What do languages *sound like*?

Having occupied myself with languages for most of my life, both professionally and by avocation, I’ve had the chance to learn a handful, encounter many, and speak with people about them all over the world.

Every now and then a discussion crops up about this or that language being attractive, another language being harsh and unattractive. Dutch and German particularly tend often to fall on the cacophonous side.

I think German in particular gets a bad rap for sounding rough and bellicose because of the actions and people it was associated with during the last century. I’m convinced that the relative sound of a language is entirely dependent on what we’re used to. You want harsh? Listen to a Poujadiste screaming at a tax collector. There are sounds in Arabic that make German sound positively musical. As for German, have a listen to Mozart’s “Ruhe Sanft” aria, and you’ll hear true beauty.

On the other hand, even as early as the 1500’s Emperor Charles V may have codified the sound of certain languages (I say “may have,” because the only source is secondary – Girolamo Fabrizi d’Acquapendente’s 1601 “De Locutione”):

Unde solebat, ut audio, Carolus V Imperator dicere, Germanorum linguam esse militarem: Hispanorum amatoriam: Italorum oratoriam: Gallorum nobilem. Alius vero, qui Germanus erat, retulit, eundem Carolum Quintum dicere aliquando solitum esse; Si loqui cum Deo oporteret, se Hispanice locuturum, quod lingua Hispanorum gravitatem maiestatemque prae se ferat; si cum amicis, Italice, quod Italorum dialectus familiaris sit; si cui blandiendum esset, Gallice, quod illorum lingua nihil blandius; si cui minandum aut asperius loquendum, Germanice, quod tota eorum lingua minax, aspera sit ac vehemens.

“When Emperor Charles V used to say, as I hear, that the language of the Germans was military; that of the Spaniards pertained to love; that of the Italians was oratorical; that of the French was noble. Indeed another, who was German, related that the same Charles V sometimes used to say: if it was necessary to talk with God, that he would talk in Spanish, which language suggests itself for the graveness and majesty of the Spaniards; if with friends, in Italian, for the dialect of the Italians was one of familiarity; if to caress someone, in French, for no language is tenderer than theirs; if to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement.”

These sources distilled themselves over time into the shorter, but misattributed quote, “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to Women, French to Men, and German to my Horse.”

It must be remembered that these characterizations were being supposedly made from the point of view of a native Spanish speaker.

Is it possible that some languages sound harsh because of certain intrinsic linguistic qualities? Not only possible, it’s documented. I first heard the “Bouba/Kiki” Effect in 1978 when it was presented at a linguistics conference by Adam Makkai, although he used the 1946 variants of “Maluma” and “Takete”.


When shown these two figures and asked to identify which one is “maluma” and which one is “takete” – and the words are presented in such a way as to avoid immediate association of one word with one figure – 88% of normally-developing individuals will associate the jagged shape with “takete” and the softer shape as “maluma.” (people on the autistic spectrum only 56% for some reason.) From these experiments it is evident that some linguistic sounds (typically stops, gutterals, affricates, and back vowels) are considered “harder” and others (liquids, glides, and front vowels) are considered “softer.”

Have a look at Tolkien’s linguistic creations:


Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

Black speech:

Ash nazg durbatulûk,
ash nazg gimbatul
ash nazg thrakatulûk
agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

You need have no understanding of these synthetic languages whatsoever to imagine that the speakers of the first one might live in a world of softness and light.


The other? “Ashes and dust and thirst there is, and pits, pits, pits.”


So there is justification for considering languages that use these kinds of sounds as being harsh and angular in feel, but when we are raised with a language, these considerations tend to become less important, or not important at all; those who do not concern themselves with literature, song, or poetry generally do not think about what their own language sounds like. And where there exist linguistic theories that the language we speak molds our world view and hence our personalities, there are no socio-linguistic absolutes: I know some really unpleasant French speakers, and some truly lovely Dutchmen.

Today I saw the question, “What does English sound like to people who don’t speak it?” The best representation I’ve seen of that is a delightful video by Adriano Celetano – “Prisencolinensinainciusol.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.

2 responses to “What do languages *sound like*?

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