Jonathon has a post about the languages he finds pleasing to the ear and those he does not, an interesting topic for which one would like to see data from speakers of different languages (do speakers of Cantonese tend to find Vietnamese more pleasant than speakers of Mandarin, for example?). See the comments there for my off-the-cuff reaction.


  1. As a native speaker of English, I’ve always been a little disappointed that I can’t know what it sounds like to a non-native speaker. I guess a good approximation is to listen to Celtic or Welsh or Old English, but this approach doesn’t even begin to address the issues Jonathon is talking about.

  2. The closest you can come is to immerse yourself so thoroughly in another language you’ve lost the automatic familiarity of your own, as happened to me in Argentina for a bit; when I then heard English being used, it sounded strange and foreign for a moment. Can’t remember whether I liked the sound of it, though.

  3. An alternative approach which should not be discounted is use of hallucinogens — I have found English to sound like a foreign language of which I had at best a limited understanding, while in their thralls.

  4. Romance languages, of course, sound more
    euphonious to English speakers (& so does
    English, spoken by someone from India or
    the Caribbean); but what interests me is
    that German, while seemingly more consonant-
    heavy, doesn’t really sound all that much harsher
    –the language that sounds harsh to my ears
    is DUTCH.

  5. A related topic: accents that sound euphonious (or not). Why do Irish brogues sound “good” and industrial Northern British accents and London cockney sound “bad”? Is this a sociolinguistic thing more than a purely acoustic matter?
    You can tell what English sounds like by making up phonetically well-formed but meaninglless English words. But it would depend on who the speaker is.

  6. Dutch sounds so lovely to me. It’s high on my list of Next to Learn…

  7. “brainwashing” and which “sounds reward you with pleasure.” Each of us have built in filters and associations. I’m not musical, 400cyles or 440 c/s sound the same to my ear. An English broadcaster sounds different in the States and listening to same person in The UK? Strange. My guess, the background sounds merge to give a slightly different mix?

  8. This topic reminds of the following scene from Ulysses:
    “Adjacent to the men’s public urinal they perceived an icecream car round which a group of presumably Italians in heated altercation were getting rid of voluble expressions in their vivacious language in a particularly animated way, there being some little differences between the parties.
    — Puttana madonna, che ci dia i quattrini! Ho ragione? Culo rotto!
    — Intendiamoci. Mezzo sovrano più…
    — Dice lui, però.
    — Farabutto! Mortacci sui!
    Mr Bloom, availing himself of the right of free speech, he having just a bowing acquaintance with the language in dispute though, to be sure, rather in a quandary over voglio, remarked to his protégé in an audible tone of voice, à propos of the battle royal in the street which was still raging fast and furious:
    — A beautiful language. I mean for singing purposes. Why do you not write your poetry in that language? Bella Poetria! it is so melodious and full. Belladonna voglio.
    Stephen, who was trying his dead best to yawn, if he could, suffering from lassitude generally, replied:
    — To fill the ear of a cow elephant. They were haggling over money.
    — Is that so? Mr Bloom asked. Of course, he subjoined pensively, at the inward reflection of there being more languages to start with than were absolutely necessary, it may be only the southern glamour that surrounds it.”
    BTW, my wife is a native Cantonese speaker and she hates the sound of Vietnamese.

  9. A most apposite quote and an interesting data point. My thanks.

  10. What does English sound like to a non-Anglophone? Well, in Peninsular Spanish the most frequent imitation of English speech goes something like: “A guachi guachi”, or “a guanchi guanchi (in English: ah goo-ah-chee goo-ah-chee, ah goo-an-chee, goo-an-chee). Sort of like the way the Greek word “barbarós” was meant to imitate the way the non-Greek spoke (barbarbar…)
    I think it must be a phonetic approximation to “I want…” (which tourists must have employed a lot).

  11. If I turn on the TV and I hear Dutch spoken, for the first half-second or so I think that I am listening to some very heavy english or scottish dialect that I just can’t make out. I think this has to do with English and Dutch having a large number of vowel sounds relative to other languages.

  12. What it has to do with is the fact that Dutch is the closest to English of all the major Germanic languages (English being basically a Low German dialect that got away from the pack); Frisian is even closer, and you’ll probably find you can read it without much difficulty.

  13. However, Dutch phonetics is quite hard to master… I remember having the same impression from Swedish — watching a Swedish movie with a Russian voiceover, I first though it was in English. It must have to do with the ‘r’ sound.
    Interesting that intonation has not been mentioned here. For my Russian ear, Ukrainian and Polish have an intonation scale quite different from Russian: they are more melodious. It’s a pleasure to hear a Polish lady speak. But a native Russian speaker with a Ukrainian accent sounds terrible to me.
    Of all English dialects I know, proper British English is the richest in intonation; I enjoy listening to a good British orator. Australian, on the contrary, sounds monotonous, but it’s still not unpleasant. Ditto for Kiwi. Southern US dialects are quite a treat. To me, it’s straight Yank talk that is the most boring of all.
    I remember an American family reacting to an announcer’s accent in an Irish airport: “lovely”. According to a poll, the Irish accent is also considered “sexy” in the UK. As for me, I prefer r-droppers.

  14. I think it really depends of what your native language is: I’m French but from an French Island in Indian Ocean, people spoke French there with an accent, not like the quite a-tone Parisian French that English speakers seem to like (I personnaly found it quite boring to listen to)
    For English, have to say the british accent sounds quite harsh to my ears, other are less unpleasant.
    But Cantonese sounds to me really beautiful with all the tones, I don’t hear any cacophony in it, not problem with the final consons.
    For Mandarin, if it’s talked like in Taiwan, I found it ok but not more than that, but if it’s spoken with continental accent especially Beijing accent, I found it quite … awful, I really can’t stand all that “sh” & “~r” sounds & the fourth (falling) tone make it sounds more agressive.
    Korean sounds to mee quite agressive too, Japanese a bit too “mechanic” with the strict succession of vowel/consons.

  15. Somebody dug up an interesting topic.
    I like the sound of Portuguese. The writing is so odd compared to the pronunciation. I still remember that I loved to listen to the sound of the word estação in Lisbon underground. Also Coimbra sounds nice. And then I haven’t heard Brazilian Portuguese yet. Catalan also sounded interesting in Barcelona underground. And of course, French is beautiful.
    The language I am currently learning, Russian, sounds great as well.
    Most foreigners don’t like the sound of my language, Dutch. I always prefer the Flemish pronunciation and word order over the one from Amsterdam. However, there are some Dutch accents that I like.

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