Phonaesthetics, or “The Phrenology of Language”

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: French is a beautiful, romantic language; Italian sounds like music; Spanish is passionate and primal; Japanese is aggressive; Polish is melancholic; and German is a guttural, ugly, unpronounceable mess (Ha! Tricked you! You couldn’t stop me because I’ve written all of this down way before now. Your cries and frantic gesticulations were for naught.)

We’ve all heard these judgements (and many others) repeated multiple times over the course of our lives; not only in idle conversation, but also in movies, books, comics, and other popular media. There’s even a series of memes dedicated to mocking how German sounds in relation to other European languages:

“Ich liebe dich” is a perfectly fine and non-threatening way of expressing affection towards another human being

What you might not know is that this phenomenon has a technical name in linguistics: phonaesthetics.[1]

Phonaesthetics, in short, is the hypothesis that languages are objectively more or less beautiful or pleasant depending on various parameters, such as vowel to consonant ratio, presence or absence of certain sounds etc., and, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a gigantic mountain of male bovine excrement.

Pictured: phonaesthetics

Let me explain why:

A bit of history

Like so many other terrible ideas, phonaesthetics goes way back in human history. In fact, it may have been with us since the very beginning.

The ancient Greeks, for example, deemed their language the most perfect and beautiful and thought all other languages ugly and ungainly. To them, these foreign languages all sounded like strings of unpleasant sounds: a mocking imitation of how they sounded to the Greeks, “barbarbarbar”, is where we got our word “barbarian” from.

In the raging (…ly racist) 19th century, phonaesthetics took off as a way to justify the rampant prejudice white Europeans had against all ethnicities different from their own.

The European elite of the time arbitrarily decided that Latin was the most beautiful language that ever existed, and that the aesthetics of all languages would be measured against it. That’s why Romance languages such as Italian or French, which descended from Latin[2], are still considered particularly beautiful.

Thanks to this convenient measuring stick, European languages were painted as euphonious ( ‘pleasant sounding’), splendid monuments of linguistic accomplishment, while extra-European languages were invariably described as cacophonous (‘unpleasant sounding’), barely understandable masses of noise. This period is when the common prejudice that Arabic is a harsh and unpleasant language arose, a prejudice that is easily dispelled once you hear a mu’adhin chant passages from the Qur’an from the top of a minaret.

Another tool in the racist’s toolbox, very similar to phonaesthetics, and invented right around the turn of the 19th century, was phrenology, or racial-biology, the pseudoscience which alleged to be able to discern a person’s intelligence and personality from the shape of their head. To the surprise of no one, intelligence, grace and other positive characteristics were all associated with the typical form of a European white male skull, while all other shapes indicated shortcomings in various neurological functions. What a pleasant surprise that must have been for the European white male inventors of this technique![3] Phrenology was eventually abandoned and widely condemned, but phonaesthetics, unfortunately, wasn’t, and it’s amazingly prevalent even today.

To see how prevalent this century-old model of linguistic beauty is in popular culture, a very good example are Tolkien’s invented languages. For all their amazing virtues, Tolkien’s novels are not exactly known for featuring particularly nuanced moral actors: the good guys might have some (usually redeemable) flaws, but the bad guys are just bad, period.

Here’s a brief passage in Quenya, the noblest of all Elven languages:

Ai! Laurië lantar lassi súrinen,

Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier

Mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva

[…]

Notice the high vowel-to-consonant ratio, the prevalence of liquid (“l”, “r”), fricative (“s”, “v”) and nasal (“n”, “m”) sounds, all characteristic of Latinate languages.

Now, here’s a passage in the language of the Orcs:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul

Ash nazg thrakatulûk, agh burzum-ishi krimpatul

See any differences? The vowel-to-consonant ratio is almost reversed, and most syllables end with a consonant. Also, notice the rather un-Latinate consonant combinations (“zg”, “thr”), and the predominance of stops (“d”, “g”, “b”, “k”). It is likely that you never thought about what makes Elvish so “beautiful” and “melodious”, and Orcish (or Klingon, for that matter), so harsh and unpleasant: these prejudices are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice they’re present.

So why is phonaesthetics “wrong”?

Well, the reason is actually very simple: beauty is subjective and cannot be scientifically defined. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Not this beholder.
Image copyright: Wizards of the Coast

What one finds “beautiful” is subject to change both in space and in time. If you think German’s relatively low vowel-to-consonant ratio is “harsh”, then you have yet to meet Nuxálk.

Welcome to phonaesthetic hell.

Speaking of German, it is actually a very good example of how these supposedly “objective” and “common sense” criteria of phonetic beauty can change with time, sometimes even abruptly. You see, in the 19th century, German was considered a very beautiful language, on par with Italian or French. A wealth of amazing prose and poetry was written in it: it was probably the main language of Romantic literature. It was also the second language of opera, after Italian, and was routinely described as melodious, elegant and logical.

Then the Nazis came.

Nazis: always ruining everything.

Suddenly, Germans were the bad guys. No longer the pillars of European intellectual culture, their language became painted as harsh, aggressive, unfriendly and cold, and suddenly every Hollywood villain and mad scientist acquired a German accent.

So, what’s the takeaway from this long and rambling rant?

No language is more, or less, beautiful than any other language. All languages have literature, poetry, song and various other ways to beautifully use their sounds for artistic purposes, and the idea that some are better at this than others is a relic from a prejudiced era better left behind. So next time you feel tempted to mock German for how harsh and unpleasant it sounds, stop and think that maybe this is not actually what you think, and that you’ve been programmed by a century of social prejudice into thinking so.

And read some Goethe, you’ll like it.

Stay tuned for next week, when the amazing Rebekah will bring you on the third leg of our lightning trip through Phonphon!

  1. Phonaesthetics also has a different meaning, which is the study of how certain combinations of sounds evoke specific meanings in a given language. Although this form of phonaesthetics has its problems, too, it is not what I’m talking about in this post, so keep that in mind as we go forward.
  2. See our post on language families here.
  3. First the men assumed that the female skull was smaller than the male, and this was obviously a sign of their inferior intelligence. Later, however, they found that the female skull was larger, so they came up with the idea that this meant females were closer to children, and thus the male was still more intelligent! – Lisa

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