March 2, 2023

Are There Ugly Languages?

The Swedish Language

It’s common to hear by foreigner that Swedish is a very rhythmic and 'melodic language'. It’s probably one of those things that you don’t reflect upon if you are a native Swedish-speaker unless you have some sort of linguistic background. We have this unique way of stressing the first syllable, using long or short vowels which can change the meaning of a word. Our distinctive ‘sj-sound’, a soft, voiceless fricative phoneme, makes words like ‘schack’, ‘jour’, ‘nation’, and ‘division’ sound like a musical accent. Although the Swedish grammar could be seen as simple due to small numbers of verb conjugations and nouns declensions, it’s a challenging language to get it ‘right’ with its many sounds and grammatical structures, such as compounding words and placement of adjectives. Even among native speakers, särskrivning is one of the most common mistakes in the Swedish language.

SÄRSKRIVNING. "Parkering för bjuden", parking for invited. "Parkering förbjuden", parking forbidden

Romance Languages

There is this sensation when listening to Romance languages. You get a feeling that the conversattions are full of joy, passionate, and life. It can be poetic and almost opera-like when you hear it. For some, it even gives the 'Latin-lover' effect.

Just take a look at these words and tell me you aren’t already planning your next vacation:
Auguri – best wishes in Italian
Bisous – kisses in French
Almendra – almond in Spanish
Beija-flor – hummingbird in Portuguese

Flat Languages?

While certain languages have a naturally upbeat or melodic intonation and/or rhythm that could sound positive, there are other languages that may be perceived as flatter or even harsher.

Much of what we appreciate could be influenced by a number of different factors: cultural, personal, and perceptions. This is no different from creating names for a client; although the naming group most of the time agree on certain elements and morphemes, there will always exist unique connotations in every individual sitting around the table. Sometimes they are memories from their childhood, sometimes it’s a Star Wars reference. So therefore, we are conditioned to prefer some things over others, which is natural.

Most westerners would perhaps agree on the following languages being on the opposite side of what we loosely call melodic languages:

German – overall, a language that is poked at and made fun of due to its ‘harsh’ and ‘aggressive’ sounds. If you are not a native speaker or used to its guttural pronunciation, long German words can sound complex or intimidating.
Russian – a rich and complex language, with hard consonants and strong emphasis on stressed syllables. For most people, the sound is challenging or difficult to understand/follow.
Arabic – a language that is spoken in many countries, widespread across continents has naturally many dialects and pronunciation variations. Many dialects tend to use hard consonants, which can sound intimidating at first.
Mandarin – the largest language in China could sound monotonous to non-native speakers, due to its tonal pronunciation. As many other difficult languages, Mandarin uses complex characters and sentence structures.

Complexities in Defining Beauty

What’s life without its many layers? Something that is not understood may be considered unnatural. When we hear a sound or word that is familiar, we get a warm and comfortable feeling. We can probably appreciate a language a lot more that has the same alphabet and shares words or qualities with our mother tongue – perhaps the underlying structure is recognizable and easier to comprehend. Introducing a new linguistic system with new tones and sounds would therefore go the opposite way, disrupt our learned inclination toward a certain type of sound, eventually deeming it harsh, aggressive, or even ugly. If you are used to words with few consonants such as in Romance languages, chances are you will find German and its consonants to be a challenge.

But what’s to say that this feeling is correct and universal? Some of our biggest romantic poets and authors come from these countries, having contributed with beautifully crafted texts in their languages.

English-speakers had Shakespeare, German-speakers had Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German poet, novelist, and playwright, who did not only contribute to arts and culture, but also to science, biology.

Alexander Pushkin, a Russian famous for his poetry, especially ‘Eugene Onegin’, considered a classic of Russian litterature, and was written over seven years before publishing in full 1833.

Rainer Maria Rilke, a Swiss poet, wrote poetry collections such as 'Life and Songs' and 'Offerings to the Lares', and is considered to be one of the most significant writers in German language.

Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet, and politician, dedicating his life to building the State of Chu. Known for his melancholic poem ‘Lisao’ (On Encountering Sorrow), he was loved by the Chinese people for the storytelling and relatableness in his poetry.

Which makes me wonder, in this specific case, how German, Russian, Arabic, or Mandarin speaking persons would rank languages worldwide? Surely, we can’t exclude around 1.5 billion people from a discussion like this. Are Romance languages as beautiful as suggested, or could they sound like baby talk if you are not used to this system? What’s the opinion of Swedish or Norwegian? And let’s not forget, there is no one dialect in a language; there are multiple dialects that can sound anything similar to standard language to dialects with intonations and expressions that are completely different.

As much as I wish not to end a text like this, I guess it all boils down to that the beauty of languages might be in the eyes of the beholder.

/Ignacio Valderas

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