I don’t agree with shkrobius, who says “human speech is a cacophony of mingled sounds,” but it’s said so vividly I have to pass it along:

The first time I heard English I thought: how can people bark like that? Why can’t they talk in a melodious, cadenced way the Russians do? It took many years of practicing English to appreciate its harmony and beauty. It is not that Germanic languages are different. Other Slavic languages are equally unpleasant on my ears. No amount of persuasion will convince me that, say, the Swedish, Serbian, Zulu, Turkish, or Hungarian are great languages. All human languages equally stink. We are used to those few that we speak or hear regularly. We can no longer recognize how awful they sound. The universal appeal of music is our unconscious acceptance of this brutal truth.

The post goes on to an appreciation of the animal kingdom: “people of all races, tongues, and traditions have the instinctive appreciation of the beauty in animals and plants. A horse, a cow, a bird, a rose—they all look right to us.” And who can argue with that? (Thanks for the link, Tatyana!)


  1. > It took many years of practicing English to appreciate its harmony and beauty.
    This is strange. English always sounded beautiful to my ear, and I heard the same from my friends, without exception…

  2. I don’t know about cacophony, myself, but mingled sounds is right on. At least from a speech science point of view, when you get too much detail in things, they make less sense. Thus, it’s really ambiguous to find when consonants or vowels ‘end’ or ‘begin’, or what the exact cues are for these sounds, and add to that the fact that there is great variation there is amongst how different speakers pronounce things. In a way, its amazing that we can understand ourselves as english speakers, or as humans– it’s not as if only english exibits such differences.

  3. An acquantaince, native American English speaker, who studies (and translates) Russian for more than 10 yrs, said once “half the time I don’t know what you people are talking about!” Also, something to the effect of “Russian sounds ugly”.

  4. There is something musical, in the sense of sounds according to a natural rhythm, to language. Many people say that French or Italian, for example, sound beautiful, as if the speaker is almost singing. In French, it may partially be a result of the stress always falling on the last syllable. Yet JRR Tolkien wasn’t crazy about French, but loved the musical quality of Welsh (but not Irish Gaelic), and once wrote to his son that simply hearing a list of words of the Old Gothic language pronounced aloud could “move him to tears”. For some people, language *is* their music.

  5. I’m charmed by the music of Scandinavian languages… When you (well, at least as a Russian) first hear this wave-like intonation, it sounds totally crazy. But then you suddenly start to like it…

  6. I’m reminded of Motoori Norinaga’s assertion that Japanese is unique in being composed of sounds not found elsewhere in the natural world. The phones of other languages, apparently, resemble animal noises, the wind, flowing water &c, while Japanese is distinctively its own thing. (Unfortunately I don’t have the quote in front of me, so the details may be a little off.)
    Speaking for myself, while able to perceive general aesthetic qualities in other languages, I’m quite unable to do so with respect to my native language. I have no idea what English sounds like, in a general sense. Perhaps greater experience with other languages would allow me to gain the necessary perspective.

  7. This, of course, comes down to the eternal question of ‘which is most pleasant or musical to listen to’. And the answer is always heavily skewed by personal factors. For example, I don’t think Beijing-hua is a particularly beautiful language, but I knew an old Taiwanese gentleman who found the speech of Beijing girls (with their rhoticisms and all) extremely alluring.
    Putting that aside, my own preferences (purely subjective, of course) are for French, Korean, and Cantonese. (For the record, I can’t understand a word of Korean and only one or two words of Cantonese).

  8. Extra comment: With regard to your native language, it is always hardest to judge objectively because all kinds of social judgements and conventional views come into play.
    As an Australian, I find a broad Australian accent unattractive, but this is probably because it is generally put down highly nasal and whining. And yet I find the same nasality in a language like Vietnamese quite pleasant. So what’s the difference? Just that one is familiar (and stigmatised) and the other is exotic. In other words, it’s impossible to judge your own language purely on its auditory merits!

  9. I find it humorous that “unattractive” qualities in speech are almost inevitably put down to “nasality” or “gutturalness.” I think the degree of nasality varies from nose to nose and gutturalness from gullet to gullet. It’s very difficult to distinguish the speech from the speaker (this is especially true if you’re listening to sung vocals, which is how many people become exposed to languages they do not speak).

  10. I think different languages are “good” for different things. German is good for military command, dirty sex, and lullabies. Italian is good for steamy sexiness. I know French is supposed to be the “language of love” or some crap, but I’ve always found it the language of condescension and pretension. And on and on and on. English, of course, is The One Ring: it rules them all! *LOL*

  11. “German is good for military command”
    Ah yes, but that’s only thanks to the Prussians, who’ve left us with this image of German as a ‘military’ language. What about all those German philosophers? Surely German should be the language for discussing the deeper philosophical questions of life?

  12. Rick Grimm says

    I remember learning Spanish and Italian as an ungergraduate, they sounded so seductive, liquid, Other. And French, too, had a certain je-ne-sais-quoi attached to it, at that time (now that I am a near-native speaker, I don’t know what it ‘sounds’ like any more). But English, my sweet mother tongue, has never been foreign to me. Now, like French, it just is. I have always wanted to know what non-native ears here when we utter silly bits like ‘rural’, ‘pucker’, ‘bubble’, and ‘wobble’. Mingled sounds? Balderdash, nincompoop!

  13. I’m a native American English speaker, and have studied Cantonese and Spanish and grown up hearing Yiddish and Hebrew. I listen to songs in many languages. I would say not many languages I have heard stand out as beautiful or ugly, but these would be my picks:
    Noticeably like the sound:
    – Shanghainese (#1) – Some say it is so soft that you can’t tell that someone is having a fight.
    – Spanish
    – French
    – Catalan
    – Italian
    While I wouldn’t say either Yiddish or Hebrew is beautiful, I do like to hear them.
    Dislike the sound:
    – Russian
    I used to dislike Korean, until I started getting a decent collection of K-Pop. I’ve also just made a Korean-American friend who speaks it, so I expect to hear it more, and to start liking it better.
    But every language has a purpose. Both Russian and Korean are excellent for heavy metal, and Korean is excellent for hip-hop.
    And then we come to the curious case of Cantonese: Before I studied it, I thought Mandarin was nice-sounding and Cantonese wasn’t. Some even say it is the opposite if Shanghainese, as it often sounds like people are fighting even if they aren’t. But as I studied Cantonese, I grew to like it’s character and humor, and now I enjoy the sounds. Oddly, though, Mandarin started sounding unattractive to me. But listening to Mandarin pop has tended to neutralize that.
    Actually, familiarity seems to neutralize for me any negative views of a language. Certainly, listening to K-Pop has led to my being more Korean-friendly.

  14. Michael Farris says

    I like (or can learn to like) the sound of just about any language when it’s spoken in certain ways. There needs to some minimum level of careful (but not over-)articulation and restricted dynamics (no yelling or slobbering or sniffling or what I call ‘neck voice’ [from closing the glottis and not breathing through the lungs while speaking]).
    I’ve also noticed that the better I know a language, the less I notice the distinct features that are most noticeable when I didn’t know it.
    When I didn’t know Polish it sounded like thicket of nothing but sh and ch sounds (the voiced equivalents exist but are less common). The better I knew it, the less it sounded like anything in particular.
    Some languages I’ve never been able to appreciate properly:
    Mandarin – Don’t know why.
    French – I’ve tried to like French, but I’ve just never warmed to it (though I love French opera). If anything I like the sound of Quebecois better than most other varieties (and Kreyol, but that’s a different language).
    Languages most people don’t like the sound of, but which I’ve always liked to listen to:
    Arabic (esp. Egyptian) really majestic sounding
    Dutch – I like the rhythm and even the [x]’s. The very fortis unaspirated [p] drives me crazy when Dutch speakers use it in English thoug.
    Czech – It sounds something like what I imagine robots would sound like if they spontaneously generated language.
    Some languages I find particularly nice to listen to:
    Brazilian Portuguese – My vote for prettiest in the world. But Iberian portuguese leaves me cold.
    Hungarian – First runner up.
    Thai – The prettiest tone language, possibly due to very gentle articulation (compared with most Chinese or Vietnamese)
    Israeli Hebrew – I love listening to Hebrew, strangely enough, I’ve never been able to learn the whole alphabet (despite trying several times and despite having a good track record with different scripts – I can still read Devanegari easily though I haven’t tried to use it for many years).

  15. Rick Grimm says

    Response to Michael Farris: I agree with you entirely about the Québécois vs. French accent: the former seems more appealing to my anglo ears (and Canadian culture, bien sûr). However, that said, I have run into some absolutely wonderful accents from France, notibly in the South. In the Franco-Provençal region, one hears a touch of Spanish in the pronunciation and, to boot, they speak much slower than in, say, Paris. I practically detest Parisian French. I hate teaching it and I hate making my students listen to it (as a Canadian, I believe that we should be teaching/learning Canadian French. Striving for an accent that belongs to a different continent leads to alientation from the L1 French Canadian crowd back home!). Refering to Parisians, it’s no wonder French Canadians have the expression “Ils ont la bouche en cul de poule”, meaning their mouths are in the form of a chicken’s butt(hole). So, Paris, open wide so that we may hear you!

  16. It’s fine to discuss qualities like the relative melodiousness of one language versus others, but to go back to the shkrobius post that kicked this off, I don’t just disagree with it, I find it disturbing. Does anyone else see a tinge of racism there, or is it me? It’s got disclaimers (“All languages equally stink.”), but the gist of the item is that unfamiliarity breeds contempt, and his contempt seems to focus on not just Swedish, Serbian, Zulu, Turkish and Hungarian, but also, perhaps, individuals of races he is not familiar with, like “the first Negro man I saw in Moscow”

  17. And so what if he is, Martin? We’re not speaking in University fundraiser here, if that’s how he feels, good for him, for being honest.

  18. And I really didn’t get that sense at all; I felt he was explaining how he graduated from his primitive feeling of “my language is good and right, everybody else’s is ugly and wrong” (which is a natural first reaction) to a more sophisticated feeling that all languages are ugly, it’s just that we get used to our own and mistakenly see it as beautiful. I’m not saying he’s right, but I don’t think he’s racist.

  19. I see that entry as an example of theatrical nihilism: “Everybody’s a jerk: me, you, this jerk.” Ascerbic, but also insulting.
    Also, I think the hundreds (thousands?) of Chukchi jokes amply illustrate Russian tolerance for soft racism.

  20. Yeah, I love Chukchi jokes. And some of my best friends are Chukchi! (OK, not really, but they would be if, you know, there were a big Chukchi population around here, with Chukchi restaurants on North Street and Chukchi rock groups working the local bars on Monday nights and a four-page Chukchi weekly available at better newstands.)

  21. Michael Farris: How singularly appropriate that you say Czech sounds like a language of robots, since the word ‘robot’ is in fact from Czech. 🙂
    As to nasality, it also varies among speakers of a language. Speakers from, say, New Jersey are much more likely to pronounce English with a certain nasality than are speakers from, say, Manitoba. (Btw, I really love listening to Manitobans speak. They have the most beautiful long ‘o’ sound. I like listening to Minnesotans–must be the melodic Swedish influence.)
    With Arabic, I definitely prefer the dialects of the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine) over that of Egypt (though most people learn Egyptian b/c of the movie/tv industry there), probably b/c of the smooth ‘zh’ sound that Levantines have, where Egyptian has the hard ‘g’ sound.
    Ultimately, I think the idea of what a language is “good” at is more a function of vocabulary than phonology or some such. A college buddy from the Philippines once noted that Tagalog is probably not the best language to study metaphysics in. English has great ability to coin, borrow, create, and adapt new words, so it’s pretty useful for modern commercial and scientific purposes, but it doesn’t really approach the nuances of Ancient Greek.
    The overal impression of the ‘sounds’ of a language might best be judged according to cases when the speakers are specifically composing with the sounds in mind, i.e., poetry (and music). Judge the ‘sounds’ of English, for example, rather on John Donne or Tennyson than on, say, a translation of Hegelian prose or the dialect of my old neighborhood in Brooklyn; appreciate the potential for beauty in Icelandic by reading the Poetic Edda, than by the ticket agent at Reykjavik airport. While some languages wear their melody on their sleeves, the beauty of others is like a well guarded treasure, well worth the efforts made to reach it.

  22. Michael Farris says

    On Czech robots: what gives Czech that sound for me is the ratta taaat unpredictable rhythm of the long and short vowels along with the syllabic r’s and l’s. (Intonation has something to do with it too).
    I think Levantine is widely considered the prettiest dialect among Arabs themselves, but I like the more forceful sound of Egyptian (including how way pronound haga and raagil).
    I’ll also mention that Latvian and Tagalog are the funniest sounding languages for me (for different reasons).
    I tend to disagree about poetry though. (Poetry’s a hit and miss deal for me, mostly miss). I’ve heard nobel laureate Wysława Szymborska read some of her most famous poems (such as nic dwa razy – nothing twice) and it sounds like she’s reading the phone book. She’s an otherwise lively and articulate speaker, so I assume the deadpan poetry reading is intentional. I like her work better written than spoken (though pogrzeb – funeral could be great if read by a group with each line spoken by somebody else)
    On the other hand, I like melodramatic readings of Lorca (especially the llanto por ignacio sanchez mejia) but I think that’s an exception, generally lively speech by someone who cares a little how they sound is enough and poetry is overkill.
    The point of the original quote is that despite his grudging respect for English, the fundamental hostility toward foreign languages remains. It’s just been tweaked from “languages sound terrible, except for mine” to “languages I don’t know sound terrible” (a widely held attitude among non-linguists IME).

  23. robert berger says

    The most peculiar sounding language I have
    ever heard,on radio broadcasts over the internet,
    is Circassian, famous for its incredible number
    of consonant phonemes. It sounded as though the
    speakers were talking with their mouths full of

  24. Some other impressions:
    The grand-daughter of the last speaker of Eyak declined to learn it because “it sounded like someone throwing up.” True, but, dang girl, you had a duty….
    Fuzhou people think American Englsih sounds like ducks, and I have to agree.
    I rememebr one drippy day here in the seattle area hearing some Somali kids chatting among themselves and immediately feeling like I was in a sunny, dry place, well before I identified either the speakers or the language.
    German is not particularly good for military commands. It takes too long to get anything out. Korean is better. Have you ever heard Korean mothers talk to their toddlers? Drill Sergeants should take lessons. What German sounds like is housewifey. It is perfect for talking about home cooking.

  25. I’m a monolinguist (English being the mono, if you were curious), and I think Russian murmured poetry is the most beautiful sound I’ve heard a human being produce. Russian barking is as awful as most.
    English prosody I value for its assonances, its rich range of grates, its rhythmic and connotative clashes… that is, the kind of English sonics I tend to love would fit startlingly well with shkrobius’s early negative reactions. Pretty Ugly. Think Bunting or Zukofsky. Or Thelonious Monk.
    For years now I’ve wanted to try to take on the work of examining the exquisitely flowing noise of Stephen Ratcliffe’s spaces in the light said to be where one / comes from (in American English), but I think the project frightens me a little.

  26. I apologize before all of you who construe my post as racist. Its intent was to be misantropic.My childhood reactions (and I am talking about a 4 year old!) to other races and languages were used to illustrate the idea that a Martian would probably find out appearances and methods of communication unattractive. The same Martian may find a rose beautiful. I would like to know, why. My childhood reactions are authentic. May be I should be ashamed of them but I cannot change my memories. As for being unfair to Chukchis, pray notice that as I was a Jewish kid with a stutter and a lisp, people around me needed not to go far to find a butt for their funny jokes. Connect the dots.

  27. Don’t mind the complainers — I think they just didn’t get your point. I liked it.

  28. Farsi does sound smooth, and I hear it is said to be good for poetry. The frequency of the “aw” sound (short a?) is notable though.
    German does not sound that different from French to me, with uvular r and not as hamfisted stress as English or Italian. I wonder if its reputation as harsh dates from earlier stages. Ditto for Hebrew.
    I have heard the “duck” label is applied to Cantonese by Mandarin speakers. By the way, the Cantonese word for “duck” is “aap” with that very long a, sounding like a quack.

  29. Cantonese is also called ?? or ‘bird language’.

  30. Malgorzata Smisniewicz says

    Response to Michael Farris: You mentioned that the better you knew Polish the less particular it sounded. So doesnt’t the way we “hear” a language depend on our knowledge and understanding what we hear? The meaning has a significant meaning:). That is an absurd to say for example:I loved that what I heard in this Portugese before getting to know that that was a list of dirty, ugly words read beautifully by Brazilian Szymborska:).
    And isn’t it also determinded by our mother-tongue? Particular sounds of my mother-tongue can influence my perception of other languages of the same or different family of languages then mine.
    with greetings:)))

  31. Michael Farris says

    “So doesnt’t the way we “hear” a language depend on our knowledge and understanding what we hear? The meaning has a significant meaning:).”
    Yes and no. When I don’t know a language well enough to understand it, the sounds all by themselves create an impression and my attention stays (is stuck) at that level. The most beautiful and most horrible things possible to say in that language will sound exactly the same to me. But, when I can understand it, my attention shifts more to the content of what’s being said, and so the sound, as such, just doesn’t get as much attention as it used to.
    “And isn’t it also determinded by our mother-tongue?”
    I would say that plays a large role in two ways:
    1. some languages are unavailable as pure sound (that is, closely related languages may be partially intelligible and that will affect how the sound is perceived, Czech prosím may or may not sound funny on its own, but to most Polish speakers who can relate it to proszę, it’s going to sound funny). (or Polish pronunciation of ł will make Polish sound odd to speakers of those Slavic languages where pronouncing the ‘hard’ l as [u] or [w] is sub-standard.
    2. the particular sound structure of a language (not just the phonology, but also the cultural baggage and associations that particular sounds have) will can affect how other languages are perceived.
    hypothetical example: let’s say that in language X, syllable final nasal consonants are very negatively loaded, that is they appear almost entirely in words with negative connotations. hearing a language with a lot of final nasal consonants, speakers of this language will think it sounds unpleasant (that’s a big simplification, but the principle is more or less valid).

  32. Graham Asher says

    Rather than give my subjective opinions about other languages – sort of interesting but mostly predictable, and I’m talking about what I’ve just read as well as my own – I’d like to mention a very old article in (I think) Scientific American, which reported some actual objective research on this topic. It turned out that – at least in the field of intonation – people get used to their own tongue, or the musical harmonies of it, very early in life, to such an extent that group A and group B can both (validly and sincerely) have the impression that the other’s speech is ‘sing-song’ and their own is neutral. (My only personal anecdote is my impression as a speaker of standard UK English that Californian English is very sing-song – an impression I doubt is shared by Californians – but this is not important or very relevant to the above.)

  33. the Cantonese word for “duck” is “aap” with that very long a, sounding like a quack.
    The sound effect is even more seizing in Guangzhou dialect, where it is ngab3, i.e. “ngaap” in your system (“Mandarin” ya 鸭). Also, see mao for ‘cat’, gei for ‘rooster’ (Mand. ji is less convincing), etc.
    Personally, I stopped worrying very early, when Italian friends told me they thought French was more melodious than their language. It took me no less than three decades to start understanding how they could get that impression.

  34. Sorry, the quote was from Caffeind’s comment at August 13, 2005 12:34 AM.

  35. Honestly, I do not particularly enjoy posting three comments in a row, but here’s something I forgot:
    your two hanzi appear as interrogation marks on my computer (Cantonese is also called ?? or ‘bird language’), so I can only guess that it may be niao yu. I knew that expression as applied (already in Han dynasty texts) to the strange sound of “Barbarian” (non Han) speeches.
    Is there a written reference for its use to characterize Cantonese, or is it a modern use (perhaps in a humourous way) that you have witnessed? That would be an interesting evolution of the expression.

  36. I’m posting this comment just so that if you have something else to say you won’t refrain for fear of making four comments in a row.

  37. Aw, shucks, LH!
    (Well, I don’t have anything to add for the moment, but I’m showing that I wouldn’t refrain; that was real nice of you.)

  38. Yes, I’m not sure why it didn’t come out. It was indeed 鸟语. I’ve heard it referred to as that in conversation in Beijing, but I’m not sure how widespread it is. It seems to cover other Southern dialects, too (e.g. Hainanese) but mainly Cantonese.

  39. Thanks for the response (and the zis are visible this time). I would wildly guess that the people you heard were characterizing (with a rather literate reference; the widespread use of niaoyu is in the meaning of “birds chirping” as in niaoyu huaxiang 鸟语花香) the unintelligibility of these dialects, perceived by them as being as high as that of foreign (non Chinese) languages. That, of course, is purely hypothetical; one would need more data.

  40. Someone should coin a term referring to the distance at which one can identify which language is being spoken by passersby. My Russian isn’t all that good, but I can tell it’s being spoken at fifty paces. On the other hand, if I’m in the right mood, everyone sounds like they’re speaking Spanish. Or Yiddish.

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