Languages I Like and Don’t

Aug 5th, 2014 by Geckat in Sociolinguistics

A large part of being a conlanger, especially for the purpose of fiction writing, at least to me, is creating languages that I enjoy and that I do not.  Naturally, most of the languages we create will be language that we find pleasing on at least some level; however, sometimes we create languages for the exact opposite purpose.  The best example of this, I believe, is Tolkien’s Black Speech, which he famously despised.

The languages that I enjoy seem to have several commonalities to them: languages like Blackfoot, Finnish, Icelandic, Japanese.  Phonotactically, they vary greatly, which is surprising: Finnish and Japanese prefer CV or CVC syllables almost exclusively, while Blackfoot and Icelandic can have some very interesting consonant clusters, with Icelandic adoring its complex onsets and codas, and Blackfoot with its famous nuclear /s/.  Morphologically, however, they are all fairly synthetic.

It is perhaps a little shocking or depressing to say that a linguist has languages he or she hates, but there are certainly languages that I dislike myself, and it’s important to me to know just why so that I can utilize that in conlang creation.  I’m going to list three languages that I really do not enjoy hearing; I’d like to clarify that I do not mean any offence to those who speak or enjoy them: Spanish, Mandarin, and Punjabi.  These follow the opposite pattern from the languages I listed as enjoying: they are all quite isolating.  That having been said, I enjoy English, which is also extremely isolating; I might argue that English as it is spoken is quite a bit more synthetic-sounding, with all its contractions and the laziness of the schwa in everything that is unstressed (see: particles) that makes closed class words sound as though they merge with surrounding open class words.

The real problem with my hypothesis that my enjoyment of languages rests entirely on their morpheme-per-word ratios is that there are a few languages that I don’t mind hearing at all: Portuguese, Cantonese, Hindi.  Although I don’t speak any of these, to my ear the differences between Spanish and Portuguese, Mandarin and Cantonese, and Hindi and Punjabi are like night and day, despite the fact that these languages are all similarly isolating and have much the same phonologies and lexicons.  So now we need to get into some basic psychology: the fact is, although I have nothing against the people who speak them, I have had more experiences with Spanish, Mandarin, and Punjabi than Portuguese, Cantonese and Hindi — more to the point, experiences with very loud fellow students, roommates, or coworkers who speak them.

And that is, to be frank, what it comes down to: it’s a kind of subtle linguistic racism I can’t quite escape, but this resentment of “loudness” in a language agrees with my general preference for synthetic languages as well: a language with more morphemes, more syllables per word, has fewer stressed syllables, and may sound naturally quieter.  Popular culture even seems to pick up on this, with the quiet Native American typical of movies versus the voice of the Chinese man on the street whose voice carries over the entire block.  Is it racism, or a legitimate side-effect of the typology of the language in question?

Whatever it is might be an interesting topic of study in the future.  For now, it’s good to know a piece of what endears me towards certain languages and drives me from others; I have always been a quiet individual, and as is the often unfortunate nature of humans, I am instinctively driven towards familiarity, even in the otherwise haphazard judgement of foreign languages.

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