Why Some Languages Sound More Beautiful.

This piece by Bernd Brunner may not have any particular conclusion to offer (“In the end, beauty in language is just one of those things”), but it’s always enjoyable to think about ineffabilities like “why do so many people think German sounds awful?” — and the fact that the author is German (it’s translated by Lori Lantz) makes it interesting for those of us who are used to hearing it talked about from an English-language perspective, and this is a thoughtful paragraph:

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.

Thanks, Paul!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Personally I’ve always found (standard) German one of the more euphonious-sounding languages. On the other hand, despite having every personal reason to find Welsh pleasant to listen to, I’ve never been able to bring myself to Tolkien’s view that it’s particularly beautiful aurally.

    I had a Circassian colleague some years ago who spoke Turkish, Arabic and English (this last better than any other non-native speaker I’ve ever met.) The last of his family who actually spoke Circassian was his grandmother; according to him, it sounded like someone with a bad cough.

  2. Lucy Kemnitzer says:

    I am convinced that association is a big part of how we perceive the beauty of languages. My first exposure to German was Ernst Busch singing Six Songs for Democracy, (youtube link to a list of many Ernst Busch recordings) and the language will always sound like optimism and love and determination to me.

    On the other hand, I can’t think of a language that sounds uniformly ugly to me, anyway.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    If the business about Japanese people finding French and the Polynesian languages beautiful is right, the explanation that springs to mind would be that, like Japanese, they aren’t big on consonant clusters and aren’t stress-dominated. So that would go with the intrinsically all too plausible “unfamiliar = ugly” hypothesis well enough.

    It would also account for native English speakers *not* finding German ugly, always assuming i’m not the only one …
    In general, the sound system of German is a lot more like the English one than the French or Italian is (as witness the fact that Germans find it a lot easier to acquire a good English accent than French speakers do, by and large.)

    I suspect that anything like this is in practice going to be overwhelmed by prejudices about the speakers and their culture, though.

  4. Another person who finds German a lovely language. For many Americans of my age, I imagine the first impression of German speech was often the horrible tinny pseudo-Prussian whine of Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes: first impressions do linger.

  5. I agree with David Eddyshaw that German (Hochdeutsch) is euphonious – more so than, say, Parisian French. Which is about as objective and universal as saying that peppermint tea tastes better than camomile tea. But I like peppermint tea.

    There’s a phenomenon in some unrelated Asian languages that often strikes Europeans as ugly: the tendency to nasalize and extend certain (usually final) syllables, sometimes apparently with the implication of teasing / disbelief / derision, but also just as an informality marker. This is very common in Cantonese (don’t know about other Chinese languages) and in Malay/Indonesian (don’t know about Indonesian regional languages). It also sounds present in Thai, but I’m just an aural spectator there and may be mistaken.

    There may also be something roughly similar in Quebecois, where – an impression only – some speakers heighten extended nasalization as their speech becomes more colloquial. I know it’s purely subjective to say this isn’t pretty, but…

  6. Russian sounds like a great, grand river to me, sometimes a cascading waterfall. A cultured St. Petersburg accent makes me giddy with delight.

    I am not fluent in Polish, but when I listen–its softer music calls to me alluringly. Polish is a friend of poets.

  7. I’ve introspected a bit about what makes me find languages beautiful (over time I’ve come up with a “perfectly euphonic” phonetic system for a conlang I will never actually construct) and it seems like there are two major factors:

    (1) a wide variety of syllable weights: Japanese sounds too staccato, German too ponderous, Turkish too undifferentiated.
    (2) a relatively small percentage of stop consonants, in favor of fricatives, nasals, liquids.

    Of familiar living languages, Portuguese wins on both counts — I enjoy both major varieties.

    It’s not unlikely that the familiarity thing is playing a role here w.r.t. Russian, although I’ve never perceived Russian to be particularly pleasant.

  8. J.P. says “Polish is a friend of poets.”

    More like a passionate but somewhat abusive lover. Beautiful language, but doesn’t comb well into poetic rhythms. The Poles seem to succeed at poetry despite their language, not because of it.

  9. Love generally requires both connection and an element of surprise. It’s probably the same with languages we love?

  10. Welsh sounds like nothing. I don’t know how it’s possible, but I watched the movie Hedd Wyn and it seemed like they were talking English except that they weren’t.

  11. I first heard Turkish some two decades ago on a visit to Istanbul. What a wonderful surprise! Especially so when contrasted with the rest of the Levant and its gatto-gargling-a-hairball gutturals.

  12. Treesong says:

    Another data point to set beside ‘guttural’ and ‘nasal’ scunners: although кукурyза is one of my favorite words in any language, I find the abundance of palatalized consonants in Russian unpleasant. I remember watching an interview with Olga Korbut and thinking she sounded like she had a mouthful of mush. Perhaps I was also reacting to the ‘nasty Asiatic vowel’.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    English and French are extremely different from each other in sound and stress. Germans seem to be able to accommodate to both languages quite well. The German people I have heard speak either French or English were all doing a very good job.

    According to a Spanish speaker I know, Portuguese is particularly beautiful because tiene la sensualidad del francés y la claridad del español. I don’t have a particular opinion of the qualities of French – it sounds normal to me! As for Spanish clarity, it depends on the speakers. I have found Mexican and Chilean women very clear, but not Chilean men.

  14. The structure of Russian is more friendly to poets, I’d agree with “F” here; however, there is something about Polish that has facilitated the creation of absolutely amazing poetry, especially in the past 100 years.

    Recently, I heard some recordings of poems in Polish and was entranced.

    I am so accustomed to Russian, that I do not always hear its harshness.

  15. I suspect that anything like this is in practice going to be overwhelmed by prejudices about the speakers and their culture, though.

    But then why do I and many other foreigners react differently to the sound of Norwegian, Danish & Swedish? I didn’t know much about the cultures when I moved to Norway, but spoken Danish stood out like a sore thumb to me because it sounded ugly (and was also very hard to understand). I thought Swedish sounded the best; I liked the way certain words and syllables were emphasised. Though prejudice plays a part, as with anything confined to one particular culture, my opinion is that I react to spoken language in the same way as to music. Sometimes I’ll like a piece only after I’ve heard it many times. Nowadays, I love to hear the weirdnesses of spoken Danish – they sometimes remind me of dialects in England – and I’m tired of the quirks of Swedish.

  16. It’s funny how Russian palatalized consonants and Bantu African ones feel so different to me.

  17. “Portuguese is particularly beautiful because tiene la sensualidad del francés y la claridad del español.

    That’s true of Brazilian Portuguese – I would have said the exact opposite is true of the European variety, not that it doesn’t have it’s charms.

  18. Stefan Holm says:

    Some quarter of a century ago I read a book by Swedish uralist Björn Collinder. For some reason he referred to a study of the alleged ‘beuaty’ of European languages. They had measured on an oscilloscope the smoothness and ‘pureness’ of sound waves in everyday speech (a prejudice per se). It meant that pure vowels scored higher than diphtongs, the vowel /a/ higher than /i/, fricatives lowered the score and so on (can’t remember all details).

    The result was that Italian ‘won’ among the Romance languages, Slovenian among the Slavic and Swedish among the Germanic (the latter probably the reason why Collinder mentioned it). Of course it’s a matter of taste but one can at least wonder why Italian is the language par preference for so many world famous opera arias and choirs.

    @AJP Crown: I think many of us Swedes find Danish (like English) much better suited for pop/rock music (sounds a little ridicolous in Swedish) while Swedish is far better for ‘chansons’, ballads and the like. So – beauty can vary with the purpose/context.

  19. Danish (like English) much better suited for pop/rock music (sounds a little ridicolous in Swedish) while Swedish is far better for ‘chansons’, ballads and the like.

    Yes. That seems perfect.

  20. Bathrobe says:

    A less travelled aspect of this discussion is a comparison of the sound of commercial voiceovers and documentary narration in different languages. Of course, this is not normal speech but an idealised form of speech that is supposedly found attractive by speakers of the language. (Similarly for radio broadcasts).

    I’ve never particularly liked the sound of American women’s speech, but the voice and language used in American commercials seems much more inviting than most women’s voices I’ve heard. Less strident and nasal, with more ‘mellow’ pronunciations. I also once heard a Frenchman comment (in a derogatory way) that Japanese female voices in voiceovers and commercials sound high-pitched because Japanese like their women to sound hysterical.

    On the other hand, I suspect that in many languages males have deeper voices and sound ‘authoritative’, although this possibly doesn’t apply to British English.

  21. spoken Danish stood out like a sore thumb to me because it sounded ugly (and was also very hard to understand).

    Well, come on, even the Danes admit that.

  22. It’s all about the potato, folks.

    Someone in a grumpily misogynistic mood said that there are two kinds of women when it comes to voices, bellowers and shriekers. I was careful (and fortunate) to marry a bellower.

  23. marie-lucie says:

    Portuguese : The Spanish speaker was from South America, so he must have referred to Brazilian Portuguese.

    The first time I heard BP (having already taken a class in European Portuguese) was years ago when the songs of Carlos Jobim became popular in North America. I turned on the radio one day and heard a language which sounded like French, but I could not understand a word! I had the impression that someone had cut up a French tape into syllables and reassembled the pieces at random. After a few minutes of intent listening I heard what sounded like a potential French word: “courasson”: curação ‘heart’, of course!

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Japanese

    The first time I heard Japanese (many years ago) was in a samurai-type movie, with French subtitles. The men barked rapid orders in gruff voices, sounding like brrr …. brrr …. brrr …., while the women twittered like birds in high-pitched voices. Most of the time it was impossible to guess that they were speaking the same language, or even any human language at all. .

  25. come on, even the Danes admit that.

    Yes, I know they do but do they really believe it or are they just being polite? Because my point is that I really love to hear Danish now I’ve gotten over the initial shock. It’s a similar experience to hearing some “difficult” pieces of modern music where you don’t always appreciate them the first time around but eventually come to like them better than simple pop tunes.

  26. …on another topic, I’ve only recently noticed that Swedish has a very odd S sound, one that is really hard to reproduce where all the air seems to come out of the sides of the speaker’s mouth rather than from the centre.

  27. Gale and I went out for her birthday dinner last night, and at the table next to us two women at the table closest to us were speaking animatedly but softly together. Gale asked me, as she often does, “What language are they speaking?” Atypically, I was completely unable to answer.

    The conversation was fluent and obviously that of native speakers. Both were evidently Europeans: one a typical Nordic in appearance, the other quite Central European looking except for the red hair. The first did most of the talking, rare code-switches into English; at least I think I heard heavily accented English fragments like “and she said to me”, but I could be mistaken. The other had a brief conversation with her daughter (sitting next to her) in English, but I could only hear what her daughter said, so it’s possible it was a bilingual conversation.

    Phonological and prosodic features and the absence of any words I could come close to recognizing (though they were clear enough, no potatoes here) pretty much ruled out any mainstream Germanic or Romance language. It was not any kind of East Slavic nor yet Polish; I can’t absolutely rule out other West or South Slavic languages, but my feeling was that they were improbable. It was not Basque, either. Ad ignorantiam, I was left with a Rhaeto-Romance or Daco-Romance language and some kind of German very different from Standard German as plausible candidates, but I could hear nothing that even vaguely suggested either. I suppose some kind of Roma or Sinti is also a possibility.

    I wound up saying “Why don’t you ask them?” but Gale recoiled in horror from the very suggestion of it. I continued to listen and ponder until they left the restaurant, but no luck.

  28. Alon Lischinsky says:

    But then why do I and many other foreigners react differently to the sound of Norwegian, Danish & Swedish?

    My (entirely unscientific) opinion is that it’s simply the weirdness factor. Things like stød or the peculiar contrasts between voiced and unvoiced stops make the sounds of modern Danish hard to recognise for speakers of most Western languages, while Norwegian and Swedish have a more standard phonemic repertoire.

    English has a couple of unusual phonemes in its own inventory (e.g., /ð/), but I suppose that familiarity from film and TV has made them less noticeable across the globe.

  29. I wound up saying “Why don’t you ask them?” but Gale recoiled in horror from the very suggestion of it. I continued to listen and ponder until they left the restaurant, but no luck.

    Man, I would have been over at that table, abashed but determined, asking the question I have asked any number of times in my life, often on NYC subways. Sample answers: Portuguese (often hard to recognize even when you can read it!), Armenian, Albanian. Otherwise I can’t get to sleep at night.

  30. Man, I would have been over at that table

    Me too!

    abashed

    Nah!

  31. I think the sound of a language is where the folk art aspect of language is really obvious. The sound of a language tends to reflect the landscape of the homeland of that language. There’s a reason why Lushootseed or Nisga’a sound so jagged and lush – if douglas firs couldd speak this is how they would sound – why Thai and Cambodian sound pulpy – you can just hear the humidity and lush vegetation – and why Hungarian and Finnish have that galloping rhythm and why Finnish consonants in particular sound like solid, softly rounded cobbles that have been through four glaciations. Japanese has a staccato clarity that I associate with lots of rain and clean air.

    It’s a cliche, but heat and humidity have always been the excuse for the way Southerners speak English. And that’s an example of the amount of leeway speakers have to exercise this esthetic dimension of their speech. They could sound like New Englanders if they wanted to. There is nothing inherent in English phonology that makes either group go one way or the other.

    Alon, there are varieties of English that have plenty of stød, and that make account for some of the negative impression English speakers may have – those are not high-prestige varieties of English and that may stigmatize the feature.

    As for poetry, there is poetry and there is poetry, and it depends on your taste in poetry as to which language more suited to poetry. If you like Emily Dixon, or the similarly crystalline Tang jueju, then there is going to be no language that matches Chinese for terse, blunt grandeur. You can build sentence after meaty sentence without having to waste even one syllable on administrative morphological nonsense. But if you don’t mind, or even like, frills and syntactic grace notes and morphological padding, then SAE langauges will suit you fine. As for me, dificulty is an aspect of enjoying poetry. Irish poetry is beautiful, but after all, it’s in Irish; how hard can ithat be What impresses me is when English poetry manages to be beautiful. When someone can take the language of shopping lists, technical manuals and tabloids and make poetry of it, that impresses me.

  32. they left the restaurant

    Damn. Now we’ll never know. Wait! Come back!

  33. How about Samisk?

  34. It would be interesting to study this systematically: to control for bias, I would suggest that the best approach would be to have hearers rank various language samples in terms of how esthetically pleasing they find them, without identifying the languages, and indeed without the samples consisting of any real language: just write out each “sample” in IPA and have them all read by the same person (A student of phonetics, ideally). Now, while each sample would be in a made-up language, each sample should exhibit systematic features of phoneme inventory, phoneme realization and phonotactics. My own guess (no more than that!) is that a language with no phonemes unknown to the listeners’ L1 and CV phonotactics will be ranked as more beautiful than others (The story of Japanese speakers finding Polynesian languages pleasant to the ear suggests this).

    Having recently spent some time in Denmark I thought I would observe that Danish is to me neither ugly nor beautiful. Just utterly baffling. I could half-read newspaper headlines and signs and the like, but I had the sinking sensation that I could spend the rest of my life in Denmark and become a competent reader of Danish, but never come any closer to understanding this language, no matter how hard I might try. This stands in sharp contrast to Swedish and Norwegian, both of which I find euphonious and both of which I sense I could become reasonably competent in as an L2 speaker (with enough time and work, of course).

    John Cowan: Just a guess: Czech? In my experience that is the least-Slavic sounding Slavic language, and because of language purism over the history of its standardization there are few words which a non-Slavic-speaking foreigner can spontaneouskly recognize. Indeed Romanian sounds more “Slavic” to my ear than Czech does, and in any case its vocabulary is quite cosmopolitan.

  35. ‘Indeed Romanian sounds more “Slavic” to my ear than Czech does, ”

    Do you think it’s the palatalization or the voice quality, etinne? I have the same impression as you.

  36. Trond Engen says:

    I asked that question on the London Underground once. The language sounded Finnish, but I couldn’t sort out a single word. Still I ended up asking if it was Estonian. Obviously in hindsight, it was Latvian. Lithuanian sounds very different to me, hard to discern from its Slavic neighbours. I like the sound of both.

    As for John’s language, yeah, maybe Czech, though I think he’d recognize the Slavic prefixing. So I’ll say Latvian.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    Agree about the melodiousness of Turkish. I was quite struck by this when I first visited Turkey, despite the fact that I was an extremely philhellenic teenager at the time and everybody was grumpy all day because it was Ramadan.

  38. Étienne, English (and no doubt French) speakers who go and live in Denmark seem to learn it as fast and with as little difficulty as Norwegian is learnt here. It may just be a question of learning a few constantly enforced pronunciation rules, though I wouldn’t count on it. The many Norwegian dialects lead to all sorts of rules (e.g. pronoun gender) being almost worthless.

  39. David Eddyshaw says:

    @MR:

    “Welsh sounds like nothing.”

    You surprise me. Are you from the UK? If you’re used to hearing Welsh people speaking English, it can be difficult to tell them apart if you aren’t close enough to make out the words, because the sound system of Welsh English is a good deal affected by Welsh, even for people who can’t actually speak it. Most people’s English sounds very unlike Welsh, though. They unaccountably lack voiceless laterals, velar fricatives or high unrounded back vowels, and seem to be able to manage single unvoiced stops between vowels without any trouble. Bizarre. And they can’t sing.

  40. Jim: the palatalization, definitely: indeed the best “definition” of Romanian I have ever heard is “Italian spoken with a thick Russian accent”.

    AJP Crown: Interesting observation. I wonder whether the dialect diversity of Norway, as an obstacle to learning Norwegian, might not be in practical terms the equivalent of the phonological complexity of Danish. And this phonological complexity is definitely real, and indeed was a common conversational topic with linguists in Denmark, Danes and non-Danes alike.

    David Eddyshaw: I’ve had a similar experience with Welsh English versus Welsh, which I found hard to tell apart when I couldn’t hear things clearly enough. Similar such phenomena are attested elsewhere: a Swedish linguist of my acquaintance told me the same regarding the language of the Swedish minority in Finland: from afar this linguist (whose L1 is Swedish, please note!) had trouble telling whether Finnish or Finland Swedish was being spoken.

  41. Stefan Holm says:

    @AJP Crown: that ’very odd S-sound’ you think you hear in Swedish must simply be the IPA [x]. It’s close to the initial sounds in Spanish Juan and Russian khleb (bread) or the final in German Buch and Bach, Scottish loch – i.e. a velar fricative. I think it is a quite common consonant around the world although lacking in English.

    As for Danish I don’t believe the real obstacle to be the glottal stop, ‘stød’ Instead it’s a very far pushed reduction of both consonants and syllables. In the Norwegian and Swedish words for street: ‘gate’ and ‘gata’ respectively you will here all four letters clearly pronounced in normal speech (due to the tonal accent system) but the Danish variety ‘gade’ you will hear as just [gæ:]. This in turn is for a non native impossible to distinguish from their pronunciation of ‘gabe’ (yawn) or ‘gave’ (gift).

  42. Trond Engen says:
  43. Ètienne, the practical way of dealing with the dialects in teaching Norwegian to foreigners must be to ignore them all but the one that’s local to where the class is being held. That at least is my uninformed guess, and I can’t imagine how else they could handle it. I don’t know what happens when a person from Trondheim wants to teach Norwegian to foreigners in Oslo; maybe they use Oslo dialect, but I know Norwegian people who would find that idea irritating.

    The voiceless rounded dorso-palato-alveo-velar fricative. – I can’t get it to play, unfortunately, but only an oaf would confuse it with the German ch in Bach or Buch.

  44. Étienne.

  45. Czech has fixed initial stress, though, and this language didn’t (unless I was completely mishearing the word boundaries). I didn’t think about the Baltic languages, though: that seems like a real possibility now.

    David Eddyshaw: Wuddaya mean, can’t sing? I’m an anglophone and I sing very well indeed.

    Etienne: I’m adding the line about Romanian to the next edition of “Essentialist Explanations”.

  46. David Eddyshaw: Wuddaya mean, can’t sing? I’m an anglophone and I sing very well indeed.

    I think he was talking about Brits. You know, like the Beatles song, “And Your Brits Can’t Sing.”

  47. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: There’s a reason why Lushootseed or Nisga’a sound so jagged and lush – if douglas firs couldd speak this is how they would sound

    Having heard both, I don’t find them very similar.

    Welsh English

    As a student, not yet very fluent in English, I spent a couple of weeks visiting an English family in Herefordshire, close to the Welsh border. One day we went over the border and stopped at a store. I found Welsh English easier to understand than English English, as it sounded to me close to how French people would speak English.

    English English

    A few years ago my daughter and I were in France visiting my family. Once, we were in a restaurant and noticed four people at a neighbouring table: a middle-aged man with (most probably) his two sons and one of them’s girlfriend. From their looks and clothing, they were obviously European. They were close enough for us to hear what they were saying, but we could not identify what language they spoke. After quite a while my daughter (English-dominant French-English bilingual) exclaimed “Ils parlent anglais!” After that she understood most of what they were saying, but I did not.

  48. des von glanzende-overduidelijkheid says:

    I think maybe it’s just one of those things?

    But also, I personally find the unreduced wovels of Italian always make it sound loud, bordering on obnoxious. But I don’t get that with Finnish, so it is possible this prejudice has – clutch your pearls, everyone! – other, non-linguistic roots.

  49. Stefan Holm says:

    Trond & AJP: If you carefully read the Wiki article you link to you will find it critical to the idea of Swedish fricatives being abnormal in any way. It may be that quantum mechanics allows a particle to simultaneously be in two places – but that’s just until we actually observe it. The same goes for fricatives, they are articulated in one place at a time.

    The vast majority of Swedes uses a velar fricative, i.e. the place of articulation (position of the tongue) is essentially the same as for the consonants ‘k’, ‘g’ and ‘ng’. That makes it belong to the same family as the German ach-laut (with the Ladefoged/Maddieson comment that it ‘may be slightly further forward’).

    The problem is, that in a few dialects – and sociolects, most important the Stockholm elite one, a supradental fricative is common. This has lead to quarrels for as long as one can remember with the popular velar being called vulgar and the supradental niminy-piminy or theatrical. As a result a range of intermediates occurs – from just above the upper teeth via the palatum to the velum. And the degree of rounding is very much a question of colouring from adjacent vowels.

    But we all keep the articulation in one place at a time. This nine-fricative sentence is an enough tongue-twister even for natives: ‘Sju sköna sjuksköterskor skötte sju sjösjuka sjömän’ (Seven beautiful nurses nursed seven seasick sailors).

  50. It sounds as though there was a class war in Sweden over whether to transcribe “sj” as [x] or [ʃ] and so the IPA very generously added an extra letter [ɧ] to its alphabet to spare everybody’s blushes.

  51. Stefan Holm says:

    Very much so, mollymooly. And I can imagine that Per Lindblad’s extensive X-raying our tongue positions some 35 years ago was a very Swedish way of making everyone happy and satisfied. (Also – until his sad passing away a couple of years ago the distinguished Swedish professor Gösta Bruce was President of the IPA).

  52. des von glanzende-overduidelijkheid says:

    On the other hand, is there a more satisfying thing to say – in any language – than “hook-top heng”?

  53. I can articulate a simultaneous retroflex-velar fricative okay, or even an alveolar-velar fricative, as these involve the tongue tip. A true palatal articulation defeats me, however.

  54. Bathrobe says:

    I recently accosted a young lady speaking an unidentified language with her friend on the subway. It was Tibetan.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    JC: To prevent the tip of your tongue from interfering with your attempts at palatal articulation, stick it firmly behind your lower teeth. You will still be able to practice a variety of palatals, velars, uvulars, whether fricatives or stops. I am not sure what Swedish does, but German palatal “ich” and velar “ach” both fall in that non-tip category. But you don’t need to hold your tongue tip in that position once you are familiar with the feeling of what the rest of the tongue is doing.

  56. M-L, you are close enough to both of them to distinguish them, the way an Italian will immediately distinguish between Castilian and Portuguese.

    Stefan,
    As for Danish I don’t believe the real obstacle to be the glottal stop, ‘stød’ Instead it’s a very far pushed reduction of both consonants and syllables.”

    Maybe, but not necessarily. I think that affects Swedish or Norwegian speakers most. My Swedish is quite rusty but it is still my reference pooint for Scandinavian laguages. I remember very distinctly a creepy experience I had on an SAS flight. The pilot came on and did his liitle introduction, first in Danish and then in English. I had an immediate visual of a stroke victim piloting the plane, and let me tell you, it was not pleasant. And it is exactly that mumbling reduction you speak of that was responsible.

    On the other hand it is exactly that reduction that makes Shanghainese and all those Wu dialects sound “soft” compared to Mandarin. It is not only a reduction in consonants but a thorough-going simplification of the vowel and tone phonology too. Shanghai sounds like Mandarin with the bones taken out, and it’s a beautiful effect.

  57. m-l: I meant that a true palatal-velar simultaneous fricative, as [ɧ] is supposed to be, defeats me. That is because it would be simultaneously lamino-alveolar and lamino-velar, which I can’t do in any way that would make the double frication distinct. But pronouncing an apical fricative and a laminar fricative at the same time is possible for me. The further apart the points of articulation are, the easier: a simultaneous (apico-)interdental and (lamino-)velar fricative, for example, is not all that hard.

    When I try the stop equivalent of [ɧ], coarticulating [k] and [c], it just sounds like [c].

  58. @David Eddyshaw

    No, American. Hedd Wynn is about the only exposure I’ve ever had to Welsh speakers. So I just checked out some videos on YouTube. I can hear the individual elements that are different from AmE or BrE, but it still sounds like nothing. Like, it doesn’t have a foreign flavor.

  59. marie-lucie says:

    JC, sorry for the misunderstanding. I am not familiar with those doubly-articulated fricatives.

  60. Etienne said In my experience {Czech} is the least-Slavic sounding Slavic language,

    How are you defining “Slavic”? To my ears, Czech just sounds like an odd dialect of Polish and is quite obviously Slavic. I would think Croatian would sound the least “Slavic” to non-Slavic speakers – some dialects are phonologically very close to Italian.

  61. Etienne says:

    Vanya: I guess what I mean is that, in my (quite limited, compared to other hatter!) experience of hearing Slavic languages spoken, Czech seems to me to be the “odd man out”, and strikes me acoustically as a kind of generic “vanilla” European language. Israeli Hebrew often gives me a similar impression, and indeed this is another candidate for the mystery language John Cowan heard.

  62. “m-l: I meant that a true palatal-velar simultaneous fricative, as [ɧ] is supposed to be, defeats me.”

    John, the friction is between your barely parted teeth and there is some kind of raisng of the sides of the tongue. English speakers often hear it as a voicless -w, except that there’s no rounding. It’s not a hard sound to learn if you hear it directly from a speaker of Swedish.

  63. Hmm, seems like my comment got lost. In short, I ruled out Hebrew because in the Hebrew conversations I have heard in NYC, the listening party is saying “ken … ken … ken …” (Hebrew for ‘yes, right, correct’) more or less throughout. Here the listener (most of the time the redhead) was pretty silent.

  64. MR,
    “I can hear the individual elements that are different from AmE or BrE, but it still sounds like nothing. Like, it doesn’t have a foreign flavor.”

    Considering that something like Welsh was probably the substratum of a lot of British dialects that gave rise to Modern English, especially the southwestern dialects that already sound so American, that shouldn’t be surprising.

  65. Stefan Holm says:

    Jim, John, Marie-Lucie et. al.: If a native may attempt to sort things out there are in addition to the unproblematic ’s’ and ’f’ three voiceless fricatives in Swedish:

    [ʃ]: A supradental/ palatal ‘s’, pretty close to the ‘sh’ in English she, shoe, shall (maybe slightly more back/palatal) and used in the spelling combination ‘rs’ (like Sean Connery in ‘of course’ etc.). It corresponds to the ‘thick’, i.e. supradental, pronunciation of ‘rd’, ‘rl’, ‘rn’ and ‘rt’, heard even in dialects of English.

    [ç]: A palatal, non-sibilant, unrounded fricative – or easier: the initial sound in English ‘chat’, ‘cheese’ without the initial ‘t’. It’s used word initially with the spellings ‘kj-‘ and ‘tj’ (kjol=skirt, tjock=thick) and ‘k-‘ preceding a front vowel (e, i, y, ä, ö: kemi=chemistry, Kina=China, kyss=kiss, källare=cellar, köl=keel). You can think of it approximately as a voiceless [j] in year, you, yell.

    [x]: A velar (and the controversial one). This has been very productive in Swedish and can be spelled in +40 different ways. The inherited ones are the word initial ‘sj-‘ (själv=self, sjuk=sick), ‘stj-‘ (stjärna=star), ‘skj-‘ (skjuta=shoot) and ‘sk-‘ preceding a front vowel (skepp=ship, skina=shine, sky=sky, skämmas=be ashamed, sköld=shield). It has also attracted loanwords, particularly from French, like ‘-ti-‘, ’-si-’, ‘-ssi-’, ‘g-’, ‘j-’, ‘ch-’ (station, pension, mission, genant=embarassing, journalist, charm) and also from other languages (schäfer=German shepherd, Shanghai, Charkov).

    The problem, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is that in some dia- and sociolects the [x] is replaced by the [ʃ] or by something in between. After all, since we are not clones, we all pronounce individually, otherwise it wouldn’t be so easy for us to recognize people solely by their voice. But this has lead to the idea of the ‘co-articulated’ consonant [ɧ], which I simply don’t think exists. Even the IPA adds the comment ‘disputed’ to it. The very term ‘co-articulated’ seems redundant to me. It’s also sometimes used about English ‘w’ and the vowels/diphtongs in French nuit (night) and Swedish ny (new). For what purpose?

  66. [ʃ]: – What you describe is a retroflex sibilant. e.g. “fors” eller “färsk”.

    ” But this has lead to the idea of the ‘co-articulated’ consonant [ɧ], which I simply don’t think exists. Even the IPA adds the comment ‘disputed’ to it. The very term ‘co-articulated’ seems redundant to me. It’s also sometimes used about English ‘w’ and the vowels/diphtongs in French nuit (night) and Swedish ny (new). For what purpose?”

    I agree with you on every one of those examples. The idea that “w” is co-articulated sounds like it is a non-Engish speaker who is just having difficulty with the sound, and the same is probably true of “y” in Swedish. English “r” on the other hand really is co-articulated.

  67. /w/ is definitely coarticulated: it’s a velar approximant with labialization. The tongue position is almost that of [ç], just pulled down a little to be an approximant rather than a fricative, and the labial component is obvious. The native speaker has spoken.

  68. Stefan Holm says:

    Am I missing something, John, in the very definition of the word coarticulated? Doesn’t just every human sound include at least some state of your (1) vocal chords (2) tongue (3) lips and (4) whether or not breath is allowed to pass through your nose? In that sense all sounds are coarticulated. My objection concerned the suggested ‘simultaneous’ pronunciation of [ʃ] and [x], where the difference (at least in Swedish) is only about the position of the tongue, which can’t be in two states simultaneously. And what would be so special about ‘w’, essentially a very short [u]?

    And this applies, Jim, even to your comment upon the English ‘r’. It’s roughly a voiced variety of [ʃ]. Compare ‘row’ and ‘show’: The tongue position is basically the same (slightly more back in ‘row’) In ‘row’ you activate your vocal chords and in ‘show’ you allow a little less air to pass through the space between the tip of your tongue and the area above your upper teeth. (And again: the final ‘w’ in both words is realized as a very short [u]).

    So ‘coarticulated’ – I still don’t get it.

  69. David Marjanović says:

    Personally I’ve always found (standard) German one of the more euphonious-sounding languages.

    Which kind? :-) Except for the existence of a stage pronunciation, Standard German pronunciation has never been standardized. It’s more uniform now than 100 years ago, unsurprisingly – but there are still differences in just the kinds of things people tend to notice as “harsh”, “strong”, “guttural”, “melodious”, “dark” and the like: presence/absence of aspiration, voiced plosives, syllable-final fortition, (moderately) long consonants, [ɑ], [χ], [ɵ]… not to mention Swiss intonation, where the stressed syllable of each word gets a lower pitch by default, the next syllable has a high pitch, and the one after may have a falling one.

    In general, the sound system of German is a lot more like the English one than the French or Italian is (as witness the fact that Germans find it a lot easier to acquire a good English accent than French speakers do, by and large.)

    I’d say the sound systems of French and English are about as far apart as is possible in Europe, and German is in the middle. I find French a bit easier to pronounce than English.

    (Part of that is cheating, though – my dialect happens to have nasal vowels, even though not the same set as French.)

    More like a passionate but somewhat abusive lover. Beautiful language, but doesn’t comb well into poetic rhythms. The Poles seem to succeed at poetry despite their language, not because of it.

    Maybe what’s going on is the absence of vowel length in Polish? While it’s not phonemic in Russian either, stressed vowels are (all else being equal) distinctly longer than unstressed ones in Russian, while in Polish there’s no difference.

    Perhaps similarly, hexameter has never caught on in English or German, but is said to be common in Hungarian poetry because vowel length is phonemic in Hungarian while stress placement is not.

    It’s funny how Russian palatalized consonants and Bantu African ones feel so different to me.

    They’re simply not the same thing. Russian has palatalized labial, palatalized alveolar and palatalized velar consonants; Bantu languages have palatal consonants that occupy a separate place of primary articulation. (…At minimum, that’s the case with the [ɲ] in matswenyeho in the South African anthem.)

    In Europe, palatal plosives ([c ɟ]) occur in Hungarian (ty, gy) and Latvian (ķ, ģ).

    solid, softly rounded cobbles that have been through four glaciations

    More like seventeen…

    Czech seems to me to be the “odd man out”, and strikes me acoustically as a kind of generic “vanilla” European language

    Most kinds of Czech take their vowel length extremely seriously. It’s phonemic and has no relation to stress whatsoever.

    The idea that “w” is co-articulated sounds like it is a non-Engish speaker who is just having difficulty with the sound

    [w] = [ɰʷ], except that the latter transcription makes a claim about which articulation is primary and which secondary, which doesn’t make sense for an approximant. I guess you could also transcribe it as [βʷˠ] (bilabial approximant, rounded, velarized), making the opposite and equally useless claim.

    Reportedly, the Japanese w is a rounded bilabial approximant without a velar component (that would be [βʷ] then, I guess). This seems to agree with what little Japanese I’ve heard, but I haven’t heard enough to tell for sure.

    the position of the tongue, which can’t be in two states simultaneously

    The same part of the tongue can’t be in two places at the same time. Different parts of the tongue are usually under no such restriction. I have no trouble articulating [x] and [ʂ] at the same time, and the resulting sound is easy to distinguish from both – the question is whether it actually exists in any sound system.

    And this applies, Jim, even to your comment upon the English ‘r’.

    No. The English /r/ is quite strongly rounded: [ɹʷ ~ ɻʷ]. There’s a reason for “be vewy, vewy quiet – I’m hunting wabbits”.

    The English /ʃ/, as it happens, is also rounded, but much less so; a bit more than the French one, less than the German one*, and much less than the actual [ʃʷ] that appears to exist in Setswana and various Caucasian languages. To find a completely unrounded [ʃ], which I found surprisingly different to articulate at first, you have to go all the way to Navajo.

    * The most strongly lip-rounded sound in the entire language, at least where I come from.

    And again: the final ‘w’ in both words is realized as a very short [u]

    There is no /w/ in row or show; both end in a diphthong that ends in [ʊ].

  70. marie-lucie says:

    My parents, having spent the war years under German occupation, associated the sounds of German from soldiers barking orders at the French population. If French people at the time learned one German word, it was “raouss” (Raus!, ‘[Come] out!’), a dreaded word which could presage arrestation and worse. Years later, my father and I had the opportunity to go Berlin for a week with a small group, of which only one person (not me) was reasonably fluent in German. My father quickly learned the numbers and how to order a beer. After this experience of hearing German in its normal, everyday, peaceful environment, he had the opportunity to take German courses, and later he and my mother took several trips to Germany and Austria (to the Salzburg festival among other things). My mother had started to learn German too and was pleasantly surprised that the language could sound gentle. She was charmed by the sounds of ich liebe dich.

  71. Am I missing something, John, in the very definition of the word coarticulated? Doesn’t just every human sound include at least some state of your (1) vocal chords (2) tongue (3) lips and (4) whether or not breath is allowed to pass through your nose?

    Yes and yes, I think. We call a sound coarticulated when two articulation positions are necessary to producing it. I can articulate /k/ in English with almost any tongue-tip position and not be misheard, but /w/ requires both a velar and a labial gesture to get right.

  72. More on Swedish fricatives here.

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