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…