Bernd Brunner, a native German speaker, reflects on how and why languages get a reputation for ugliness or beauty:
As far as I can tell, many people – including not only many Germans, but Americans – consider Italian to be the most beautiful language. Nasal French earns mixed reviews; some people find it elegant and sophisticated, while it sounds somehow stilted to others’ ears. Those who see fit to praise English – at least, if they’re from Europe – usually add in the same breath that “of course” they mean British English; specifically, the Oxford kind. Sadly, they forget that American English, especially as spoken on the East Coast, can express tremendous elegance and, yes, class. (And this judgment, of course, is quite objective). I think so, in any case, especially when I recall Bobbie Battista, the unforgettable, slightly and sexily cross-eyed former anchor for CNN International. It was a pleasure to listen to her, even when she was presenting terrible news from the first Gulf War. Anyway, you can make a mess of any language. It all depends on who is doing the talking and how he or she speaks – the speed, rhythm, and tone of voice. When some people open their mouths, the results sound more like yelling than talking. So isn’t it a little presumptuous to claim that one language is beautiful and another is ugly? Isn’t beauty entirely subjective? And what’s more: who actually knows every language and is in a position to make such a definitive judgment? The Japanese – to take just one example of a non-Western culture – seem to see the whole matter differently. A friend who is a professor in Tokyo explained to me that Japanese people generally consider their mother tongue to be the most beautiful, but also have a high opinion of French and the Polynesian languages.
…In the beauty contest of languages, Danish, Chinese, and Arabic usually bring up the rear. As a nonlinguist with no need to fear for my reputation – at least my academic one – I freely admit that I can’t warm up to the sound of Danish, especially when compared to Norwegian or, even better, unbelievably musical Swedish. But I pull myself together and remember that some people find beauty precisely where others don’t. To use a musical analogy, talking about languages this way is a little bit like trying to compare Vivaldi and Shostakovich.
…Don’t judgments about a language’s beauty or ugliness generally depend on our personal experiences with people who speak it, and the associations it evokes? Brazilian Portuguese is considered especially soft and melodic – and it inspires thoughts of the bossa nova and Copacabana. Spanish calls up visions of flamenco, bullfights, and – maybe – especially attractive people, and Italian calls to mind great architecture and delicious food, wine and, yes, Mafia. Of course these are clichés, but they still play a role in our perception that we simply can’t ignore.
I think a more apt analogy than Vivaldi v. Shostakovich is any musical instrument played badly or well. American vocal fry is ghastly, but a well-modulated announcer (Bobbie) can be pleasant. Received Pronunciation British English charms even Anglophobes, whereas scouse or geordie are an acquired taste. German's reputed to be harsh and guttural (people think of ranting Hitler), but in the right hands it is hypnotically rhythmic and melancholy:
In my personal league table Brazilian Portuguese comes out on top, because it's an instrument that just can't be played badly. It sounds playful and sexy even coming from a doofus like Ronaldinho:
But pair it with a voice like Marisa Monte's, and you have the soundtrack to nibbana nirvana: