We’ve all heard (or said) it: “Italian sounds so romantic!” – “French is the most beautiful language in the world!” – “German sounds ugly” etc.
Nobody summed it up quite as succinctly as Roman emperor Charles V when he declared: “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.”
Why is it that certain languages sound poetic and melodious while others grate on our nerves?
At The Guardian, Matthew Jenkin explains that sociolinguistics has so far not been able to find any intrinsic reason that certain languages should be objectively “more beautiful” than others. Instead, a language’s attractiveness seems to depend entirely on our own background.
Reasons why we find a language attractive
The attractiveness of a language depends on the perceived value of speaking it. For example, Chinese is increasingly considered valuable because of that country’s economic rise.
Our subjective impressions of a place also influence what we think of the language spoken there. Hearing Italian puts many of us in the mind of the canals of Venice or sunsets in Tuscany. Hence, Italian will automatically seem more “beautiful” to us.
That is easy with a popular destination in the world. But what about far-off places? Can TV and film transport us to other lands and make us fall in love with a language?
For example, what does the world think about Korean? Maybe the Olympic Winter Games 2018 being held in PyeongChang will influence our impression of the language. Maybe a certain Korean athlete will win the world’s hearts and soften us to the language’s sound.
Mother tongue determines love of certain languages
The closeness of a language’s sounds to one’s own mother tongue also influences our impression of it. For example, tonal distinctions used in Thai and Mandarin will sound unnatural and harsh to a native English speaker.
“There hasn’t been any research that has directly exploited the attractiveness of a language and didn’t eventually tie it back to the social evaluation of the speaking community,” Dr. Vineeta Chand of the University of Essex says in the Guardian. In other words: it’s all subjective.
And if you want an idea what your language sounds like to someone who doesn’t understand it, listen to this amazing video of a woman imitating a dozen languages without actually saying anything…
Have you ever used Google Translate? Sometimes you get what you’re looking for, if it’s one word or a simple sentence. For more complex sentences, though, you end up with something completely wrong. In many instances, these translation fails aren’t just erroneous — they’re hilarious.
Auto-translation software treats language as if it’s an algorithm to deduce and put back together. No software is advanced enough to capture the nuance and true structure of language as a concept.
While translation programs understand a language at its most basic level, they are not good in a business context. For business translation, accuracy and fluid communication are paramount.
It’s not all serious, though. Sometimes, business translation fails aren’t necessarily offensive or insulting… they’re just plain funny! Translation fails are something of a hit on social media. Below are a few big mistakes from 2016 that had the world in stitches.
Tom Scott and Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic produced a very entertaining video that does an excellent job at explaining some of the challenges of machine translation — and why human translators are so incredibly difficult to replace.
In just 5 minutes, Tom gives some vivid examples on how language can trip up computers, including context, concepts that don’t match between languages or don’t translate at all, and shared expectations — and you’ll also learn why there is no way to translate the meaning of “oppan Gangnam style” into a single English sentence.
“To accurately translate something,” Tom summarizes in the end, “you don’t just need to know how words map to concepts. You need to understand social structure, subtext, nuance, innuendo” — and it’s clear that those are difficult things to teach to a machine.
(and which they unfortunately hear way too often)
Here are some of the comments I have heard firsthand from potential customers, over my many years working in the field of translation. I think that all translators have heard these at some point …
1 – You say you’re a translator and you can only speak three languages???
Or: You’re a translator and you don’t know how to say “Best Regards” in Chinese?
2 – I have about 45 pages to get a rush translation on by tomorrow, can you give me a discount?
3 – The document I have enclosed is a PDF created with InDesign. I absolutely need the formatting to be maintained.
4 – US$ 300,00 to translate 3000 words ? I am not prepared to pay that much. My nephew studied one month in France, he can handle this translation perfectly well for US$ 50,00 .
5 – You are a thief! I know a translator and he only gets a few cents per word, and you want US$ 400 to translate 5000 words !!!
6 – My secretary is bilingual and read your translation into Spanish. She thought it was absolutely terrible.
7 – Can you translate “Revenge is a dish best served cold” into one single Chinese character? It’s for a tattoo…
8 – I need my website www.domain.com translated. Part of it is Flash and the remaining part is dynamic content managed via a database. Please look at the website and send me a detailed quote.
9 – What does “XXX” mean (word taken out of context)? If you are a real translator, you should know!
10 – What did you study in order to become a translator? Literature?
Or: Translation isn’t a real job.
Or the ever popular: You spend your life sitting at home, working at your computer in your pajamas, and you earn your living doing that?
11 – The document to be translated is confidential and I can’t send it to you, but I need to know how much you are going to charge for it to be translated!
12 – Why are you charging so much when there are free software programs that do machine translations?
13 – Why do you need dictionaries? Aren’t you a professional translator?
14 – There’s no way that could take so long. This text is only about 20 pages long and that shouldn’t take you any more than two days to translate!
15 – Please provide me with a rush translation of this 10 page contract. My customer is waiting in my office to get the document in his language.
The proper term is “cross-linguistic onomatopoeia,” but James Chapman just calls them “sounds in other languages”: from the crying of a baby in Spanish (buá buá), the crowing of a rooster in French (cocorico), the clicking of a camera in Russian (shchyolk) and the ringing of a telephone in Italian (drin drin), Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of words describing noises from around the world.
If an exhaustive list isn’t what you’re in the mood for, you can always hop over to James Chapman‘s site, where he posts cute illustrations of splash, plouf, zabun (that’s summertime splashing) every week. Our favorite is the International Guide to Shutting People Up.
Oh, and to answer the question — in Germany, the trumpeting of an elephant sounds like this: töröö!
Did you know “mortgage” comes from the French for “death pledge”? Or that “senator” shares its root with “senile”? Mental Floss’s John Green explains 40 weird word origins in this video: