Euphony in Language

by Kieran Healy on September 6, 2003

Tim Dunlop and Jonathon Delacour wonder if some languages are more pleasant to listen to than others, whether you understand them or not. This is certainly true from person to person. When I moved to the U.S., I sometimes found that things I complacently thought were due to my natural wit and charm were in fact explained by my speaking in a pleasant Irish accent. Conversely, these days I am routinely berated by almost everyone for having lost that accent after a mere six or seven years in America.

The more general proposition — that some languages are inherently better-sounding than others — is usually just a step back before taking a kick at the Germans. But Clive James, I think somewhere in his autobiography, makes an elegant case for Italian. As I remember, he quotes this bit from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, III, 1-3):

Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente.

“Through me you pass to the city of woe / Through me you pass into eternal pain / Through me to amongst the lost people.”

Bitter words, James says, but because it’s Italian you still get to say “tra la.”



Geoff Pynn 09.06.03 at 4:00 am

I’d venture to guess that thinking language x is more euphonic than language y is probably a function of one’s native language. Dante’s a good example. English-speakers take a special pleasure in rhyme, which is relatively difficult to achieve in English but very easy in Italian. Dante’s remarkable achievement of a zillion lines in terza rima is impressive and aesthetically pleasing no matter what language you’re coming from. But the euphoric pleasure it gives native English speakers is probably greater than that it gives native Italian speakers, since rhyme is a relatively mundane part of daily discourse for them.


tsquared 09.06.03 at 4:31 am

There is a law of conservation of accents:
Lost irish accent but gained american accent.


Kieran Healy 09.06.03 at 4:48 am

I didn’t say I’d lost my accent: I said I’d lost that accent. Now I have another one, unfortunately not as good.


Shai 09.06.03 at 5:09 am

I took a course in Japanese for aesthetic reasons. I don’t have the vocabulary to say why, but it sounds euphonic to me when soft spoken, however, I prefer the sound of English when the speaker is angry or agitated. Some of that aesthetic might be due to pitch accent or dialect accent in addition to word form and sentence structure. I don’t know. I found a discussion of likes and dislikes of locutions and accent in japanese dialects here

On a related note, I also don’t like the tonal system in Cantonese, or how the voice is often held at the end of a sentence or expression. I wonder whether that would change if I knew what the speaker was saying.


back40 09.06.03 at 5:36 am

To God I speak Spanish, to women Italian, to men French, and to my horse – German
– Charles V


Chris 09.06.03 at 8:57 am

I could go on about this all day! It is the central theme of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages and his Letter on French Music. According to him some languages are inherently unmusical and unsuited for a free people, others are not: ‘these are sonorous, prosodic, harmonious languages, in which discourse can be made out from a distance’ (Arabic, Greek, Chinese). Languages like French are, by contrast, well suited for ‘murmuring in Sultan’s council chambers’ but when used to address crowds, come across as relentless, incomprehensible shouting (Languages ch. 20).

The whole issue is central to the Querelle des Bouffons: the row that erupted between protagonists of French and Italian opera following to visit to Paris by an opera company performing Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona in the 1750s. (Which didn’t stop R from writing his own libretto to Le Devin du Village in French!).

I believe that Sasha Distel also expressed a view about the unmusicality of French recently, though he thought English was better (as Rousseau did not).

(BTW, I think Rousseau’s views in this area are absolutely nutty, in case anyone is worried that I’m endorsing them).


James Hamilton 09.06.03 at 2:32 pm

My wife hails from Detroit, but after a few years in the UK is now usually taken to be Irish. So if you want your accent back, Kieran, you’d better ask her.
I notice that in the second Lord of the Rings film, ‘The Two Towers’, the orcs are given the same exaggerated cockney accent that the BBC gives the characters in its London soap opera, “East Enders”. So if an American accent is depressing you, you could always come over here and give that a try.


Laura 09.06.03 at 10:42 pm

I’ve never understood why people say German is such an ugly language. Certainly it looks ugly on the page, which leads to Americans at least tending to overpronounce everything and make it ugly, but as spoken by a native speaker I think it’s really a lovely language. As opposed to French, which I find nasal and honking.


Randy Paul 09.07.03 at 2:11 am


I don’t know about German . . . I lived there three years and have a German ex-sister-in-law but the language never sounded nice to me. I suppose what bothered me about it were those compound words.

i will grant you this, however, it’s a lot more bearable than Dutch. No offense meant to any Dutch speakers, spoken Dutch sounds like someone clearing their throat to me.


John Isbell 09.07.03 at 3:35 am

I tend to find German crisp and distinctive when you overhear it. That’s always nice when travelling, to someone like myself who likes placing languages. All through Croatia, I kept wanting to say, “That’s just like the Russian!”, and decided they might find that less fascinating than I did.
I’m halfway through Elias Canetti’s “Auto da fe”, which I bought in Italy thinking he was Italian. He was a German Jew. So far, it’s one of the greatest novels of the C20th, to my mind (he won the Nobel). It’s also very depressing. I’m kind of glad I’m reading it in Italian, not German, it is so much more upbeat, as Clive James notes.


Matt McIrvin 09.07.03 at 2:22 pm

I find Dutch comical in both spoken and written forms, but I think that this is not an inherent property, but relative to my own native language: Dutch is so orthographically and phonetically similar to English, without being the same, that it resembles a parody of English. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Dutch speakers find English just as funny, for the same reason.

The tendency of English speakers to regard words of Germanic origin as low or common probably contributes to that. On the other hand, German has always had an intellectual gloss to me– but maybe that’s just because of its history as a major language of academic literature. It’s hard to separate inherent phonetic or visual properties of languages from cultural attitudes. German’s modern reputation as harsh and brutal probably stems at least in part from association with the world wars.

And shai’s comment just goes to show how subjective this stuff is. My impression from hearing spoken Japanese is that there’s no better language in the world to sound angry in– not just the mad shouting kind of anger but the quiet, close-to-boiling variety as well.


Matt McIrvin 09.07.03 at 2:44 pm

The page about pitch accent in Japanese reminds me of my single greatest problem speaking French, which is that French has a completely different accent system from English as well. There’s no inherently stressed syllable in a given word; a sentence will usually have a slight stress on the final syllable (usually greatly exaggerated in parodies of French accents). To an English speaker, an utterance in French will sound like a machine-gun burst of undifferentiated syllables, especially if it’s as fast and as heavily abbreviated as Parisians speak it.

This is also important for understanding the structure of French verse; the English notion of a metrical foot really doesn’t apply, and the dominant heroic verse form is just twelve syllables to a line with a sort of pause in the middle. On the other hand, French verse has a much more complicated system of rhymes than English does; because rhymes are so much easier in French (for essentially the same reason as in Italian), there are notions of “rich” and “poor” rhymes to make it more interesting, and a preponderance of poor rhymes will sound trite.

My own accent is basically Midwestern American English, which is even more heavily stressed and singsong than most English dialects (maybe because of influence from Scandinavian immigrants such as my great-grandfather). So my French sounds, I’m sure, utterly ridiculous to a French speaker, like the Swedish Chef on the old Muppet Show. I try to keep it under control and accent the syllables in the French way, but it’s extraordinarily hard.


David Bratman 09.07.03 at 5:53 pm

J.R.R. Tolkien, when he wasn’t making orcs speak cockney, had some interesting things to say about the (subjective, of course) inherent beauty of languages.

He felt that Welsh had that beauty, and used it as a model and source for his Elvish language Sindarin. In a scholarly essay, he wrote, “Most English-speaking people … will admit that ‘cellar door’ is beautiful, especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, ‘sky’, and far more beautiful than ‘beautiful’. Well then, in Welsh for me ‘cellar doors’ are extraordinarily frequent.”


nameless 09.07.03 at 10:05 pm

Adjacent to the men’s public urinal they perceived an icecream car round which a group of presumably Italians in heated altercation were getting rid of voluble expressions in their vivacious language in a particularly animated way, there being some little differences between the parties.

— Puttana madonna, che ci dia i quattrini! Ho ragione? Culo rotto!

— Intendiamoci. Mezzo sovrano più…

— Dice lui, però.

— Farabutto! Mortacci sui!


Mr Bloom, availing himself of the right of free speech, he having just a bowing acquaintance with the language in dispute though, to be sure, rather in a quandary over voglio, remarked to his protégé in an audible tone of voice, à propos of the battle royal in the street which was still raging fast and furious:

— A beautiful language. I mean for singing purposes. Why do you not write your poetry in that language? Bella Poetria! it is so melodious and full. Belladonna voglio.

Stephen, who was trying his dead best to yawn, if he could, suffering from lassitude generally, replied:

— To fill the ear of a cow elephant. They were haggling over money.

— Is that so? Mr Bloom asked. Of course, he subjoined pensively, at the inward reflection of there being more languages to start with than were absolutely necessary, it may be only the southern glamour that surrounds it.”


Stentor 09.07.03 at 11:21 pm

I vaguely recall hearing about a study a while back that had non-English speakers rate how nice various English words sounded. The highest marks went to “diarrhea.”

Finns sometimes cite the following as evidence of how ugly Finnish is: Ääliö! Älä lyö! Ööli läikkyy! (Idiot! Don’t hit me! Me beer’ll spill!) (Finnish pronunciation instructions)

My personal prejudice is that, off the languages I’ve heard enough to judge, Spanish is the nicest sounding, and Chinese the worst.


Tripp 09.08.03 at 4:29 pm

I also dislike Chinese, ot at least some dialect of it. There is something about the whiny ‘AHHH AWWW AWWW AWWW’ sound that drives me crazy.


nick sweeney 09.09.03 at 3:17 am

Finns sometimes cite the following as evidence of how ugly Finnish is

If we’re talking Tolkien here (not that I want to stretch it out) then it should be noted that ‘High Elven’ was modelled on Finnish.

Italian, with its more regular, ‘purer’ vowels, is more amenable to rhyme, of course. (Especially terza rima, no matter what Dorothy Sayers thought).

As for English, well, accent affects sonority: there’s a reason why Scots are chosen to read the news or answer phones in call centres (and get elected to power), because Scottish accents are generally less easily resolved into class judgements. There’s a reason why Brummies are considered thick by first impressions, why people from Leeds are considered reassuring, and why the sing-song of Welsh English-speakers and Geordies (moderated for common listeners) tends to be celebrated. I like the comment one writer made that my own Teesside accent is like the region: built to do a job, not tell a tale.

I’m interested in people who learn languages for reading purposes: Joyce learned Norwegian to read Ibsen, for instance. And I’ve no idea if he had much ‘sound-sense’ of the language, but I don’t know enough to say either way.

But there’s always the contention that the greatest stylists in English — the ones who make the language work hardest — are often those who come from outside the ‘English’ tradition. I’m not convinced by this, especially in the case of Irish or American writers, but I can think of an example from the other side: Samuel Beckett, who took French as his writing-language. It still surprises me that he remains on the English syllabus, to some extent.


Thomas Dent 09.09.03 at 5:47 pm

Durch mir geht man in dem betruebendem Stadt,
Durch mir geht man ins ewigem Schmerz,
Durch mir geht man unter dem verlorenen Volk.

Grammar a bit rusty, but there it is…

Somehow more convincing than the Italian? But you couldn’t go on for thousands of triolets like this.

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