Are certain languages intrinsically beautiful?
- It's a common stereotype that certain languages sound beautiful, but is this actually true? Researchers asked 820 participants to listen to audio clips spoken in one of 228 languages and rate the language's pleasantness.
- They found negligible differences between the pleasantness scores of each language, suggesting that certain languages are not intrinsically beautiful to the human ear.
- Familiarity with a language tends to make it more pleasant to the listener.
It’s often said that French is silky, German is brutish, Italian is sexy, and Mandarin is angry. But do those stereotypes of these diverse languages hold empirically across cultures? Are some languages intrinsically beautiful?
To find out, a trio of researchers from Lund University in Sweden and the Russian Academy of Sciences recruited 820 participants from the research subject site Prolific to listen to 50 spoken recordings randomly selected from 228 languages. The audio clips were taken from the film Jesus, which has been translated into more than 2,000 languages. For this reason, it is commonly used in linguistics research.
The subjects were native speakers of English, Chinese (either Mandarin, Hakka, or Cantonese), or Semitic languages (Arabic, Hebrew, or Maltese). 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.
The familiarity effect
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. The researchers expected this strong familiarity effect. So how did participants score unrecognized languages?
“There were only negligible differences between world regions when the language was not recognized,” the authors reported, “suggesting that languages spoken in different parts of the world do not sound intrinsically beautiful or unpleasant, regardless of the listeners’ own first language.”
Controlling for familiarity, the vast majority of languages scored within 2% to 3% of each other in pleasantness. Though not statistically separate from the pack, 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. Six percentage points down from Tok Pisin at the bottom was Chechen, which is spoken by approximately 1.7 million people in the North Caucasus of Eastern Europe.
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, they found. 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. Additionally, 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.”
The experiment was fairly well designed but had its drawbacks. For example, it could have benefited from a greater number of raters from additional language backgrounds. Moreover, the spoken phrases they rated could have been better standardized to control for differences in speaking styles, loudness, and vocal characteristics.
Still, overall, the study constitutes a fascinating exploration of the spoken word, revealing that a language’s beauty is likely not intrinsic, but rather exists in the ear of the listener.