourself with it, you get a better idea of how it actually sounds.

Not sure, English sounds pretty rough to me as well, despite being my only language.
posted by spaltavian at 12:35 PM on March 10


Supposedly this is an Italian interpretation of what US English sounds like when sung. [previously]
posted by theory at 12:37 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]


Hairy Lobster: "What is that phenomenon called anyhow?"

You mean like Cool hWip?
posted by Chrysostom at 12:37 PM on March 10 [4 favorites]


If "Ich liebe Dich" sounds harsh and ugly to you I must conclude that it has only ever been yelled at you bei an angry German judge or drill sergeant. The "ch" sounds are often soft and breathy rather than something you would associate with hocking up a loogie.

Agreed. I'm not German, but I'm learning it presently, and as I do, the "ch" sounds move further and further away from anything harsh-sounding and become more like a gentle softening of what would otherwise be staccato "k" sounds.

Basically, learning a language is very, very much (to me at least) like learning an instrument, and as you get to feel natural in chord formations, build callouses on your fingers, practice your way through beginner pieces into more advanced stuff and start noodling around just for fun, the music will start to emerge from it, and it will inevitably sound different to you than it would have before you understood it through doing.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:42 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]


Most of the German language and accents I heard growing up in rural-ish Wales were in films or on TV, and therefore emanating from angry Nazis or slowly seething bad guys. I'm willing to bet that this is true for quite a lot of native English speakers. The only real-life experience I had of German was crisp dictation from a teacher who was feared throughout the school for her quick and white-hot temper. It's probably no shock that I thought German sounded harsh and unpalatable.

Later, I developed a pretty bad crush on a girl from Berlin. I now think that German sounds wonderfully fluid and full of soft fricatives.

So while I can't speak for others, it's definitely true that my perception of languages and accents is coloured by emotional attachments.
posted by metaBugs at 12:45 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


We should probably at least mention the Click Song here.
posted by echo target at 12:54 PM on March 10


"Most of the German language and accents I heard growing up in rural-ish Wales were in films or on TV, and therefore emanating from angry Nazis or slowly seething bad guys."

The same holds true for "Russian" accents in a lot of films from the US of course. Growing up even Moose and Squirrel fought Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, and Fearless Leader.

And the crack about Welsh was just me being an idiot -
posted by vapidave at 1:25 PM on March 10


I'm more into Rammstein and wumpscut, but guys... German sounds alright.

Also, synthpop. And the odd Einstürzende Neubauten ballad.
posted by sukeban at 1:27 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]


Basically, learning a language is very, very much (to me at least) like learning an instrument, and as you get to feel natural in chord formations, build callouses on your fingers, practice your way through beginner pieces into more advanced stuff and start noodling around just for fun, the music will start to emerge from it, and it will inevitably sound different to you than it would have before you understood it through doing.

Exactly this. I have made this same analogy many times and I wish I could recall where I first ran across it. It seems that in the estimation of others I have a dazzling polymath grasp of scores of both musical instruments and languages (although I am keenly aware of my grave limitations with both). More than once I have made the point to monoglot non-musicians that I speak Japanese the way I play banjo: if you speak no Japanese or play no banjo, I probably sound pretty good. If you have any skill at all with one or the other, you will probably say, "Okay, I see what you were trying to do there, but that was really clumsy."


Supposedly this is an Italian interpretation of what US English sounds like yt when sung. [previously]


On a related note, just yesterday someone steered me to a charmingly gibberish-filled video on What Languages Sound Like To Foreigners.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:29 PM on March 10 [7 favorites]


One of the best nights I've ever had involved some cute boy whispering in my ear some Eastern European language that just.. okay look, any language is beautiful in the right circumstances.

Russian and German I can listen to all day. Japanese too. Finnish... swoon.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:32 PM on March 10


When I lived in France I had several french girls tell me that English was "beautiful and exotic". I believe they must have experienced some sort of head trauma.
posted by blue_beetle at 1:38 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]


English was "beautiful and exotic"

Please enjoy this performance, riffing off of what English sounds like to Italian-speakers.

On edit: Whoops! already linked upthread I see.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 1:51 PM on March 10


One song, different languages: French | German | English | Japanese | Spanish | Spanish rumba version (because)
posted by sukeban at 1:53 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]


When I lived in France I had several french girls tell me that English was "beautiful and exotic". I believe they must have experienced some sort of head trauma.

Yeah, it's definitely so subjective. I've had Francophones tell me that they like the accent of Anglophones speaking in French (even the cringe-worthy anglo "r"), whereas to me, it's the ugliest-sounding thing ever. Probably because I've been working on shedding mine for years.

Also, super interesting that the author thinks that Bobbie Battista's accent sounds indicated "tremendous elegance and class". To me she's just a well-spoken American journalist. Context really matters.
posted by beau jackson at 1:59 PM on March 10


Nonsense. We escape our cultural programming all the time. That's how we all learn, for example, to do logic, science, math, and all sorts of other things. It's also how we learn to appreciate art from other cultures. Not that it's always necessary to do that, since much art from other cultures is automatically appealing...unlike some art from one's own culture...

I think you're misunderstanding the idea. First, I'm not sure why you think "logic, science, math" are things outside of culture and that culture has no role in how people approach and appreciate those concepts.

Second, appreciating art from other cultures doesn't show a break from your own culture, because you judge art from those cultures using the criteria of your own. What one culture may find appealing in the works of another is not necessarily what members of that culture may like about their own art. This is also why you can dislike art that is ostensibly from your own culture, because it defies the cultural aesthetic criteria that you've been socialized with: witness the common reaction against, say, American modern art in America. Modern works often stretch or break traditional norms of beauty or even what "art" is, and often get derided.

This seems like standard STEM-centric misunderstanding of social ideas.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:04 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]


Every language is beautiful when an attractive person speaks to you with sincerity and a smile
posted by Renoroc at 2:22 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


I wish the author had ranged further afield. No African languages? No Australian ones? The only Asian ones he even touches on are Japanese and "Chinese"; what about Hindi, one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world?
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:57 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


I remember some years ago reading a study that someone had done in which people who didn't speak a given language rated the aesthetic qualities of speech samples in that language. One of the nice things it did was find no correllation at all between what mother-tongue speakers think of as "beautiful" examples of their language (judgments which are usually deeply freighted with various kinds of socio-linguistic prejudice) and what non-speakers thought were "beautiful."
posted by yoink at 3:32 PM on March 10


Before I lived in Germany, I disliked the German language.

Now I actively hate it.
posted by kyrademon at 3:54 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


The more foreign the language, the less bass you seem to use in it.

Eventually everything sounds fast and high pitched like Latka Gravas from Taxi.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:48 PM on March 10


Supposedly this is an Italian interpretation of what US English sounds like when sung.

OK, I'm still sure what insight I'm supposed to get from that, because as a native US English speaker, it sounds to me like a pretty good interpretation of US English. Should I be noticing that he's exaggerating something that Italians in particular would be sensitive to?
posted by polecat at 4:50 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


The recent episode of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast, "The Barry White Effect" talks a lot about voices and languages, and gets into the perception of those things with a bit of a focus on German (and quite a different take on it than many people here). Definitely worth a listen.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:58 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Another Multi-lingual song moment.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:21 PM on March 10


My first language is American English. I personally speak with a General American accent with a soupçon of Wisconsin, and always have.

My first foreign language was German in 7th grade, and if it hadn't been for the absolutely fearsome 6'6" 300 lb. teacher, I'd've taken more than 3 semesters of his class. I happen to like the way German sounds. As part of my job, I'm in charge of producing translations of scripts and there is one guy we use to do VOs in Berlin who I always ask for, as do clients. Man, I'd be happy to hear the supposedly harsh-sounding "Ich liebe dich" if this guy said it. Lately, I'm studying German again via podcast and books, and it's sad that the Deutsche Welle "Warum nicht?" course is 20 years out of date, because whoever the now-presumably-middle-aged man is that was the main character had/has a terrific voice. I'd love to find him and hire him!

I'm fair to middling with French these days. I took it for 6 years and never really have the chance to speak it day-to-day. I was much more fluent in college. I do think it sounds lovely, but after having heard all sorts of languages and having to pick voices almost weekly though my job over the last 3 years, I can only say that how a language sounds to me now really depends on the timbre, pitch and mellifluousness of the speaker's voice, trained or natural.
posted by droplet at 6:46 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger: "I understand Hawaiian stole all the vowels from Welsh, (and probably from German too. Man, that's a lot of vowels, Hawaiian)."

Not so much that Hawaiian has a lot of vowels as it simply doesn't have many phonemes, full stop. There are 8 consonants (H, K, L, M, N, P, W, a glottal stop) and 5 vowels (A, E, I, O, U). The vowels can be lengthened with a macron (kahakō) for a little variation. W can be pronounced by V in certain situations, and back in the day, K used to be interchangeable with a T sound.

Every syllable is composed of just a vowel, or consonant+vowel, and every vowel gets pronounced. So in that respect, it has no more vowels than many other languages (e.g., Japanese). I think people think that it's a bit crazier about vowels because Polynesian languages often use reduplication for emphasis or plurals, so when someone is faced with a word like: humuhumunukunuku'āpua'a (a fish), it looks wild. However, if it's broken down it's much less daunting: humu x2, nuku x2, and then āpua'a.

I dig Pacific languages, though, due to various interests, and my favorite is definitely Samoan, because it sounds so melodic. Some British explorers in the area in the 18th and 19th century referred to it as the "Italian of Polynesia" because of how pleasant it sounded to their ears. Some Youtube examples: interview, from the movie The Orator, some hiphop.
posted by barnacles at 8:57 PM on March 10 [5 favorites]


I studied German in college, and even spent a few months there on a homestay. What appealed to me about the language were the strict pronunciation rules. Right there in the first page or two of my German 101 textbook, all the pronunciation rules were laid out. And spelling is regular! I was amazed. English has such bizarre phonemes and utterly insane spelling conventions; even as a monolingual I could recognize it as such a limited language.

But with German there were constraints. Of course, perhaps most languages have stricter pronunciation and spelling rules than English, so that doesn't make German so different. But I also love(d) how each syllable is distinct and quite easy to make out, unlike more sing-songy languages like Italian and Spanish. Russian is a language I don't know, but I love its sharp consonants. If Italian and Spanish are like floating from cloud to cloud, German and Russian are like jumping from rock to rock; there's more there to push off of.
posted by zardoz at 9:10 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


English has such bizarre phonemes and utterly insane spelling conventions; even as a monolingual I could recognize it as such a limited language.

How does irregular spelling rules equate to a "limited language"?
posted by Chrysostom at 9:23 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


And I am a god-damn sucker for anything spoken in a Celtic language.

Hear, hear. That reminds me, I still haven't seen Seachd after all this time.
posted by homunculus at 12:18 AM on March 11



The Plain People of Ireland: Isn't the German very like the Irish? Very guttural and so on?

Myself: Yes.

The Plain People of Ireland: People say that the German language and the Irish language is very guttural tongues.

Myself: Yes.

The Plain People of Ireland: The sounds is all guttural do you understand.

Myself. Yes.

The Plain People of Ireland: Very guttural languages the pair of them the Gaelic and the German.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:25 AM on March 11 [4 favorites]


(If you don't recognise the foregoing as Flann OBrien, aka Myles na Gopaleen, nee Brian O'Nolan, boy are you in for a treat.)
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:26 AM on March 11


How does irregular spelling rules equate to a "limited language"?

English has a lot of problems, but being "limited" is not one of them. If anything, it's lexicon (with vocabulary lifted from every other major and minor world language) is too large and its various figurative and other expressive modes provide too much flexibility, as it can be a challenge even for native speakers to parse popular spoken/written English without fudging for at least some degree of semantic ambiguity. The various contradictory and overly vague meanings common English words and phrases can have in different contexts, circumstances and social settings make forming precise and unambiguous constructions in English very challenging, but that's definitely not because the language is limited and doesn't provide enough expressive options. Quite the opposite.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:53 AM on March 11


I guessed it must be him (Flann O'Brien), just from the style, but I don't recognise the source. Where did you find that?
posted by illongruci at 8:23 AM on March 11


By the way, if you're interested in the sound of different languages, you should check out the Language Quiz at the Omniglot blog. Every week or so they post a sound clip and you're supposed to guess what language it is. I'll sometimes post a guess, but I'm lucky if I can even get it on the right continent. Just be warned that there are some people there who really know a lot about lots of languages (example). It's humbling.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:03 AM on March 11


Wiki has the O'Brien quote as from his column in The Irish Times.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:06 AM on March 11


Yes, it's from the Cruiskeen Lawn column. There is an anthology of his columns called The Best Of Myles which reprints that particular one in fulll.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:48 AM on March 11


Hurrah, thanks for that.
posted by illongruci at 3:08 PM on March 11


I was immediately reminded of this comment from Sidse Babett Knudsen, star of Borgen:
... our language is one of the most ugly and limited around. You can't seduce anyone in Danish; it sounds like you are throwing up.


I would do anything that Birgitte--er, Sidse--told me to do, in any language.
posted by Zerowensboring at 4:06 PM on March 11


saulgoodman: "... as it can be a challenge even for native speakers to parse popular spoken/written English without fudging for at least some degree of semantic ambiguity."

Some might call it a bug. I think it's a feature.
posted by barnacles at 7:41 PM on March 11


I don't think that English is meaningfully more ambiguous in standard usage between speakers than any other language.
posted by invitapriore at 8:44 AM on March 12


I don't think that English is meaningfully more ambiguous in standard usage between speakers than any other language.

Well, I seem to be surrounded by people just slightly misunderstanding and talking past each other all day almost every day (although that may just be the human condition, not so much a specific consequence of the English language's lexicon and expressive flexibility). I'll concede I've got nothing save intuition and informal observation as a non-native English speaker who acquired English skills later in life to argue for my impression.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:43 AM on March 12


Yeah, that's what I mean. The semantic asymmetry between intent and reception is due to something deeper than language, and I think that it accounts for most of the misunderstandings we see on the regular.
posted by invitapriore at 12:59 PM on March 12


zardoz: "English has such bizarre phonemes and utterly insane spelling conventions; even as a monolingual I could recognize it as such a limited language."

English has "bizarre phonemes" and "insane spelling conventions" precisely because it's not a limited language. To quote James Nicoll, English doesn't "just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary."

When a language includes words of Australian Aboriginal, African, Afrikaans, Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Etruscan, Finnish, French, Gaulish, German, Greek, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian (including Javanese, Malay (Sumatran) Sundanese, Papuan (Papua), Balinese, Dayak and other local languages in Indonesia), Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Malay, Māori, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romani, Romanian, Russian, Sami, Sanskrit, Scots, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkic, Ukrainian, Urdu, Welsh, and Yiddish origin (plus more not listed), you're going to get some variation.
posted by Lexica at 4:14 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


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