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Romantic Languages: Not Necessarily Romance Languages Posted by on Sep 8, 2014 in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Fearfully YoursToday I’m going to completely disagree with my own comic.

I made the above strip a while back and thought I could mine some easy chuckles from a common stereotype. But now that I’m older, wiser, and more proficient in all of the above languages, I’ve come change my tune. Not only that, I’m going to crusade on behalf of those languages which I believe have been wrongly maligned by simplistic labels and bad first impressions. Any language can be romantic—not just the so-called romance languages!

Of course, the “romance” in the term “romance language” doesn’t refer to how effective it is in attracting members of the opposite sex; rather, it just means it’s a language rooted in Latin, the language of the Romans (it’s embarrassing how recently it was that I found this out myself). Yet there’s this pervading opinion that French, Italian, and Spanish are the world’s prettiest-sounding languages—apart from my own unscientific questioning of friends and relatives, the Kings of Romance seem to dominate most of the top-10 lists I can find on the web as well. They’re cited as being “melodic,” “flowing,” “cheerful,” and “easy on the ears.”

At the bottom of most lists, grumbling and grouching, are usually German, Russian, and the other Slavic languages. (Strangely, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese tend to vacillate on people’s lists between ugliest and prettiest. Not sure what that’s about.) They’re cursed with being “guttural,” “harsh,” and “like someone is choking on potatoes.”

Now, apart from this being a completely subjective topic, I believe it’s unfair. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most of this is just the influence of popular culture. Paris, Barcelona, Venice: these are routinely cited as our planet’s most romantic cities. Italian and Spanish men are well-known for being aggressive pursuers of love, while the women are widely regarded as fiery and passionate. Thanks in no small part to Pepé Le Pew, the French are stereotyped as smooch-heavy seducers. All this, in my opinion, leads to romance tongues’ reputation for romance.

In fact, while these languages certainly can be romantic, they can just as easily not. French talk radio (like talk radio anywhere) reminds me of someone trying to swallow marbles. The pitter-patter of Italian can quickly become a nagging, fiery rat-tat-tat. And Spanish has so many accents across the world that I’m sure each one occupies a space on someone else’s “ugly” list.

German and Russian, on the other hand, can be mightily sexy. This all depends on what game you’re playing, of course, but there’s something to be said for those commanding tones, don’t you think? And I’m sure if we could find Looney Tunes cartoons in Serbian, Pepé Le Pew would sound just the same.

Any beautiful person with a winning smile and a killer line can seduce you, it doesn’t matter which language they’re speaking. Confidence, assertiveness, charisma, and humor play a much bigger role in attracting the opposite sex than whether your tones are nasal or guttural.

Likewise, if a large, nasty person with a bad attitude and a bone to pick is verbally assaulting you in a so-called “romance” language, you’re not going to place it very high on your list.

Okay, fine, let’s hear it: what do you think are the most and least beautiful languages around? But more interesting, perhaps – have you been seduced by German? Have you been turned off by Italian? Where have you seen the stereotypes inverted?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Catherine:

    For me personally, the most beautiful language in the world is Turkish 🙂 I had fallen in love with it long time before I visited Turkey, before I made any acquaintances with native speakers, I only heard 2 or 3 songs and I thought: ‘Wow, I want to understand and speak this language’.
    As for the least beautiful languages, they are, to my mind, French and Chinese. French sounds to me exactly the way you described it in your article – as if somebody is trying to swallow someone, or IS eating someone and trying to say something at the same time. Disgusting. Chinese sounds to me as if a cat is trying to sing or to scream or to say something at all.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Catherine Interesting choice! I like that you didn’t go for one of the crowd-pleasers.

      • Garry Britton:

        @Malachi Rempen As a linguist I agree with much of the article. But I do think attraction to ‘the opposite sex’ is not inclusive of attraction to the same sex. Romance comes in various forms, you know!

        • Malachi Rempen:

          @Garry Britton You’re absolutely right. “the opposite sex” such a common phrase in this context, I didn’t even think about it. What would be better?

  2. Stivel:

    I don’t agree with most people, I mean Italian is probably the most romantic to me. French on the other hand sounds pretty gross hahaha. I’d rather hear Russian or German any day over French.

  3. Angel:

    Hello,

    I follow your blog. I noticed that on the Spanish version you added “Te quiero” instead of “Te amo”, why is that? you say “te quiero” to a close person but you say “Te amo” to your significant other and all other images express that feeling.
    Just wanted to note that small difference.

    Cheers!

    Angel.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Angel I learned in school that “te quiero” was “I love you,” and I’ve heard many love songs where they say that. Is it possible it depends on the region? Or perhaps a difference between Spain Spanish and Central/South American Spanish?

      • Napo2k:

        @Malachi Rempen It’s more a difference in intensity, that English language doesn’t have. “amar” > “querer”

        I believe that in “Latin American Spanish” (for lack of a better term), “te amo” actually is acceptable for friends or people you might care enough about, though I might be wrong on this.
        In “Spain’s Spanish”, “Te quiero” is used more widely (for instance, Jason Segel’s “I love you, man” is translated as “Te quiero, tío”, and it’s not about a romantic relationship, but about friendship), whereas “te amo” is reserved for your gf/bf/significant otter/potato.

        As far as I know, there is no word in English for “amar” (the love love), only for “querer” (the friends/family/etc love). It’s one of those things that get lost in translation.

        Please note that it’s also perfectly acceptable to say “te quiero” (instead of “te amo”) to your significant other. Just not the other way around.

      • Jade:

        @Malachi Rempen I have heard of using both ways for saying “I love you”. It could just be a preference thing!

      • Nico:

        @Malachi Rempen Hi there, nope, I’m from Argentina and Angel is right, “Te quiero” is more common and you tell it to friends and more often. “Te amo” is stronger and used only with your significant other, or with family in rare occasions. Hej då!

      • Alex:

        @Malachi Rempen Exactly. It is a wiki about http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_dialects_and_varieties
        Personally, I suppose ‘melodic’+ness (somehow correspond to ‘romantic’) of language are defined by vowels in it (is it hard to sing using this particular language or not).

        • Flor:

          @Alex Angel is right, “te quiero” is not very commited. To your couple you say “te amo”
          Im pretty sure this aplies in all countries speaking spanish

          • Xenia:

            @Flor not really Flor. I’m from Spain, and to me, ‘te amo’ is very cheesy.

    • Gárate:

      @Angel I’m a native spanish speaker, “te amo” and “te quiero” both translate to “I love you”, basically there are levels, when you first meet someone you like, you say “me gustas”, when you start spending some time with that person and notice you’re feeling “something” you say “te quiero”, and when you’re deeply in love with that person you say “te amo”.

      I’m pretty sure every native spanish speaker is familiar with the experience of dating someone for a while, not having any problems with saying “te quiero”, but won’t say “te amo” ‘cuz that’s a whole different level, so, sometimes someone will tell you “te amo” but you’re not ready to say it back, so you say “te quiero”, and you’re all set for trouble. I know this is not just me, I’ve heard these stories a million times from different people.

      I noticed people in Spain don’t say “Te amo”, so I asked a friend from Barcelona, and he said people don’t say that anymore cuz it sounds so “old fashion”, and that for them “Te quiero” is at the same level as “Te amo”, don’t know if everybody in Spain thinks the same or if it was just my friend.

      P.S. In german, “te quiero” translates to “Ich hab dich lieb” and “te amo” to “Ich liebe dich”

  4. James:

    I’ve been with women from France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Mexico, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Serbia, Georgia, Iran, China, Korea,the Philippines, the Caribbean, and the United States. I’m a native speaker of English and I also speak German, Russian, French and Swedish (and some Spanish and even less Mandarin and Arabic) and I can say with certainty that language had nothing to do with any of it. Love is universal! It transcends language! The only question is whether or not you want to speak the language of your lover, only then would the question of a language’s beauty actually mean something.

    • Naira:

      @James All languages are beautiful (all dialects are beautiful as well).
      People say they don’t like this or that language because they cannot pronounce certain sounds, or they have negative attitude toward the nation speaking that particular language, or simply they’re not used to that language – listening to it for several times only it seems to them not attractive.
      The more you examine the language the more you like it.
      Especially when you say “I love you”, no matter in which language you say it, if you say it sincerely to the person who loves you then there is nothing more beautiful for him/her to hear.

    • liz:

      @James Oooh look at me and my international sexual history.

    • cast:

      @James Who are you? James Bond?

  5. Tino:

    I generally like all European languages: French, Italian, German, Russian, Portuguese Finnish, they can all sound sexy to me. But I’ll admit that idea of French was more cool than the practice of it; French was beautiful until I had to do school tests where we had to listen for whether some guy had requested a room with 2 beds and a shower or one.

  6. Diego:

    Nice post! I completely agree with you that people like or dislike a particular language based primarily on the opinion popular culture forces upon them. Personally I can’t understand people who say that German is ugly and French is beautiful. For me it is the other way around! Russian also sounds quite nice, with all those palatalized consonants. Another language that I find quite pleasing to the ear is Greek, specially greek songs.

  7. TheObserver:

    As some people pointed out in Spanish you would say “te amo” if you mean “love”. “Te quiero” it’s what you would say to a friend or so. You could translate “te quiero” as “I appreciate you” in English.

    Another point is that Barcelona ‘s native/local language is Catalan not Spanish. You only have to check the US consulate website in Barcelona. BTW Catalan is a Romance Language 😉

    Spanish only uses 5 “closed” vowel sounds due to the Basque/Euskara ( a non Indo-European language ) influence in it, so it can hardly be called “romantic”. That’s why Spanish speakers seem angry when they talk.

    Usually languages with “open” vowels sound nicer, as the speakers are forced to “smile” when they talk.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @TheObserver I’m aware that Catalan is Barcelona’s local language, but I was referring to Barcelona’s status as a romantic city from an external perspective. Barcelona is in Spain, so the external world associates it with Spanish. Sorry, independistas!

      Good point about the smiling and open vowels, hadn’t thought of that!

      • Colm mc CAbe:

        @Malachi Rempen I am irish. Dont know if id call irish sexy language or not but i think polish is one of the most beautiful languages a girl can speak. Worked with many polish immigrants in ireland and there is just something really lovely about the way they talk (the women that is) even when they talk english. I really love polish girls in general and also think they are very funny. Slavic languages are like nicer form of teutonic languages just like romance is to celtic.

  8. Brandon Gustafson:

    I always know I’m talking to an ignorant person when they tell me “Russian is such a harsh language!”

    1/3rd of the Russian alphabet is just vowels. You’re confusing the culture and the language. Just because you believe all Russians eat raw potatoes and drink more vodka than water doesn’t mean JACK linguistically!!!

    • Eugene:

      @Brandon Gustafson As a native Russian speaker, I don’t know how Russian sounds for others, but what I do know that a Slavic speach can be passionate.

      E.g., due to free order of words, “I love you” can be said as any mixture of all these words, producing different emphasis and emotional tone. Also, there are two words for “you”, intimate “ty” (basic form), or formal “vy” (plural, which is applied to one person in formal speech).

      “Ya tebya lyublyu”, “Ya lyublyu tebya” are neutral, normal order of words, it could be young lover’s confession (“tebya” is a form of “ty”).

      “Ya lyublyu vas” shows that there is some formal distance between those who says, and the beloved person (“vas” is a form of “vy”).

      “Tebya ya lyublyu” — “_You_ are the person I love, not someone else as you could have thought for some reason”

      “Lyubly ya tebya” — “I am desperate, but I cannot reject my feeling to you”

      So these are just few words about love in Russian. Hope I didn’t mess up much with English grammar…

      • Eugene:

        @Eugene Oh, and also, my favorite thing in Ukrainian language that there are two words for “love”.

        “Lyublyu” = “I love” one can say about a person, a pet, or about things he or she likes (“I like candies” = “Lyublyu/polyublyayu tsukerky”).

        “Kohayu” = “I love”, too, but you cannot say this to anyone, because it means that you really felt in love. That’s why “I love you” confession is “Ya kohayu tebe” in Ukrainian.

        Similar thing, I suppose, is “amo” and “quero” in Spanish, but I don’t speak Spanish to be certain on that 🙂

    • Colm mc CAbe:

      @Brandon Gustafson I think russian can be romantic when you think of dr zhivago and war in peace. Romantic stories in any language. Maybe not as lovely as polish language but one you cant put down. Whether its relative to language or not iknow russians can BE romantic. Listen to tchaikovskys music.

  9. Madeleine:

    This may just be because I’m studying Theology, but I love listening to Hebrew. I’ve studied Biblical (read – Old Testament, pointed) Hebrew, and I think it sounds amazing. I also have a lot of friends from Columbia, and I love the way they speak Spanish. It might just be that they’re so passionate with their expressions, and we’re so laid back here in Australia, but every conversation with them is so full of meaning. Portuguese on the other hand, is crazy. I find it stressful to listen to, because it sounds a little like morphed Spanish, so I think I’m understanding things and then I get totally thrown off!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Madeleine Ooh, Hebrew, good choice! My best friend’s mom growing up was Israeli, and I always loved the way she spoke.

  10. Wayland Yoder:

    Being monolingual I prefer my native tongue, English. I’ve been exposed to French, German, Italian, and Spanish without having learned to speak any of them. French and German are particularly hard on my tongue and ear, but I can write Valentines and much more in English. It’s a very flexible language.

  11. Willy:

    F*** it, I love German! It’s the best language in the world if you wanna show that you are pissed… but every language has its thing, if I could, I would learn every language in the world… so that I could speak with everyone… and then I could achieve world peace… because I could listen to everyone and understand their needs…

  12. Iana:

    Interesting article! I think Brazilian Portuguese is one of the world’s sexiest languages. But generally I don’t believe that languages should be classified as “ugly”, “beautiful” or “in between”. Each language has its own unique charm!

  13. Discovery:

    If I were to choose anything I would say… Swedish. The reasons being that:
    a) I somehow don’t support the idea of dividing language into ugly and pretty ones, so I rarely look at languages through this way.
    b) I like Swedish girls.
    c) Out of all the languages I learned and know, only with Swedish I had a moment of being stunned by the way how the language sounds like to the unaccustomed ear.

    I remember very vividly when during my first few days in Sweden two blonde Swedish girls passed next to me, and the way they spoke sounded to me like singing, as the language would ‘roll’ (go up and down) and felt like nothing I experienced before. For a while it felt like language of angles, actually 🙂

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Discovery See what I mean? Doesn’t matter what they’re speaking, a beautiful person could be blabbering utter nonsense to you and you’d think it was a song from heaven.

  14. margaret nahmias:

    I heard German, it sounds kind of harsh to me. European Portuguese sounds sleepy I would not say that objectively one sounds better over the other. It is a perference

  15. Frederick:

    Either Scottish or Irish Gaelic, hands down.Google Runrig Pog Aon Oidhche Earraich and listen to it if you don’t believe me.

  16. Ángel:

    Both ‘Te amo’ and ‘Te quiero’ (literally, ‘I want you’) are perfect translations of ‘I love you’ into Spanish. However the former is Latin American and the latter is said in Spain. If you say ‘Te amo’ to your lover in Spain, he/she would think you’re pedantic and cheesy. However this is the most repeated sentence in Latin American telenovelas.

    Surprisingly there are other words derivated from ‘amar’ (to love) that are completely normal in Spain. When you say ‘te quiero’, you feel ‘amor’ (love), not ‘querencia’, from verb ‘querer’ (to want).

    Spanish is so rich in dialects and that diversity makes this language so interesting, but also so hard to learn.

  17. Inge:

    Swedish, Estonian(/Finnish) and any Slavic language, though I prefer west-slavic languages. I just like the sounds. I could listen to them like it’s music, completely mesmerized by all the sounds I’m hearing. But in all honesty, the way to trike impress me is by saying romantic stuff in all kinds of different languages.

  18. VM:

    The perception of German as “harsh” and “commanding” has a lot more to do with the image of Germany created by two world wars than with any objective quality of its phonological system. If you look at Mark Twain’s The Awful German Language (and everyone should, it’s full of great lines like “I would rather decline two beers than one German adjective”), which was written before the Germans became indelibly associated with jackboots, his complaint is not that German sounds too harsh and authoritarian but that it sounds too soft and weak (“I think that a description of any loud, stirring, tumultuous episode must be tamer in German than in English. Our descriptive words of this character have such a deep, strong, resonant sound, while their German equivalents do seem so thin and mild and energyless. Boom, burst, crash, roar, storm, bellow, blow, thunder, explosion; howl, cry, shout, yell, groan; battle, hell. These are magnificent words; the have a force and magnitude of sound befitting the things which they describe. But their German equivalents would be ever so nice to sing the children to sleep with, or else my awe-inspiring ears were made for display and not for superior usefulness in analyzing sounds. Would any man want to die in a battle which was called by so tame a term as a Schlacht? Or would not a consumptive feel too much bundled up, who was about to go out, in a shirt-collar and a seal-ring, into a storm which the bird-song word Gewitter was employed to describe?”) Twain was writing in context where German culture was associated with music and philosophy, fairy tales and poetry, and he “heard” in the language the same qualities as he believed he saw in its speakers. Today, our image of the Germans is pretty much the opposite of that and so is what we hear in the language.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @VM This is really interesting! I’m going to read that right now. Incredible how quickly stereotypes can shift. Thanks for this!

  19. Isaac:

    (A lot of flaming, brackets and bad English follows this line)
    Well I speak Russian natively and I’m gonna totally agree it’s terribly ugly for most non-Russians. Well it doesn’t sound very harsh or have some weird intonation but just look at such words as, for example, “здравствуйте” “zdravstvuite” (a common greeting). “zdr” is one hell of a weird consonant cluster. Well if you pronounce it as you would in English (with the alveolar approximant aka English r) it will still sound weird but not as weird as with proper pronunciation (with the alveolar trill aka Spanish “long” r) where most speakers will just render it unpronounceable. Moreover, there are LOTS of words with such consonant clusters. So, considering this, I’d say the same about German and maybe some Austroasiatic (or Austro-Tai) languages (Thai, Khmer, etc). Stay away from Russian if you wanna learn it to confess your love to a non-Russian.
    My opinion on (most) Romance languages is… that they are just overestimated. I can’t say that about French though. Considering I’m a linguist and conlanger (I construct languages) I look more into grammar than into sound and I’d say that, give French some hundreds of years in isolation and it’ll be like, take Sanskrit fusion, Russian or Polish irregularity, rather Romance-derived grammar (but not the way it’s expressed) and very vaguely Romance words. So it’ll be a nightmare language. Its sound is good though.
    Other Romance languages are simplified to such extent that they differ only in vocabulary, and only nonsignificantly with their own loanwords and other things (Spanish has Arabic and Basque, Italian has Latin words which aren’t in other languages, etc). Except Romanian which has absorbed quite a lot of grammar from neighboring languages and differs somewhat more. It’s still rather simple though.
    Now most of my fave languages are considered ugly and unpronounceable to most people. I even can consider that I like ugly languages. And I think that the widely accepted “most beautiful” languages are just what women like. I think there are a lot of different opinions on that.

  20. Dana (Wanted Adventure):

    My favorite language in the world is Czech. I could listen to it all day (regardless of whether or not I understand it!). My heritage is Czech, and growing up in America I learned a few poems and children’s songs, but I guess just hearing it around me caused the language to grow on me. It’s not a language most people consider particularly “musical,” but I truly love it! This was a great topic. Thanks for sharing!

  21. Stefanie:

    Hello!
    I have a thing for germanic and romance languages, so the most beautiful languages, for me, are probably English, Spanish and Norwegian (in this order, exactly).
    English sounds just so beautiful! I love the different accents. Like, I would kill for having a Scottish accent! I generally adore British accents. American ones are pretty, too (but some accents sound pretty funny).
    For me, Spanish sounds really…sexy! But I like Castillian Spanish more than the Spanish what is spoken in Latin America (Argentina etc.).
    I just really like the Castillian lisp, the way how Spaniards pronounce the C. I said Spanish sounds sexy, but the lisp gives it a cute touch somehow. (Oh, and when Italians speak German..it’s one of the most prettiest things ever.)
    And Norwegian…oh god, Norwegian! Swedish and Danish also are really pretty, but for me, Norwegian sounds extremely cute. I don’t know, but when I hear Norwegians talking… I really can’t put it in words how cute it sounds!!

    I don’t know if there are any languages I don’t find pretty. When I visited Poland I really missed romance and germanic languages. Hm, I think slavic languages aren’t mine, but Russian can be pretty.
    Oh, and somehow I hate my native language, German.
    I’m sorry if I made any mistakes. I love English so much. I’m trying my best to be fluent in it!

  22. Diana:

    Maybe this isn’t about love but I’m sure it is about attraction. I’ve always been attracted by strong sound languages such as German, which I’m currently studying. Russian is my next objective and ironically those languages are the ones tagged as ugliest. Personally I think we should try to trust ourselves and create our own opinions.
    PS: i apologize if i’ve done any mistakes doubbling letters, this is my biggest trouble when it comes to learning a new language. So btw, if anyone could give some advice with this I would be so thankful 🙂

  23. Zoltahn:

    After listening to bossa nova and brazilian songs, I find Portuguese the most romantic sounding language. I grew up speaking Hungarian and French.

  24. McCormick:

    Arabic is the most beautiful language! Go listen to Lebanese women speak it, unlike trashy English on jerry springer!!! Arabic poetry is the best

    • Honey:

      @McCormick Listen to Roseanne Barr sing the national anthem for a real taste of Judeo-Americana. A fine example of semetic beauty.

  25. Liz:

    That is right – Romantic languages are not necessarily Romance languages. But I wonder why they did not call these Indo-european languages roman languages.


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