The rolling hills and sunset skies of Tuscany gave birth to what is perhaps the world’s most beautiful language. That’s a common assertion at least, but can awe-inspiring beauty really inspire a beautiful language too?
Phonoaesthetics is the study of the beauty of words and languages. There are two main theories concerning the attractiveness of various languages. One the one hand, the inherent value hypothesis asserts that some languages are simply more aesthetically pleasing by some innate feature of their phonology or syntax and therefore judged more positively. The imposed norm hypothesis counters with the claim that there is no inherent beauty or value in any language. All evaluation, both positive and negative, it contends, stems from social and cultural factors; not linguistic ones.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V allegedly claimed to speak ‘Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and Italian to [his] horse.’ A born Spaniard, Charles spent most of his time in Toledo and Granada, and showed a level of disdain for German-speaking states despite his role of figurehead of the Holy Roman Empire. It is clear that his supposed assessment of the languages’ supposed aesthetic was at least in part motivated by a sense of cultural superiority, and fittingly the imposed norm hypothesis has historically received most support.
Indeed, it does seem that children, regardless of background, tend to have relatively neutral opinions of foreign languages. Moreover, a 1974 conducted by Giles et al. found no differences in perception of different dialects of Greek by English-speakers, while in Greece the same dialects would have varying levels of prestige and perceived attractiveness. Similarly, Spanish is more likely to be negatively assessed in the United States than in Europe, perhaps because of its associations with migrants from Latin America, particularly Mexico.
Some academics have attributed these findings simply to the mutual intelligibility of various languages i.e. speakers are more likely to perceive a language as attractive if it exhibits patterns similar to their native tongue, or if they encounter it more often. While this has held true at a dialectal level, for example in a study on different varieties of Flemish, it does not appear to be true of different languages. A 2015 study found Swedish speakers’ perception of Danish exhibited a negative correlation with intelligibility: the more they understood the less attractive it sounded.
Reconciling the two is the idea that familiar languages are perceived as more attractive only if they exhibit qualities already regarded as attractive in one’s mother tongue. English-speakers supposedly find Romance languages particularly alluring because they are syllable- as opposed to stress-timed. As the duration of syllables is more even and stress is distributed fairly standardly, these languages more closely resemble English poetry, particularly the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare.
Yet French is consistently ranked as the most attractive language in global opinion polls, regardless of nationality. Xuan Liu and Yi Xu at University College London recently found individuals, irrespective of gender, perceived female voices to be most attractive when they sound ‘breathy’. A further study, again with Yi Xu as lead researcher, found male voices to be most attractive when ‘husky’. An abundance of voiced fricatives, alongside the guttural r and uvular trill, force French speakers to adopt a characteristically breathy or husky voice. Although stereotypes associated with French lifestyle and culture are some of the most pervasive in the world, it is possible that they simply reinforce inherently attractive qualities of the language itself.
Intriguingly, within a language the perceived attractiveness of words often has little to do with meaning, supporting the inherent value hypothesis. Cellar door has been widely touted as one of the loveliest pairs of words in the English language, in spite of the described object lacking any particular allure. J. R. R. Tolkien emphasised that Selador, devoid from those possible connotations is even more beautiful - inherently enchanting and mystical. Yet more recently, a poll of 40,000 English-speakers determined mother to be the most beautiful word in the English language. While phonologically it is pleasing to hear, it must certainly be the case that societal perceptions of motherhood also contributed to this verdict.
Whether or not languages can be innately attractive is a debate which is unlikely to ever be resolved. Major world languages such as Arabic, English, French and Spanish are too familiar to ever be studied objectively. It is impossible to find a large and internationally representative sample of people who have never been exposed to them. Perhaps artificial intelligence could create a perfectly aesthetic language, which no one could have previously heard. Yet such an experiment would face the same accusation as Modern Greek: it is too phonologically similar to Spanish to determine whether listeners internalised opinions of the latter influence their assessment of the former.
As with any form of beauty, linguistic beauty is probably both objective and subjective. Indeed, no preference can be wrong, whether you adore Hebrew or despise Italian. I personally believe Swedish to be incredibly dulcet and melodious, but my opinion is no more or less valid than any other. Since this is not a competition, and there is no prize to be won, may everyone revel in whatever beauty they may find.
MICHAEL HENDLE (LINGUISTICS EDITOR)