The Linguist

The Linguist 54,3

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Page 23 of 35 FEATURES Are some languages really more pleasing than others or is it just in the ear of the beholder, asks Gaston Dorren Listen to libélula, pronounced 'lee-BEH-loo- lah'. And then to ssrkscht, with 'r' and 'ch' as in Scots roch (for 'rough'). When asked which one sounds better, you are almost certain to pick the former, which is Spanish for 'dragonfly'. And small wonder, because it caresses the ear like a voluptuous cello and rolls across the tongue like a silky sweet sip of port wine. Did I get carried away there? See what libélula does! Ssrkscht doesn't bring such sensual joys. Here's a word that doesn't sing but rather grates on the eardrum. It is how Moroccans speaking one of the Berber languages say 'I hid him'. Admittedly, libélula and ssrkscht are somewhat extreme examples. But, as such, they reveal quite a bit about what people tend to like and dislike about speech sounds. And some languages are fortunate to have rather more of the good stuff than others. Lisping and spluttering 'Humans have a universal preference for sounds produced in the front of the mouth', says Dr Charlotte Gooskens, a Danish linguist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. 'Sounds produced at the back are generally perceived as ugly. That's particularly true for guttural sounds, for instance in Spanish, German, Dutch, Gaelic and Arabic.' In libélula, both consonants are front sounds, as are most of its vowels; only the 'u' is produced at the back. And the word has yet another feature favoured by listeners: 'Alternation between consonants and vowels. We strongly prefer that over complex consonant clusters.' And that's exactly what makes ssrkscht so unappealing. Additionally, only two of its five consonants, 's' and 't', are front sounds. The others are further back and hence less attractive. 'Another factor in our assessment of beauty is familiarity', says Gooskens. 'In foreign languages, we prefer sounds that we know. Unknown is unloved.' To the ears of native English speakers, German involves a lot of hissing and spluttering (think of zwischen zwei Steinen), while French, with its many nasal vowels (un bon vin blanc), has an undeniable cold-in-the-head quality. Hissing, spluttering and a nasal twang are hardly the things that please the English- speaker's ear. Our language, on the other hand, strikes non-native speakers as lisping ('thin', 'bath') and, especially in the US variety, grumbling ('robber', 'rural'). These tend not to be assets in the linguistic beauty contest. Holiday and genocide There is much more to our preferences than just the objective sounds, Gooskens emphasises. Cultural clichés, for one thing. 'Why is there this perception of German as a "hard" language? Why do most Europeans qualify British English as "more intelligent" than American English? These are stereotypes, transferred from one generation the next.' And then there are the associations that we develop in the course of our own lives, Beautiful words © SHUTTERSTOCK

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