TL;DR: Are there any categories for comparing languages based on properties like vowel range and sonority, e.g. the amount of "hard" elements (plosives etc.) or syllable frequency/rate of speech?

I have no background in linguistics except for what I have encountured during language learning, so I am unable to make comparisons with the appropiate jargon. I mean no disrespect whatsoever with the following subjective impressions.

There seems to be general consensus that "soft" or melodic languages are more pleasant to listen to, however vague such a description may be. I have always found this puzzling, as my in-built preference appears to be "harsher" languages with a somewhat limited vowel range, i.e. Spanish over French/Portuguese, Mandarin over Cantonese. Japanese and Korean are fine, while the sound of Dutch or Vietnamese would not entice me to learn them. Russian (+ other Slavic languages) and Arabic strike the perfect balance to my ears.

In addition to a dislike to nasalisation, most of the time it's the presence of diphtong/umlaut-like vowel transitions that make a particular language somewhat unpleasant to me - but that's just what it sounds like to me. While German (okayish) and Finnish (grating) have those, other languages listed don't (in such a prominant way). Cantonese and Mandarin share this feature, too, but in Cantonese, it sounds "strange" to me. Tonality is not the issue, either. What is it that I am perceiving?

I'd like to explore this in more depth, e.g. is there a correlation with one's native language/ an influence of which foreign languages one learns first. Which terms/fields (like lenition, sonority) should I look into further that are related to this issue from a linguistic perspective?

  • See the comment section on this (closed) question here: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/28404/9781 – jk - Reinstate Monica Oct 5 '20 at 9:24
  • "Soft" isn't just vague, it's meaningless. You say There seems to be general consensus that "soft" or melodic languages are more pleasant to listen to. I have no idea either what you're talking about, or where you discovered a "general consensus" on what's pleasant. Pleasant for whom? General consensus among whom? Soft according to whom? – jlawler Oct 7 '20 at 21:27

There are many many words which could be used to describe the phonetics of a language: harsh, mellow, staccato, tense, nasal, guttural, hollow and so on. I don't believe that anyone has assembled a collection of the most-frequent such words in online corpora, but it might be a doable computational data-mining project. Another labor-intensive approach would be to interview thousands of people, play samples of a language, and ask for a single word describing the sound of the language. That's about the categories. We don't have any such list.

Another thing that you'd need is a set of evaluations of languages, which we don't have. The more-scientific approach would be to select maybe 100 languages at random, make recordings of those languages, then subject speakers of any and all languages of the world to those recordings, asking the subject to upvote languages based on sound. You should control for actual knowledge of the target language, so that you know if someone is upvoting Spanish because it is Spanish, versus because of how it sounds. This is a basically impossible task, at the level of collecting the initial stimuli.

A related test is to simply ask people to rate or categorize languages based on the name of the language, for example "Italian sounds ___" or "I'd give Tamazight a ___ on the 5 star scale". Most people probably have some prejudice about Italian, and no clue about Tamazight.

Ultimately, you might study the correlation between mother tongue, target language, and evaluative term. To be meaningful, you'd need lots of speakers: it is a massive task. You would not actually learn anything about language from this study, though you might learn something about prejudices and aesthetic evaluation from the study. For these reasons, there are no terms that you can study up on – it's a much-needed gap in the literature.

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