Italian is sexy, German is rough—but how about Páez or Tamil? Are there universal phonesthetic judgments based purely on the sound of a language, or are preferences attributable to language-external factors such as familiarity and cultural stereotypes? We collected 2,125 recordings of 228 languages from 43 language families, including 5 to 11 speakers of each language to control for personal vocal attractiveness, and asked 820 native speakers of English, Chinese, or Semitic languages to indicate how much they liked these languages. We found a strong preference for languages perceived as familiar, even when they were misidentified, a variety of cultural-geographical biases, and a preference for breathy female voices. The scores by English, Chinese, and Semitic speakers were weakly correlated, indicating some cross-cultural concordance in phonesthetic judgments, but overall there was little consensus between raters about which languages sounded more beautiful, and average scores per language remained within ±2% after accounting for confounds related to familiarity and voice quality of individual speakers. None of the tested phonetic features—the presence of specific phonemic classes, the overall size of phonetic repertoire, its typicality and similarity to the listener’s first language—were robust predictors of pleasantness ratings, apart from a possible slight preference for nontonal languages. While population-level phonesthetic preferences may exist, their contribution to perceptual judgments of short speech recordings appears to be minor compared to purely personal preferences, the speaker’s voice quality, and perceived resemblance to other languages culturally branded as beautiful or ugly.
Antal sidor7
TidskriftProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
StatusPublished - 2023 apr. 17

Ämnesklassifikation (UKÄ)

  • Jämförande språkvetenskap och lingvistik
  • Etologi


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