It’s commonly said that some languages – let’s say French or Italian – are easier on the ears than others – mentioning no names (German, obviously). But can a language be intrinsically beautiful, while another might just be innately unpleasant?
In a new study, researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences and Lund University in Sweden carried out the first large-scale, cross-cultural comparison of hundreds of languages in an attempt to answer a simple question: Do some languages sound more beautiful than others?
Generally speaking, they found little evidence to support the claim that some languages are considered “universally attractive” across different cultures. The beauty of a language is only in the ears of the beholder, it seems.
Their sample involved 2,125 recordings of 228 languages from 43 language families. The recordings of each language were spoken by five to 11 different people to control for personal vocal attractiveness. The languages were then played to 820 native speakers of English, Chinese, or Semitic languages, who were asked to indicate how much they liked them.
Overall, there was little consensus among people of different cultures about which languages sound more pleasing. The researchers write that “the scores by English, Chinese, and Semitic speakers were weakly correlated,” which basically means there was very little agreement between the three groups.
“The most beautiful languages according to Chinese speakers were Mandarin, English, and Japanese, whereas speakers of Semitic languages preferred Spanish, English, Italian, and Arabic,” the study authors write.
That said, there were some outliers. Most raters, regardless of their cultures or mother tongue, gave an “unusually low” rating to Chechen, a Northeast Caucasian language spoken by approximately 1.7 million people in the Chechen Republic of Russia. On the other end of the scale, there were surprisingly high scores all round for Tok Pisin, an English-based Creole language spoken throughout Papua New Guinea.
Beyond language, there was also clearly some fondness for certain types of voice. The findings clearly showed a preference for “breathy female voices” regardless of the language they were speaking, as opposed to gruff male voices.
“While some types of human voices may be generally attractive, the languages themselves were surprisingly uniform in terms of their esthetic appeal to the average person in our sample,” the study authors conclude.
“This initial finding promotes an egalitarian view of extant world languages, demonstrates the feasibility of cross-cultural phonesthetic research, and raises important questions about the role of esthetics in language evolution,” they added.
The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).