Determining Which Languages Sound the Most Beautiful

Prolific linguist Rob Watts of RobWords spoke with several linguists who studied which languages sound the most beautiful and which sound the least attractive.

Linguists have cut through the noise to find out what makes a language sing in the ear, or pose an assault on the senses. So what’s the final verdict? Well, they’re going to tell us.

Watts also looks at the cultural elements that might color the results. Italian benefitted from its association with art and culture, while German suffered from negative political ramifications.

Italy has a really really rich history with art, culture, cuisine, and it’s associated also with music because many words in musical speech for example are in Italian. . …Perhaps the fact that Germany was basically the super-villain of the 20th century might have had some impact on how we view the country’s language? The fact that it’s the language of countless bad-guys?

Beautiful Languages

Swedish linguist Niklas Erben Johansson of Lund University explained that they used a film from 1979 that had been translated into over 200 languages and asked participants to rate the different languages.

We were looking around for, I think, years almost, and trying different approaches, but then we stumbled upon this film, which was dubbed into hundreds of languages for what I assume is missionary reasons. They were tales from the bible told in tongues from all over the world. The team played over 2000 recordings from more than 200 languages to over 800 people from three groups.

The results were surprising, particularly since the raters relied on a familiarity bias.

For example, the three highest rated languages for the Chinese speaking group we Mandarin, English, the language the study was conducted in, and Japanese. For the Semitic language speakers, the top three were Spanish, English and Italian – three widely known and recognised languages. Arabic was fourth, incidentally. And for the English speakers, guess what came top? Why, English, of course! Second was our friend Italian.

Other factors may have also affected the results.

We did find, for example, that female voices were more liked than male voices, breathy voices were more liked than non breathy voices, and when there were some residual music in the background that was also liked. But it could be other factors that has to do with the voice that we couldn’t really grasp.

Watts found the study fascinating, despite (or because of) the biases within.

It’s okay to think French or Italian are gorgeous and German as disgusting, but when we do, we have to realise that we’re not being objective. ..But nevertheless, I think the insights are fascinating.

Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.