Last time I talked about how it is really difficult to assess how a language sounds if you speak that language because you can’t dissociate yourself from meaning. Today, I’m going to look at why some languages sound sexy, beautiful, attractive – you name it – and others don’t.
Of course linguistics cannot take a stance on this matter, there is no such a thing as attractive to science. People, however, do form their opinions on languages and, in my experience, they are more or less unanimous in it. Latin languages are the favourite by far: Italian, French or Spanish seem to make the number one in most people’s list. The least sexiest language doesn’t vary that much either, German making the bottom of the list for a disproportionately large number of people.
To explain our taste in languages we deem one more melodic, musical, poetic, etc. whilst those we don’t like are harsh-sounding. However, according to some linguists there is little to how a language sounds that make it less or more attractive. We judge the beauty of a language by the people who speak it, or rather, the stereotypes we have of those people and their culture. Italians are romantic, poetic, they have good food and wine, so we like their language.
If sounds play a role, then it is the similar versus the unfamiliar that determines attractiveness. The Italian sound inventory doesn’t contain sounds that are unusual for a regular Indo-European language speaker. German has some unique consonant sounds and Slavic languages are famous for their consonant clusters. They are different to the sounds of our language, so we don’t like them.
Either way, people underestimate the role of our prejudices when it comes to assessing the aesthetics of languages. We keep repeating the contrived notions (e.g. melodic) we made up to describe languages and we don’t even realise that our preferences are deeply rooted in stereotypes.
This also holds true of accents in our own native language. We don’t like some accents, even some of them have negative connotations, we label them obnoxious, whiny, untrustworthy, etc. It should be apparent that these adjectives don’t describe sounds but people. So, next time if someone asks you which language you like the best and you are about to say Italian, just keep your mouth shut and order a pizza.