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.”
But why is it that certain languages sound poetic and melodious while others grate on our nerves?
At The Guardian, Matthew Jenkin explains that sociolinguistic have 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.
For instance, the attractiveness of a language depends on the perceived value of speaking it: Chinese is increasingly considered valuable because of that country’s economic rise. Our subjective impressions of a country or region also influences what we think of the language spoken there: if hearing Italian puts us in the mind of the canals of Venice or sunsets in Tuscany, the language will automatically seem more “beautiful” to us.
The closeness of a language’s sounds to one’s own mother tongue also influences their impression of it. Consonant clusters (as they are common in German) or the 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…