I have the excellent good fortune to teach English in a department of English and Modern Languages. This means the hall where we live is filled with people who are bilingual and multilingual. It means we have majors in Spanish as well as English, and minors, certificates, and courses in several other languages. It means I hear different languages daily, some of which I can pick out words and follow conversations, and some of which I know next to nothing and can only hear the music. This post is about why that is valuable.
Recently I had a discussion about the sounds of different languages. You know the stereotypes—Romance languages sound lovely, but Germanic sound harsh, like you’re being yelled at. In fact, it was sparked by this meme:
In some ways that’s not wrong—languages that have a preponderance of words that end in vowels, like Italian or Spanish, sound like the words run together more fluidly, since the vowel of the last word joins to the consonant in the next word just like the syllables do in a single word. This makes the words flow together in a way that the consonant-heavy Germanic languages can’t achieve. In German or English, words more often end in consonants, which means you have to stop the flow of air more often. It sounds like you pause on purpose after each word so you can pronounce them all, and also to differentiate between words. It means you get more of a staccato, shotgun sound as you utter the sentence.
Compare, for instance, part of a line from Dante’s Purgatorio : “Lo sommo er’ alto che vincea la vista…” (Purg. 4.40)–where every word ends in a vowel except the one that’s been abbreviated for the sole purpose of keeping the musical vowel-consonant alteration–with a line from Rilke’s “Evening”: Der Abend wechselt langsam die Gewӓnder,” where the only word that doesn’t end with consonants is an article (‘the’). Americans tend to view the Italian as more musical and the German as more aggressive, just on the basis of whether there are more vowels or consonants.
Imagine our dismay, then, when we think about English—that glorious bastard tongue of “German spoken with a French accent,” as one of my French professors used to say. Is it German? Is it Romance? (English has a whole lot of Latin borrowing as well, and American English is busy borrowing from Spanish as we speak.) So which is it? Both?
The difference for me is not that one is more beautiful than another. (I have heard people be very seductive and debonair in German.) It’s more that they are both musical until we know what they say. When we have no clue, we can focus on the sound—the lilt of Romance or the rhythm of Germanic. As Jorge Luis Borges says in his gorgeous essay on his blindness, when you don’t know a language, “each word [is] a kind of talisman that [you] unearth.” Each word rings with strangeness and music, and comes out more a chant than a sentence.
This is a reason to study another language. In addition to making you more cosmopolitan, introducing you to other cultures and gaining a better understanding of your own language’s grammar, you get to experience that music. You get to enjoy the process of turning that music in to meaning. Because that’s the problem with listening to a language you already know, particularly natively: you are so busy making it mean something, you forget to listen to how beautifully it sings.