Fading beauty
This morning I was talking with David Mansaray about languages that sound beautiful, and about their tendency sometimes to lose their luster. This provides me a great introduction to a related topic that I've been thinking about lately.

How our view of a language changes


I remember when I first started learning Spanish. I was fascinated with it. I thought it was a gorgeous language and I couldn't get enough. But somewhere along the way, I became a fluent speaker of Spanish, any my opinion changed. Spanish started to sound clumsy and brutal. What's happened?

Later, when learning German, I (like almost everyone around me) thought it was a harsh, angry language. But as I learned it and as I heard it spoken more and more, I have grown to regard German as a rather sexy language. Again... what changed?

Growing up during the Cold War, Russian was a scary language. Every one of those signature Russian sounds, on its own, was capable of instilling fear into my naïve American head. Now, as a fluent Russian speaker, I get excited by those same sounds.

Italian is often regarded as one of the world's most beautiful languages. In fact, there are grammatical constructs in Italian that apparently exist for the sole purpose of making the language more pleasant. Consonant clusters are mostly removed. Harsh sounds softened. Vowels at the ends of every word. And yet, when you set foot in Italy and listen to the language being spoken by natives, they actually find ways to bring all of those harsh qualities back, and make the language less beautiful! Why?!

And now as I've been recently learning about Polish, I am once again finding that a language which I had originally regarded as brutal, is actually one of the most pleasant I've heard. I hear native Polish, and it touches my ear in the same sexy way as French (just with more fricatives).

Why? What changed?


Why does Spanish sound more clumsy now? Why do so many Italians make their language sound less beautiful? Because natives aren't concerned with making their language beautiful. They're using a tool. To communicate.

The Italian language isn't an beautiful art piece being produced by an Italian, it's the brush used to paint it. The Spanish language isn't a sculpture presented by Spaniards and Mexicans and Columbians, et al., it's the chisel being used to form it. It's a tool.

And the same thing is true in reverse: German and Russian and Polish aren't the brutal thuggish languages they seem like either. We only assume that because our own attempts to make their sounds feel unnatural. But to the native speaker, these languages are tools. They flow. They glide over those difficult sounds, and in that flow, when you listen, you'll hear the beauty that you yourself failed to produce in your early attempts to speak it.

It's a tool


It reminds me, once again, of something I'm fond of saying: language is a means, not an end. It's nice to appreciate the beauty or the fascination a language provides, but that's a lousy reason to learn.

The beauty fades when you learn about the bizarre grammar. The fascination disappears as you understand more and the mystery fades. But the one thing that never goes away is the fact that understanding a language lets you communicate with people. As you understand the language better, you'll be able to communicate with more people.

And in spite of your fading fascination with the language, I can assure you that you'll never run out of thing to find interesting about using it to talk to people. People are beautiful, and that never goes away.

 

 

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