Thursday 04 September 2003

So euphonious to me

Apart from the foreign movies and documentaries that SBS broadcasts, there’s hardly anything worth watching on free-to-air television in Australia, now that the current season of The Sopranos has finished. And I’m not willing to shell out $78 (US$50/€46) per month for cable (which is what I’d have to pay for a package that includes classic and contemporary movies). So most of my time in front of the TV is spent watching movies on DVD or those I’ve taped from SBS.

I’ve seen a lot of Chinese movies lately: Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle, Hsiao-hsien Hou’s City of Sadness, Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less and The Road Home, and—most recently—He Ping’s Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker.

All these movies, despite their disparate stories and styles, have one thing in common: the characters speak Mandarin. And, even though I don’t understand a word of Mandarin, I adore the sound of that lovely musical language.

Last night SBS broadcast From the Queen to the Chief Executive, Herman Lau’s movie about a young man held in gaol in Hong Kong, “at Her Majesty’s pleasure”; in other words, detained for an indefinite period without any expectation of release. The film was well-written and directed with good acting and engaging characters, yet within ten minutes I was ready to turn off the TV. I persevered, and I’m glad I did, but it was tough going because the Cantonese dialog made it difficult for me to enjoy the film. I’ve never been interested in Hong Kong action movies either, partly because I find their mixture of humor and violence crass and predictable, mainly because I dislike the sound of Cantonese. (Even Amy at the Chinese restaurant, who was born in Hong Kong, once admitted to me that Cantonese doesn’t sound particularly pleasant.)

Last week, in the train, I was sitting in front of a two men who were speaking in (what I guessed was) a South-Asian language and I caught myself thinking, “What an unattractive-sounding language.” Immediately I started to wonder about what makes one language sound more pleasing than another to an individual ear.

Not surprisingly, Google searches on “beautiful sounding language” and “language sounds beautiful” yield conflicting opinions—though Tolkien appears near the top of each list of results: Quenya is described as “the most beautiful sounding model language, spoken by one of the most compelling fictional races ever portrayed” while Tolkien’s love of Welsh is frequently cited.

The languages I find most beautiful are Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, German, and Vietnamese (of course Japanese is far-and-away my favorite, though I admit that Mandarin is more euphonious).

No doubt it’s politically incorrect to suggest that one language sounds better than another—such a preference is admittedly subjective. Perhaps every language sounds beautiful to its native speakers (Amy excepted). Yet the very existence of a word like “euphonious” suggests that some languages do sound better than others.

euphonious adjective (of sound, especially speech) pleasing to the ear

euphonious pleasant-sounding, sweet-sounding, mellow, mellifluous, dulcet, sweet, honeyed, lyrical, silvery, silver-toned, golden, bell-like, rhythmical, lilting, pleasant, agreeable, soothing; harmonious, melodious, melodic, tuneful, musical, symphonious; informal easy on the ear; rare mellifluent, canorous.
-opposite(s): cacophonous.

In the absence of objective criteria, I’ll continue to regard Mandarin as euphonious and Cantonese as cacophonous (as I await the barrage of complaints from Cantonese speakers).

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A few caveats:

Native speakers of a language do not necessarily regard it as euphonious. I personally think English is butt-ugly, and German is worse. I come at this from a choral singer's perspective, though -- English and German are unquestionably viciously difficult to sing effectively.

Tolkien's enjoyment of Welsh manifests more in Sindarin than Quenya. Quenya riffs off Latin, Spanish, and Finnish. (Which is not to say that either Elvish language is directly derivative of any natural language, to put *that* tired old argument to rest. It's a question of sound system resemblance and the odd vocabulary pun, nothing more.)

Interestingly, Quenya-love may be a peculiarly English-speaker thing. Danes, Norwegians, and Finns have gone on record as not finding Quenya particularly special. Go figure. One of these days I'm going to start the _Journal of Unnatural Language_ to investigate precisely such questions as these. :)

Your choice of euphonious languages is... curious; as a whole, the languages chosen are more dissimilar than similar. I would be interested to see you elaborate on what you find pleasing in each language, or in the group as a whole.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"I don’t understand a word of Mandarin"

as a japanese speaker, you may find you understand a bit more than you realize, though certainly not anything that would be useful in watching a movie. i was surprised while living in taiwan at the number of words that share the same sound and meaning between japanese and mandarin. i had expected many words to share either sound or meaning, but not both. if you can, you might try watching a movie with both english and chinese subtitles on, and watch for words you can understand.

Posted by scott reynen on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Like Dorothea, I find your choice of languages curious (German? Vietnamese? the latter, I would think, would have a similar effect to Cantonese) and would welcome elaboration if you can put words to what bothers you. But I don't mind the basic idea; the fact that all languages are in some sense "equal" doesn't mean we can't prefer one to another, just as we do with people. Me, I find Brazilian Portuguese more euphonious than the other Romance languages (Italian, frequently praised for its sonic beauty, is too "pretty" for me -- I like a little grit in my languages, as I do in people); I love Russian, but I can't separate out my pleasure in the sound of it from my pleasure in the whole package (much as I can't separate out my wife's looks from everything else I love about her); like you, I prefer the sound of Japanese to that of Mandarin and the latter to Cantonese (and any of them to Fujianese/Taiwanese), but not nearly so strongly; and I really dislike German.

Posted by language hat on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

To my (native BrE listener) ear Cantonese is the loveliest language to listen to without comprehension that I've ever come across!

Posted by des on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I watched "Beijing Bicycle" recently, too. I love the way Mandarin sounds, and I wish I could devote a year or two to studying the language in China. Not meant to be, sadly.

A lot of my experience is centered on the Slavic languages, and that family alone is interesting in this respect. Ukrainian, by comparison to Russians, seems really ridiculous. I like the way Czech and Polish sound a lot, though I enjoy speaking Polish more than Czech.

As for Portuguese, I heard it for the first time this summer. To me it sounds like a Slavic language lost in Western Europe. ;-)

Posted by Chris on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Hmm, I have not ever heard a language spoken which I would describe as unpleasant to listen to -- I tend for perhaps obvious reasons to prefer (as a purely auditory experience) languages which I do not understand (of which there are many) to those I do (of which there are precious few). So my list of "euphonious languages" would include every one I have heard spoken very much. Do you differentiate between different German dialects in your love of its sound (or you, LanguageHat, in your hatred)? I think they sound fairly different and if pressed would say I prefer the sound of Bairisch to that of Hochdeutsch -- but that is, I expect, largely because I've heard more of the former spoken than the latter.

Posted by Jeremy Osner on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

What's so politically incorrect about expressing your opinion on the relative cocophony/euphony of a language?

I have a Blue Jay squawking in my yard at the moment. It's a very striking bird. But I cannot stand it's crow like caw caw.

But I'm thinking that if your primary exposure to both Cantonese and Mandarin language is film, Jonathon, perhaps then the real problem is the quality of the acting.

There's a certain Hollywood style of acting that prevents me from watching just about any current American film. It's not the accent, it's the mumbling, the delivery, the lethargy.

Though, I grew up in a neighbourhood that became predominantly Cantonese/Chinese. And well...I have to agree, I found the language - the way it was spoken by neighbours at any rate - grating.

As for finding any sort objective criteria on this issue - fuggedaboutit.

Not everything can be measured.

Posted by bmo on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Russian! The chewy consonants, those vowels like something lovely, dark and deep, even when sung by exploitative Europop girl groups: peasant bread, dark chocolate, yes yes. (I wholly understand Jamie Lee Curtis's reaction to John Cleese's linguistic performance in A Fish Called Wanda.)

I worked for a market research phone bank once, which did an annual census/survey for the state; to accurately reflect certain populations, we had to bring in bilingual callers to conduct the survey: mostly Spanish, Russian, and Vietnamese. Vietnamese was my favorite to listen to: it had (yes) a musical quality to it over and above the usual "sing-song" of a tonal language that delighted my ear. (I have a hard time expressing how it sounded to my delighted ear without resorting to words like "chirp," which don't do at all, so I won't.)

I just saw a Jackie Chan flick in which a social-climbing police detective was upbraided for speaking Mandarin, and told to switch to Cantonese; I tried to catch the shift, and couldn't. (I'm not at all versed in the difference, and it was a quick exchange.) --I'm assuming, since mostly what I've seen has been Hong Kong action flicks, that mostly what I've been hearing is Cantonese--and mostly what I've been hearing tends to have a not un-endearingly snarky, almost hectoring sound to it: the way the vowels bend makes the earnest declaration of a hero sound like a snotty adolescent scoring a sarcastic point in a debate.

But maybe that's the performance, and not so much the language.

Posted by --kip on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Just for clarification, I don't expect to find any "objective criteria" for euphony, which is essentially subjective anyway. That isn't even a question that interests me.

I would myself like to understand the connections, if any, between native language and experience of euphony. How conditioned *is* the aesthetic response to language, and by what?

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

OK, Kip, now I have to tell my Mandarin-Cantonese story. When I was teaching in Taiwan, with my usual perversity I was studying Cantonese (useless there), and after I returned to the States I decided to practice at a restaurant. I carefully brought out sentences like "May I have chopsticks?" and was delighted when the waiter understood and I was able to understand his replies, which were slower and clearer than I was used to hearing. Delighted, that is, until he hesitated over a word, said it in Mandarin, and I realized it wasn't his native language any more than it was mine! We had a good laugh, and I felt like a complete idiot.

Posted by language hat on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I just happen to love the sound of Amharic.

As for the singability of German: it can be extremely sensual. Try Nikos Mamangakis music for "Die zweite Heimat". Mostly instrumental, but listen to "Else Lasker-Schuller's Fragments - Dein Herz ist wie die Mond so Hell" ...

Posted by Jonas on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I don't speak anything other than English, but have an Iranian friend who is a poet and, at the slightest prompting, will recite Farsi poetry old and modern at great length. I have no idea what it means, but it sounds beautiful. Also Arabic.

Posted by qB on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Okay I'm going to killed for this, but:

Some months back I was working on an impression of usama bin laden - for a radio drama - don't ask.

His voice is perversely hypnotic, yes, but the language - is astoundingly beautiful. Of course I have no idea really what he was saying - well, I do, post facto - merely from an aesthetic point view? aurally, bliss. It was almost Glaswegian.

And, for Dorothea, about conditioning: I like Picasso, I'm not fond of Dali. Go figure.

Seriously, it's precognitive. Something to do with the womb. And levels of amniotic fluid and its muffling effect on external auditory stimulus.

Posted by bmo on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Brazilian Portuguese, whether sung or spoken, is extremely euphonious (to me). Peninsular Portuguese sounds vaguely Slavic and doesn't produce in me the same effect. Yet the objective differences between them are rather slight. There can be enormous differences within a language, whether due to dialect or idiolect.

Tonal languages probably sound euphonious, which would explain attraction of Mandarin.

Posted by Jonathan on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

But, Jonathon, Cantonese has more tones than Mandarin!

Posted by language hat on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Wow, what a fascinating range of responses! Thanks.

I hadn't thought of my choice of favorite languages as particularly curious, although I admit it lacks a common thread. I guess it's not unlike the fact that one's musical tastes can encompass a wide range of artists/composers. For instance, I like Nancy Wilson and Nanci Griffith (though not Nancy Sinatra).

Jeremy, I can't differentiate between German dialects, though my ear is probably good enough to pick up differences once they were pointed out.

Although I described myself as not understanding a word of Mandarin, Scott is correct. When watching a film in Mandarin, I do pick up an occasional word whose Japanese meaning I understand from the context.

Des, I'm glad someone spoke up in defence of Cantonese. But, for me, Kip gets it right when he says that Cantonese has "un-endearingly snarky, almost hectoring sound to it". I also can't do any better than Kip's description of Vietnamese as having a "musical quality to it over and above the usual 'sing-song' of a tonal language that delighted my ear".

I agree with bmo's point that film doesn't necessarily offer felicitous examples of languages well-spoken -- I've noticed an incredible decline in the diction of American film actors over the years. But my experience of Mandarin vs. Cantonese also comes from listening to native speakers of both languages.

I am also greatly interested in Dorothea's question: How conditioned our aesthetic response to language is, and by what? I'm surprised that there hasn't been any research done on this subject. (I suspect bmo might be right when he suggests it's pre-congnitive.)

qB, I can recognize Arabic but have never heard Farsi, which I understand is a beautiful language to listen to (as is Brazilian Portuguese, I've heard).

LH, JonathAn made the comment about tonal languages sounding euphonious. (I wasn't aware that Cantonese had more tones than Mandarin.)

Posted by Jonathon on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

THat's interesting Jonathon - I'm terrible at languages - no talent for it what so ever, but I've always loved the sound of the romantic languages, welsh and , somewhat oddly the click languages of the San and Hadzabe in Africa.

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

When, after nearly eight years of being the fiercely "banana" [a Chinese perjorative expression that basically means: Yellow (Chinese) on the outside; White (Western) on the inside], I went back to studying Chinese, the first Mandarin film I watched was Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home". I found it very moving.

I must say though, that I find it funny that people do think of Mandarin as a beautiful language. I've always thought of French as a beautiful language, and also German. Perhaps it is fascination with the alien, perhaps not.

Posted by lashlar on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

There's something about Japanese and Mandarin that makes them very pleasant to listen to, even when all you're listening to is a pair of bureaucrats talking on the phone, or an announcement that your plane is delayed.

I don't know Japanese, but I know just enough Mandarin to think that I sometimes understand what I'm hearing, so it's not a question of just not knowing the language and hearing it as music. With Cantonese, I guess I associate it with kung-fu movies, where it's always being spoken by panicked young women, evil assasins and good guys bent on revenge. I don't find it aesthetically pleasing either, but it may have more to do with that than any actual euphony.

But then, I mostly just speak Germanic languages and Canadian French. A good thick joual sounds like a particularly vicious cat fight, and German is still - somewhere in the back of my mind - a litergical language fit primarily for religious discourse.

Posted by Scott Martens on 5 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

And this is another one of those "most of my experience comes from movies," but: Japanese always struck me as a great language for yelling at someone in. Getting up a good head of righteously indignant steam; blowing it in a stylishly high dudgeon.

(Also: I said "not un-endearingly." You sly dog, you. Though I will agree that the snarkiness hobbles Cantonese in the euphony sweepstakes.)

Posted by --kip on 6 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

JonathOn: D'oh! Sorry about that; I just hope my eagle eye is working better than that when I'm getting paid for it. Anyway, yeah, Cantonese has seven tones; you can see a nice diagram at the bottom of this page:

Posted by language hat on 6 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Hi -- what a fascinating discussion. I agree that it's not unreasonable to prefer one language over another for purely aesthetic reasons -- as a singer I always prefer German, Russian and even Latin over French and Italian, because of an inchoate sense that the latter two don't have enough "bone" (an aesthetic term from Chinese calligraphy which basically implies the presence of an interior strength and structure).

I'm a fluent non-native speaker of Mandarin and have lived in Mainland China for many years. (For the record, I'm an art historian who works on 5th and 6th century Chinese Buddhist sculpture.) I also speak Japanese inexpertly, and a little Shanghai dialect and German. It was always interesting to me that the conventional wisdom about Mandarin vs. Cantonese in northern China was that Cantonese was infinitely preferable *for singing*, whereas Mandarin sounded more refined when spoken. I agree that it's hard to sing in Mandarin, with its voiced retroflex consonants. But I always thought it funny that the singability of Cantonese was commonly advanced as an explanation for the popularity of Cantopop (rather than the glamourous Hong Kong lifestyle that it, together with HK action flicks and music videos, represented). Meanwhile, Mandarin, which 150 years ago was nobody's native language (it derives from a lingua franca spoken by imperial officials so they could all understand each other, despite coming from different regions -- though Mandarin is based on Beijing dialect, they're not the same thing) is the intellectual snob dialect of China. Interestingly, a lot of mainlanders find Suzhou dialect to be a strongly feminizing dialect (it just sounds girly to them) and so they find it unattractive in men but very appealing in women. I never could hear the difference myself.

A few other responses to previous comments: Scott Reynan pointed out that Mandarin and Japanese share a lot of words that are similarly pronounced and have similar meaning (for what it's worth this is true to a certain extent of Korean too). This is an artifact of two historical moments: first, the adoption of Chinese script by the Nara-period Japanese in the 7th century, with the concomitant adoption of a whole bunch of Chinese vocabulary (hence the on, or maybe it's kun, readings of Japanese kanji -- you know, the way there's often a "Chinese" and a "Japanese" reading for things). The second historical moment (OK, glossing over 1300 years of cultural exchange) was the 20th century when Japanese scholars coined a lot of terms to translate concepts from European scholarship, especially German scholarship. I'm familiar with the sociological and anthropological ones, like minzoku, shuukyoo (sorry, no macrons), or kokka, which correspond to Mandarin minzu (ethnicity), zongjiao (religion), and guojia (nation-state). Many of these terms were borrowed back by Chinese scholars who'd studied in Japan (and been introduced to Western scholarship there).

Kip points out that he (she?) finds Japanese a good language for cussing in and I have to admit that's mostly what I used to use Shanghai dialect for, since Mandarin is a singularly unsatisfying language for this purpose. Of course you can't really yell at someone in Shanghai dialect outside of Shanghai, so once I no longer lived there it wasn't much use.

And last of all, I think some of what makes a language sound endearing is familiarity: growing up in northern Maine, I heard a lot of backwoods Quebecois French spoken, and though I never learned to speak it myself, it still has the power to make me smile, as when I was in Bangor recently and someone said to me "Comment ca flip?" (to which the answer is "Ca flip pretty good" if you want to know).

Posted by xiaolongnu on 6 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

My feeling is that some of the recognizable Japanese / Chinese pairs heard in Taiwan might have been learned by the Taiwanese during the 60-year Japanese occupation. Chinese words in Japanese have gone through their own eveolution and are often completely unrecognizable (Laozi = Roshi).

My feeling about French, from a provincial American perspective, is that it sounds lewd. The gargled r's, the umlauted u, and some other features that I can't remember the names of.

Posted by zizka on 7 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I love the sound of Cantonese, but that may indicate my tastes rather than its euphony.

Posted by Ray on 7 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The language I find most beautiful is Potawatomi.

Posted by Shelley on 7 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I like the sound of Spanish (which I speak nearly fluently) and Mandarin (which I don't speak that well). Hmmm... let me think. I don't have any strong feelings about Japanese or German (in which I know a few phrases). Although I can sort of read French and am interested in learning it, I don't like the way it sounds. And I think English, my native language, is pretty ugly.

I think Sindarin and Quenya are absolutely lovely, though. I like Sindarin a bit more than Quenya; Quenya seems to me like it's just a *little* overdone, like dessert that's a bit too sweet.

I don't know any Cantonese, but I definitely like the sound of Mandarin better. Maybe it has something to do with Mandarin's restrictive phonology. In Mandarin, words can only end with a vowel, "n," or "ng" (as in sing). In Cantonese, words can end with a handful of other consonants too.

Posted by Rachel on 8 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Not just for the sake of being a contrarian, and perhaps because of the nature of my present circumstances, allow me to opine that I find the most euphonious language to be that of silence.

Posted by Dave Rogers on 11 September 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

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