The beauty of languages | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Do some languages sound better than others? This is the question researchers from Lund University in Sweden and the Russian Academy of Sciences set out to answer, as reported by Big Think. So, does French sound silky, German brutish, Italian sexy, and Japanese angry as many claim?

To find out, the researchers asked 820 participants from several countries to listen to 50 spoken recordings randomly selected from 228 languages. After listening to different recordings, they were asked, “How much do you like the sound of this language?” They then could respond on a scale ranging from “not at all” to “very much.” Participants were also asked if they recognized the language. If they marked yes, they were asked to identify it.

Analyzing data from the surveys, the researchers found that subjects rated languages that they recognized 12.2% higher, even if they actually had misidentified the language. So, rather than contempt, familiarity in this case breeds pleasure. Which reminds me of the tale of the man who had to go away for a year, during which he sent every day a letter to his girlfriend. At the end of the year, she married the postman.

The beauty of Creole

Once the familiarity effect was removed from the equation, there were only negligible differences between languages. The authors concluded that languages spoken in different parts of the world do not sound intrinsically beautiful or unpleasant, regardless of the listeners’ own first language.

Interestingly enough, a couple of languages did surface at the top and bottom. At the very top was Tok Pisin, an English-adjacent Creole language spoken throughout Papua New Guinea.

And the worst? That distinction went to Chechen, which is spoken by approximately 1.7 million people in the North Caucasus of Eastern Europe.


Tonal vs. nontonal languages

The researchers also monitored different acoustic characteristics of the recordings to see if these would affect how the languages were rated.

Overall, there was a possible slight preference for nontonal languages. In tonal languages, altering the tone of a spoken word changes the word’s meaning. The researchers also noticed that increasingly higher vocal pitches slightly lowered the score of the linked language.

Sexy vs. unsexy

Another factor was the narrator’s sex. If the clip featured a male speaker, the associated language scored about 4 points lower. On the other hand, if the clip featured a “breathy female voice,” the language was rated as much more pleasant.

“Voices are more appealing if they sound healthy and sex-typical,” the researchers commented, “presumably because we have evolved to look for signs of fitness in the voice, creating some universal standards of auditory beauty analogous to the appeal of… symmetrical faces and unblemished skin.”

A language’s beauty, then, is likely not intrinsic. Case in point: if you check out the comments under the Chechen video, you will find several viewers who comment on how beautiful the language is. Beauty, it turns out, exists in the eye ear of the beholder listener!