Sounds familiar

When I listen to languages I don’t know sometimes I like their sounds, other times I’m not so keen. I suspect that languages which sound at least vaguely familiar are more likely to appeal to my ears than those that sound completely alien, and that if I learnt any of those languages, my appreciation of them would increase.

As I get to know languages their sounds tend to grow on me, and the more I learn, the more I like them. In some cases, such as Irish and Scottish Gaelic, I liked the sounds of languages long before I could understand or speak them, in others, such as Taiwanese and Cantonese, I wasn’t overly keen on what they sounded like at first, but came to like their sounds. If I listen to other varieties of Chinese that I don’t know, then to one I do, it feels like ‘coming home’.

This entry was posted in Language.

17 Responses to Sounds familiar

  1. Joe DeRose says:

    I once heard a comment by a native speaker of Chinese that, before learning it, she thought that English “sounded like a pit of hissing snakes.” I’d be interested to know what other non-native-speakers think of English.

    As for myself (having grown up speaking English), I like the sounds of the Romance languages in general — but unlike most people, I find French to be a bit unattractive (and yes, I’ve studied it — I respect France and the French; I just don’t like the sound of the language). Gaelic languages grate on me much like French does.

    I especially like the sound of Arabic (which I’ve studied) and Hebrew (which I haven’t). Mandarin sounds attractive to me, except when I’m trying to speak it.

  2. peter j. franke says:

    The languages I like to listen at, are, in general, melodious. So the Romance (what’s in a name)group has a high score. Especial endings like -diendo and -ao in Spanish and Portuguese are giving me “duende” (goose-flesh). Nasals are appealing me too. That’s why I like the sounds in Urdu poetry. The way “the Pinque Panthère” speaks English (with French accent) is not just funny but nice in intonation. The accent of Caribean English makes me happy. The retroflexed -l- like in Indian languages melts my heart. Swedish sounds nicer for me then Danish (too glotty) and this also counts for Frisian (Frysk) compared to Standard Dutch. Flamish is softer, sometimes a bit too soft. Funny enough I prefer the [X] over [x] in Dutch dialects. Japanese is sounding like someone with to much moist or phlegm in the throat. But, like in German, it depents in which period it was spoken. During the last world war those languages sounded hardish…
    So, some of these examples are from languages I master while others I hardly know. For me the sounds and intonations are crucial.

  3. hannah says:

    I love how poetic Arabic grammar, vocabulary, and style allow a writer to be. I’m not a huge fan of the actual spoken language, though… the harsh letters like kha, `ayn, and ghayn always get me. The rhythm of formal Arabic – spoken in formal contexts such as state addresses or important religious sermons – is absolutely gorgeous. All of the dialects lose much of this beauty, some (Egyptian/Gulf) more than others (Shami).

  4. formiko says:

    I absolutely love German. I’d rather be cursed out in Mandarin, than hear sweet nothings in Cantonese 🙂
    I think Arabic sounds like Klingon. My absolute favorite is Cherokee though. It sounds like leaves blowing in the trees.

  5. Jim Morrison says:

    I like the sound of the Goidelic Celtic languages even though I can’t speak them. I also like the sound of the Romance languages, I can speak reasonable French and Catalan. I love the sound of Greek and would love to learn it one day.

  6. Tommy says:

    Simon – I may have asked you before, but do you think it’s possible to understand something in Chinese just by hearing the melodic pattern?

    I know you can train your ear in music by guessing the interval between a series of notes. For example, the first two bars of “Twinkle twinkle little star” are 1 – 1 – 5 – 5 – 6 – 6 – 5, no matter what key you play it in. And everyone will know what you are singing even if you hum it. Musically this is a good skill for improvisation because by “guessing” the direction of a melody, you can lead and follow immediately.

    If I hum a common phrase or sentence in a non-tonal language like English (let’s say “I love you”), I think it’s basically meaningless (unless I sing the Barney song, which gives it a recognizable tonal pattern). What about Chinese? Perhaps my limited experience gives me a false impression about spoken Chinese, but I imagine an really melodic, musical element completely different from the “rhythms” (like stereotypical italian rhythm) and from diverse sounds (like portuguese nasal endings, trilled r’s, etc)

  7. Simon says:

    Tommy – I don’t think it is possible to understand something in Chinese just from the melody of the words.

  8. Surely this could be objectively quantified: variety of sound occuring in any segment of speech; recurrence of certain sounds; patterns created; rhythms; pitch of voice; variations in pitch. Maybe a sort of rhetoric of sound could be compiled. Why we find the sound of some languages more pleasing than others, who can say. Could it be connected to such different perceptions as those evinced by the tritone paradox?

  9. Christopher Miller says:

    I suspect there are two kinds of things at play here. One is probably a subjective interpretation – simply based on the sounds you hear without segmenting what you hear into any linguistic units. This is pretty similar to musical taste, I would think. The other – at a second level – is the way your reaction changes when you actually begin to learn a language, because your perception changes when you start to be able to actually segment what you hear into linguistic units. That’s when you can “fit” what you hear into a structure that lets you interpret the sound stream in a way you couldn’t before. In a way, it’s similar to the difference between everyday prose and conversational speech – which can seem pretty pedestrian – and heightened forms of language like poetry and rhetoric, which organise what is otherwise ordinary speech into repetitive and interacting units that make it possible to appreciate and understand ordinary words in a new way.

    Of course, this is a step beyond merely being able to segment a sound stream into meaningful units, but it’s the same principle. You begin to appreciate the “music” and “meaningfulness” of a language more, so it becomes a sort of “friend” you feel comfortable with.

    Myself, I have favourites among languages, again without knowing them very well. My preferences tend to be for the soft, sibilant sounding ones with fairly large vowel systems, with some sort of melodic tonality or percussive stops setting off the softness. Among closely related languages: Zulu as opposed to Swahili, Mandarin or Shanghainese as opposed to Cantonese or Southern Min (Hokkien and Taiwanese); Irish and Gaelic as opposed to Welsh, Persian (Farsi) and Turkish as opposed to Kurdish and Central Asian Turkic languages; Catalan and Occitan as opposed to Castilian or Italian; Russian vs Czech, Swedish vs Danish; Lebanese vs Egyptian and other Arabic vernacular languages.

    Then there are languages that are just ugly ducklings, like Dutch (especially in the Netherlands): I once described it to my sister as a language that sounded like Monty Python had invented it for its washerwoman characters to shriek at each other in. But once I began to learn it, my surface reaction was tempered by being able to appreciate it at another level – poetry seems to be a big thing in the Netherlands (along with postcards for every imaginable occasion in life), and I have to say, that’s where the ugly duckling really turns into a swan!

    For another ugly duckling language, search for Danish Language in YouTube: the top hit is a pretty hilarious video by some Norwegian comedians making fun of the slurred, hiccuppy, nearly unintelligible sound of Danish compared to the other Scandinavian languages.

  10. Macsen says:

    I don’t like French. It just makes me want to tell the person to stop fussing about and just say something straight and get to the point. I associate the language with the arrogance and persecution of the Breton (Welsh’s sister language) Basque and Catalan. It’s just too much up itself and in love with itself.

    I prefer German because it’s an honest language – nice balance of consonants and vowels, no hiding words. Finnish and Estonian ‘cos their so light on their feet; Dutch and Afrikaans because their muscular languages; Hebrew is very cool nice mixture of ‘x’ and the German ‘r’. The Goidelic languages sound nice, I watch Scots Gaelic programmes on BBC Alba here in Wales and don’t understand a word, but they sound less ‘heavy’ and more nimble than Welsh.

    When my children began learning English they’d impersonate English speakers as people who spoke with dipthonged vowels and no consonants. I guess that’s how English sounded to monoglot Welsh speakers. Something like ‘wawaw wawa waawa’.

  11. Christopher Miller says:


    You’re probably reacting to standard European French here. I understand what you’re talking about when you react to the political ideology of linguistic intolerance attached to the language. (And the single worst example of this is the repression of Occitan, the indigenous language of most of the southern third of European France, with a population of some 15 million now. This Saturday the 24th, Occitans and supporters from other repressed language groups will be gathering in the city of Carcassona – known in French as Carcassonne for their third annual demonstration for official recognition and support of Occitan.) That said, and coming back to the *sound* of a language, I personally *do* prefer the sound of general Canadian French (the main variety spoken in the western provinces, Ontario and most of Quebec) but somewhat less Acadian French (easternmost Quebec and the Atlantic provinces) to the very heavy, stiff, plodding tonality of standard French of France – and also prefer the sound of the non-standard varieties such as the heavily Occitan-influenced vernacular pronunciations of the Occitan regions.

    Here at home, I especially like the rhythmic sound of Cree/Montagnais (Innu aimun) with their strong contrast between long vowels and short, elided vowels and the soft sound of the preaspirated consonants. Inuktitut has a very tongue-twisterish quality to it, with very little variation in intonation, which makes if very hard to get my ears around.

    It’s interesting how this question came up. A couple of months ago over at a typography blog, there was a discussion about what people thought was the ugliest script. It sort of boiled down to people’s visual impressions of the harmoniousness or business of the way a particular script appeared. I remember one respondent thought Vietnamese quoc-ngu (the Romanised system) looked hideous because of the surfeit of diacritics piled on in a jumble on top of, below and beside vowels. It almost looks like the printed language is under attack by a swarm of mosquitoes. Swat! swat! swat! (or perhaps better Xựỗt! xứổt! xữờt! Someone else didn’t like the look of Japanese because the mixture of kana with kanji characters gives an uneven typographic colour to a page. (I personally like this about the appearance of the printed language because the constantly changing colour adds a sort of rhythmic variety to the script, almost reminiscent of breathing.)

    I have always personally liked the fluidity of the more or less standard Arabic naskhi cript, but not so much the rather chaotic looking (to me) nasta’liq style preferred in Persian and Urdu writing, with its extreme contrast between thin, short verticals and thick, long horizontal strokes and big, heavy dots. Gujarati is much more elegant looking than the more widespread Devanagari with its obligatory head stroke on almost all letters. I especially like the look of scripts that use vertical lines on the page rather than horizontal left to right or right to left. There is an almost peaceful feeling to such scripts. Especially pretty to me are the closely related Manchu and Mongol scripts. Among the constructed scripts I have seen on this site, by far my favourite is the Cloud and Rain script that was put up several weeks ago. The way it mimics Mongolian/Manchu vertical script but goes beyond it by adding more swooping, curvaceous and elegant strokes to the connected glyphs is masterful.

  12. Tommy says:

    Cailliomachas – what is the tritone paradox?

    I agree with you that it should be possible to objectify why some languages sound more pleasing to the human ear than others. The majority of the comments here are valid subjective opinions based personal experience with and command of certain languages, which is fine and appropriate, but I think there is an objective element to the sounds of language, too, which I have not seen explored.

    I really like some of the comments here (peter j. franke, christopher miller) – they are really good, specific and informative. It’s nice when some people know, at least to some degree, WHY or HOW a language evokes some feeling. It’s like in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” when Scarlett Johansson says she thinks Chinese is beautiful, then says something in Chinese, to which Penelope Cruz replies “You think that’s beautiful?”.

    I guess I find it hard to talk about how the sounds of language without mentioning any music theory. When people say a language is a very “musical” or “rhythmic” and leave it at that, I think its like saying a certain species of orange is very citrusy. Some oranges are sweeter, some are more sour, some bitter, but a mature botanist can probably tell you why it has that flavor, can distinguish the types, and still be able enjoy the fruit like a normal person at the end of the day.

  13. Imbecilica says:

    I like the sound of tonal languages like Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese but for some reason not Thai. Maybe it has to do with the flow of the languages. Thai just sounds weird and unbalanced – too much Yin 😛

  14. Macsen says:

    Christopher – nice reply, what was the typography blog?

    That’s whole new ball game. Typograpically, then Dutch and Breton win hands down for me. I particularly like the balance of k, v, and double vowels in Dutch. And the k and v in Breton is how Welsh should be written if William Morgan, when publishing the Welsh Bible in 1588 could have used them but was forced to use f and c as there weren’t enough v, k, (and x for the ch sound) on the English-based typographic printer when the Bible was printed in London.

    Again, Estoniand and Finnish look cool.

    I’m afraid Manx just looks all over the shop. (it seems it’s based on an orthography created by a Welsh minister who mixed up Welsh and English orthograpic rules).

  15. Christopher Miller says:

    Regarding the Tritone Paradox:

    It seems that the phonological system of a particular linguistic variety has an effect on how people perceive these musical tritones. The way southern English English and Vietnamese speakers perceive them is the opposite of Californian native anglophones’ perception. I can’t help wondering if this might have something to do with the much more varied intonational contours of Southern British English (and the comparable tonal contours of Vietnamese) compared to the much flatter intonation of most North American Englishes.

    I wonder if any psycholinguistic work has been done on these kinds of questions, i.e. measuring differences in reactions to the “sound” of a language or variety from “naive” listeners and those with varying degrees of acquaintance with that or similar language varieties. This must play some kind of role in overall language attitudes (a topic with a huge sociolinguistic literature), apart from the socially determined attitudes such as Macsen’s reaction to French. I know from my personal experience in research on Ottawa-Hull French speakers’ language attitudes that there were perceptions that Montreal French sounds better – without participants’ being able to explain exactly how (or what the devil any real differences there might even be!). The thing is that the range of variation in French varieties in Montreal is pretty equivalent to what’s out there in the greater Ottawa region.

    For Macsen:

    The forum is on Typophile at

    It’s a pretty long discussion, but a couple of my favourite quotes are: “How about Braille – something about it gives me the bumps” and “Vietnamese does look like an explosion in a diacritics factory”. Many of the posts bring up points that are very dependent on a type designer’s view of what makes for good glyph construction and overall harmony in a typeface.

  16. peter j. franke says:

    I agree with Christophr Miller’s remarks about the subjective interpretations based on sounds and the change in appreciation by learning to understand (the structure of) a language. It happened to me in my relation with Arabic. Before I learned MSA I did not really like the sounds of it. But by understanding it and know the structure, based at the fa’el (verb), I appreciated it more and more. Especial Arab poetry and the flowery ways of it’s expression. And extra when sung by ‘Um Kalthum or Fairouz.
    But I do not agree witt the remarks about French. Last summer I was at Cuba and surrounded by Quebecois. I did not like the sound of their French at all. May be because I am not really familiar with it. I live in the Netherlands so I deal with the standard French as spoken around Paris…
    Now something about calligraphy and the beauty in writing systems: By learning some Urdu I also learned to appreciate nasta’lic, because it sometimes is like solving a puzzle. I love round characters so I like southern Brahni scripts a lot. My favorites are Malayalam and Balinese. But the design of Georgian script also appeals to me: harmonious forms. In conscripts I like Linephon because it is consequent in design. I calligraph a lot in my own script: Madri. My main motive to create it was to design rather then use it for phonetic purposes. It’s a pity the example of it shown at this site was done a bit hasty. I’ll sent Simon a better version in due time.

  17. James says:

    I have always loved the sound of Dutch and Spanish (though I despise the sound of chilean spanish: it makes me tense and annoyed). Catalan I don´t like that much. Chinese sounds angry. Arabic I like too.

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