SCIENCE

German Sounds Harsher Than Other Languages, And Here's Why (VIDEO)

08/03/2013 10:19 am 10:19:47 | Updated Aug 03, 2013

German just isn't the gentlest-sounding language -- at least not to the ears of English speakers. Just have a look and listen at the video above, which uses silly costumes and hokey stagecraft to show just how seven everyday words sound in German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish.

The video is fun to watch, but it may reflect a common if generally unspoken feeling about the tough, guttural sounds of spoken German.

"When people talk about 'harsh-sounding' languages, they're usually referring to languages that have sounds made in the back of the vocal tract," Dr. Lisa Davidson, a professor of linguistics at New York University, told The Huffington Post in an email. She said the sounds -- known in the world of linguistics as uvulars and pharyngeals -- are made by constricting the tongue against the back wall of the throat.

But the perspective of the listener may also accentuate the seeming harshness of spoken German. "There's no reason to believe the 'linguistic myth' that certain languages are inherently harsh-sounding in any objective sense," Thomas Shannon, Professor of German Linguistics and Dutch Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Huffington Post in an email. Shannon also noted that negative stereotypes about speakers of languages based on prejudices and past history can create an inaccurate perception of German.

One could even make a case that the video is simply perpetuating an old stereotype about spoken German.

"Americans sometimes finger the uvular fricatives ("r") in German as harsh, but French has the same sound and French doesn't get called harsh," Sharon Inkelas, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Huffington Post in an email. "The 'harsh' tag is an obsolete cultural stereotype in my opinion, not worth piling onto."

One thing is for sure: Lots of people speak German. In fact, German is the most widely spoken language in the European Union and the tenth most widely spoken language in the world.

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