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.
It’s one thing to be familiar with a language and another thing entirely to understand it. But can someone only find a language beautiful if he or she understands it? Is it necessary to first grasp what the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called “the spirit of the foreign language” – to understand how to think in the other language, to sink into it? According to Schopenhauer, those who fail to make this leap will never manage anything more than “parrot chatter.”
When I reflect on my own experiences, I have to admit that they corroborate Deutscher’s explanation. Until three years ago, before I started to learn Turkish, I didn’t really feel strongly about the language one way or another. It certainly didn’t sound particularly beautiful to me. But then I began to distinguish sounds as words or components. What’s more, I understood that the ways Turkish combines these components to produce meaning are radically different from the ways Indo-European languages function. As speaking and understanding Turkish required me to perform some mental acrobatics, my perspective on the language shifted dramatically. My deeper appreciation of Turkish not only went along with a deeper understanding of the country’s culture and people, but I also began to realize why Turks who learn German speak the way they do. And, of course, pride in mastering a language, only if to a certain extent, colored my emotional attitude towards it. Simply by learning Turkish, I was inclined to find it more beautiful.
In the end, beauty in language is just one of those things. There’s no reason not to follow your preferences, but it can’t hurt to think about why you consider one language more beautiful than the next. Unlike every generation before us, we can tune into just about every television or radio station on earth with just a few clicks of the mouse. Thanks to this enormous privilege, we are able to listen to the sound of difference and linger with – or even lose ourselves in – the language we like the most. Admittedly, I still haven’t fixed what’s “wrong” with German. But I’m working on keeping my cool the next time someone wants to bring it up.