A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I love the blog The Linguistics Zone - there is a reason I link to it here. But I really have to disagree with this post, in which John repeats the commonly held sentiment that Romance Languages and languages with lots of vowels = musical, and that German and languages with lots of consonants = ugly/not musical.

I hear this from everyone I know. "French and Italian and Spanish are pretty! THEY HAVE VOWELS!" and "German is hideous! It's like, *spitting* 'ACH' all the time and there are no vowels!"

Some of you may know that I think German is incredibly gorgeous. And I absolutely cannot stand Italian and Spanish, two of, in my opinion, the ugliest languages on the planet. French is okay, but I don't agree with everyone who says that it's OMG BEAUTIFUL.

But that's a matter of personal opinion, obviously. And what I really want to talk about right now is the conception that more vowels and less consonants automatically makes a language more "musical".

First of all, remember that there are different types of music. And what sounds good with one type of music will not sound that way with another. For example, a large portion of my experience with German comes from musicals. And though there are, of course, ballads, songs on average tend to be faster than they would be in, say, classical music. And German works with that speed. Those consonant clusters and hard consonant sounds that in John's opinion make German "not really musical" sounds great when sung fast. Because the consonants create a bouncing effect - quickly transferring the singer from vowel to another in the quick rhythm. On the other hand, go and listen to a fast Italian pop song. Because of the lack of substantially hard consonants, all those "musical" vowels run together into one big messy phonetic soup.

Now, the same might not be true of German when it is sung more slowly. Because I've sung a lot of German opera, I do know that quite often the language sounds awkward for those long, held out, slow lines. Because then the consonants do sound like they're getting in the way as opposed to being helpful.

(That being said, I think Italian and Spanish in slow music still sound awful. Nothing will get me to like these languages.)

Also, what really bothers me about this method of measuring "musicality" is the assumption that consonants, especially hard ones and clusters, aren't beautiful. Or that vowels are automatically beautiful. For me, what makes a language beautiful/musical is not just having lots of vowels. For me, the musicality comes from the combinations of vowels and consonants, and how they work together. What drew me to Hungarian (which I rate as second-most musical language I've heard - give three guesses on the first) was how interesting the structure of the words were. Consonants that seemed like they should be clusters but somehow weren't combined with these cool-sounding new vowels! In fact, I liked the fact that there were almost never multiple vowels in a row.

And those guttural German clusters that everyone else seems to think are ugly? I love 'em! Sure, they're hard to say when you're just learning the language, but I still think they sound nice. Because they're paired with vowels in an interesting way. Languages like Italian and Spanish, and yes, French too, do not take advantage of the possibilities of phonetics at their disposal.

(All that being said, Dutch...doesn't use those guttural sounds too well. Sorry dude.)

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you're another German lover! I think it's beautiful! I think Spanish and Italian are 'pretty'but they're too refined for me. German is rougher and more expressive, which I think portrays far more beauty.

    That said, I'm also slightly biased because I'm a singer and I've sung in both German and Italian, and I find German easier, not because it's more similar to English, but because I listen to a lot of songs in German anyway so I know it's sound.