The Sound of Difference


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People often describe German, my native language, as hard and aggressive. They relish criticizing its guttural sounds, long compound words, and the sentence structure, which is said to be especially complex. Perhaps you’ve seen the much-shared video featuring characters like a Bavarian in traditional costume who says a series of German words – but instead of pronouncing them “normally,” he exaggerates the harsh sounds to an absurd degree. A few months ago I took part in a less-than-enjoyable Facebook discussion devoted to the question of what anybody could ever find appealing about German. I quickly found myself in the position of trying to defend my native tongue – and soon gave up, since no one seemed inclined to change their entrenched opinion.

I asked myself if this condemnation springs from envy at Germany’s economic success and dominance within Europe, or perhaps the memory of Adolf Hitler’s voice in his ranting speeches. Such a reaction would be understandable and only human. But when I looked into the question further, I discovered that assessments like these are astoundingly long-lived and often have their roots far back in the past, well before the National Socialists came to power. According to popular accounts, it was five hundred years ago when the apparently polyglot Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, declared “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.” German already didn’t rate very well, even if it certainly sounded rather different than it does today.

Languages have been described as sounding “decent,” “terrible,” “whiny,” “obnoxious,” and even “like a headache.” They are praised as “efficient,”  “advanced” and “modern,” or “sweet” and “poetic,” or accused of having “too much vowels” or just sounding “strange” – whatever that means. One critic even condemned a language as “annoying,” which sounds like a forthright statement, if a bit judgmental. Others have written off a particular language as an “abomination” or complained that it sounded like a mix of several, completely unrelated tongues. And of course it’s just a small step from comments like these to xenophobic or racist judgments about particular languages and dialects. Anyone with a reasonably lively imagination can certainly think of a few examples.

In 1828, Charles Nodier, a French Romantic thinker, gushed about the “sublime emphasis” of Greek, which he felt echoed “the sound of the waters of Peneios.” He thought Italian rolled “like the rushing of a waterfall and the trembling of olive trees.” In cold countries, he explained, words are rough and consonant-heavy: Nodier claimed, “their clanging, rough sounds remind us of the whispering of wild streams, the cry of fir trees bent by the storm, and the din of cliffs falling away.” Even if we are willing to accept the premise that there’s a link between a language and its landscape, questions remain. Is “hard” always ugly and “soft” necessarily beautiful? Are people who speak hard-sounding languages automatically drawn to softer-sounding ones?

Pronounced sensitivities are involved in these questions, and the snarl of complications seems impossible to untangle. But although opinions differ, it’s possible to identify a few patterns. As far as I can tell, many people – including not only many Germans, but Americans – consider Italian to be the most beautiful language. Nasal French earns mixed reviews; some people find it elegant and sophisticated, while it sounds somehow stilted to others’ ears. Those who see fit to praise English – at least, if they’re from Europe – usually add in the same breath that “of course” they mean British English; specifically, the Oxford kind. Sadly, they forget that American English, especially as spoken on the East Coast, can express tremendous elegance and, yes, class. (And this judgment, of course, is quite objective). I think so, in any case, especially when I recall Bobbie Battista, the unforgettable, slightly and sexily cross-eyed former anchor for CNN International. It was a pleasure to listen to her, even when she was presenting terrible news from the first Gulf War. Anyway, you can make a mess of any language. It all depends on who is doing the talking and how he or she speaks – the speed, rhythm, and tone of voice. When some people open their mouths, the results sound more like yelling than talking. So isn’t it a little presumptuous to claim that one language is beautiful and another is ugly? Isn’t beauty entirely subjective? And what’s more: who actually knows every language and is in a position to make such a definitive judgment? The Japanese  – to take just one example of a non-Western culture – seem to see the whole matter differently. A friend who is a professor in Tokyo explained to me that Japanese people generally consider their mother tongue to be the most beautiful, but also have a high opinion of French and the Polynesian languages.

Thanks to the complicated, throat-clearing guttural sounds it requires, Swiss German can pose an enormous challenge. As someone who grew up speaking standard German, I have almost no chance. Just as the name suggests, it’s a German dialect, but that doesn’t mean I can always successfully wrestle meaning from it. The fact that it’s a form of German – which I should, after all, be capable of understanding – likely plays a role in my (negative) emotional response to it. Fortunately, the Swiss people I know also speak standard or High German in parallel, and Swiss newspapers are written in language perfectly comprehensible to readers in Germany.

In the beauty contest of languages, Danish, Chinese, and Arabic usually bring up the rear. As a nonlinguist with no need to fear for my reputation – at least my academic one – I freely admit that I can’t warm up to the sound of Danish, especially when compared to Norwegian or, even better, unbelievably musical Swedish. But I pull myself together and remember that some people find beauty precisely where others don’t. To use a musical analogy, talking about languages this way is a little bit like trying to compare Vivaldi and Shostakovich.

If we decide to investigate the mystery of a language more precisely, we can break it down into its components to determine the sequence of vowels and consonants, as well as the logic behind it. Could there be a mathematical formula that would allow us to assess a language’s aesthetic ranking, or even capture its phono-acoustic superiority for eternity? Does the ratio of vowels to consonants provide the key (and do languages with lots of vowels sound better)? Is it really just the sounds themselves that matter, regardless of meaning and eloquence of expression or, taking things a step further, from the language’s cultural context? Some people have tried to formulate rules for judging languages, but they are trapped in a dilemma: because they have to define certain criteria in order to evaluate their findings, they can never escape their own cultural programming. One example is the author Robert Beard, who dared to write a book called The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English (including, maybe not too surprisingly words like “love,” “eloquence” and “glamour”).  For Beard, “beautiful” sounds are “pleasing”: as he explains, “soft sounds are considered more beautiful than hard ones.” But eating nothing but vanilla can be boring, can’t it? Can only a “harmonious” language be beautiful? What’s wrong with aggressive talk? Some people can say very sweet things while having to use harsh sounds. Who wants a steady diet of romance, without the occasional crime novel?

Don’t judgments about a language’s beauty or ugliness generally depend on our personal experiences with people who speak it, and the associations it evokes? Brazilian Portuguese is considered especially soft and melodic – and it inspires thoughts of the bossa nova and Copacabana. Spanish calls up visions of flamenco, bullfights, and – maybe – especially attractive people, and Italian calls to mind great architecture and delicious food, wine and, yes, Mafia. Of course these are clichés, but they still play a role in our perception that we simply can’t ignore.

Even before I began exploring this topic, I knew that I would never find aesthetic judgments about specific languages from a credible linguist. No respectable scholar would come out in favor of some languages over others. From a linguist’s perspective, every language simply fulfills a purpose: it allows members of a particular cultural context to communicate with one another. Does our level of familiarity with a language color our opinion of it? When I asked Guy Deutscher, Israeli linguist and author of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages this question, he gave the following answer:

“Some sounds appear in almost all languages (m, b, g, d) while others are rarer and appear in fewer languages (e.g., Swedish sj, German/Dutch ch/g as in Buch, English th). If a language has sounds that are rarer, it runs a greater risk of sounding less pleasant to speakers of other languages who are not familiar with these sounds. (The same thing applies to rarer sound combinations, such as consonant clusters. Consider the combination lbstv in selbstverständlich, the German word for ‘obvious’). Italian, for example, has very few (if any) sounds that are not shared by other European languages, and few consonant clusters, and it is widely considered a ‘beautiful’ language. This may not be a coincidence. Of course, cultural prejudices contribute a lot as well.”

It’s one thing to be familiar with a language and another thing entirely to understand it. But can someone only find a language beautiful if he or she understands it?  Is it necessary to first grasp what the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called “the spirit of the foreign language” – to understand how to think in the other language, to sink into it? According to Schopenhauer, those who fail to make this leap will never manage anything more than “parrot chatter.”

When I reflect on my own experiences, I have to admit that they corroborate Deutscher’s explanation. Until three years ago, before I started to learn Turkish, I didn’t really feel strongly about the language one way or another. It certainly didn’t sound particularly beautiful to me. But then I began to distinguish sounds as words or components. What’s more, I understood that the ways Turkish combines these components to produce meaning are radically different from the ways Indo-European languages function. As speaking and understanding Turkish required me to perform some mental acrobatics, my perspective on the language shifted dramatically. My deeper appreciation of Turkish not only went along with a deeper understanding of the country’s culture and people, but I also began to realize why Turks who learn German speak the way they do. And, of course, pride in mastering a language, only if to a certain extent, colored my emotional attitude towards it. Simply by learning Turkish, I was inclined to find it more beautiful.

In the end, beauty in language is just one of those things. There’s no reason not to follow your preferences, but it can’t hurt to think about why you consider one language more beautiful than the next. Unlike every generation before us, we can tune into just about every television or radio station on earth with just a few clicks of the mouse. Thanks to this enormous privilege, we are able to listen to the sound of difference and linger with – or even lose ourselves in – the language we like the most. Admittedly, I still haven’t fixed what’s “wrong” with German. But I’m working on keeping my cool the next time someone wants to bring it up. • 4 March 2014

Translated from the German by Lori Lantz.