Why Some Languages Sound More Beautiful Than Others

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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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • I've always loved the sound of German, I guess I'm weird. Same for Russian, I think it sounds very cool.

  • You should hear Russian (or rather, Church Slavonic) being chanted in church. It can be very beautiful. Here's an example: https://www.youtube.com/watc...(I know the soloist - there are other YouTube videos out there with him in it but I can't recall these links off the top of my head)

  • Indeed. If you're learning a language for *any* reason, other than to communicate, you're just wasting your time! :)

  • Yeah, French is an example that can sound and is known as a beautiful language, but to French people speaking can often sound like an angry argument. I've often heard people say Russian is a harsh language, but that's from people who have actually never heard it, none of the Slavic languages sounded particularly harsh to me upon first listen.

    Although my wife gets angry with me when I point out the particular Polish words that do sound harsh to me. Śnieg and Ślub, which mean snow and wedding, but those are exceptions to me rather than the rule, even when the language was new..

  • I have definitely noticed that how I perceive the language changes as I learn it. At first, it's really easy to get lost in the flow and to compare the rhythms and sounds to one's native language. Later on, I'm so busy trying to understand it that I don't notice the flow so much. And after immersing myself for a while, I stop comparing it to English and start seeing it as its own separate identity. At first Mandarin words seemed really short to me, now I can see how with time, the length will seem perfectly normal to me. What's fun is immersing oneself in a language, then comparing it to English. English is actually a relatively musical languages (and it definitely has tones!).

  • I think that the perception of the german language, here in the UK at least, since 1945 resembled what you said about russian.

    Before I learnt it I thought spanish (pennisular) would be pronounced like Italian. When I did my thoughts were that the hard guttaral sounds (probably from Arabic) made it sound quite harsh.

  • Yeah, the post-war stereotype of Germany hasn't always been a good one. In American cinema, the most devious villains were always played with a German accent, presumably to make us hate them more.And I agree, the gutteral sounds of Spanish can be a bit of a turn-off. But for me, after growing accustomed to words ending on a vowel in Italian, I feel like Spanish words ending on hard consonants leave me dangling at the edge of something incomplete. And as a result, I now tend to favor the Spanish accents that devoice final consonants.

  • Have you heard Portuguese being spoken? It's beautiful, try it. I'm sure it will be the next language in your list!
    Claudia, from Brazil

  • Indeed, Portuguese is another pleasant language to hear.

  • I like Portuguese fine, but I know people who dislike it's sound. It may be because we're watching Brazilian fighters speak after matches and they're maybe not in the best examples...I love it though, but there isn't a language I don't love the sound of..

  • I couldn't agree with you more randy. My experience is that as you become more proficient in a language, you hear 'meaning' and the sound (beauty) of the language takes a back seat.

    Sure, there will always be accents you prefer i.e British English or American English.

    But there's no question that as you become well versed in a language, the sound of the language takes a back seater.

    For those wanting to learn a language because of the the sound. Forget it. You're best off listening to the language with foreign ears, as opposed to an ear trained to search for meaning.

  • Yeah, Russian sounds really cool. The soft vowels are distinct and quite unique.

  • Yes, it can be somewhat musical. But I actually notice that most when I hear a foreigner speak English. :)

  • Italian is by far the most pleasant of all languages to hear because it is based on vowels and possesses a melodic quality. It is the only Romance language to make plurals by changing one vowel to another and not adding an "S" or other consonant at the end. Spoken properly, it is STUPENDO ! This yields a musical sound to it that flows like a classical song. Of course, this is a subjective opinion, and all Romance languages have their beautiful qualities, as do some other language as well. Less favorable ones like Arabic, Hebrew, German are notably very harsh and guttural, replete with ich, och, uch sounds that are repulsive ! English or Dutch are less obtrusive, but lack that romantic quality of a Romance idiom, Spanish spoken properly from Argentina can have an Italianate quality that is soothing. Spanish spoken incorrectly, mixed with English or the Castilian variety with a heavy lisp is ugly, sounds chaotic and neurotic. French is also a beautiful tongue. Portuguese is unusual and sounds like a mixture of Spanish, French and Italian, but has a ish, ash, oosh sound that renders it less than melodic or pleasant. The Asian tongues like Chinese, Japanese and Korean are all far too mono-syllable sounding ,i.e., yong, wong, tong, zong, and thus, sound like one big run on sentence of the same word with a slight difference-YULK ! Russian and Polish actually do not sound too harsh or unpleasant. Polish is hideous in print, though. Replete with the consonant letters K, W, Z & Y. So, there you have it, ITALIAN is by far the most beautiful language on planet Earth. End of debate .....cioe' la piu' bella lingua sul viso del planeta Terra !

  • And the same thing is true in reverse: In german and European and Enhance aren't the intense thuggish 'languages' they seem like either. We only believe that because our own efforts to make their appears to be feel artificial. But to the local presenter, these 'languages' are resources. They circulation. They slide over those difficult appears to be, and in that circulation, when you pay attention, you'll listen to the elegance that you yourself did not generate in your early efforts to talk it.

    Incinerador de Grasa

  • I don't mind śnieg and ślub... by words like przyszlosc still don't sound nice to me yet. :)

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