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sounds good

listening to different languages as often as i do these days, i've noticed that i'm developing certain favourites, simply in terms of the way that they sound. it may seem strange, but i find it relaxing to just listen to someone speak a few lines in a language- any language, even one i don't understand. the catholic church has been aware of the power of a remote language for centuries, sticking to latin long after their faithful had adopted other tongues. it is very much like hearing someone cast a magic spell over you, which, in the case of religion, is pretty much what it is.

these things are, of course, totally subjective, but as it happens there is an annual language world cup, where participants get to vote on their favourite, match by match, over ten weeks, among 64 of the most popular languages in the world. 2016 saw the fifth annual competition and, for the second time, polish came out as the grand victor, edging out italian, while german claimed third prize against spanish. and yes, polish coming out on top is just about as shocking as it would be if poland won the actual world cup, because, if you go with the theory that having a large number of native speakers gives you a leg up, polish started the tournament at a massive disadvantage compared to languages like mandarin, english and spanish.

of course, the top tens, a website dedicated to creating dynamic lists of all sorts through popular voting, has french rated as #1. [french was the 2015 winner of the language world cup, too.] in fact, romance languages occupy every one of the top four positions, while polish doesn't even crack the top twenty [although two other slavic languages, russian and ukrainian, are in the top ten]. that's not entirely surprising, because romance languages have long been praised for their flowing, musical sound. lord byron said that italian sounded "as if it should be writ on satin", a phrase which, ironically, sounds like verbal sex when actually said in italian: "come se dovrebbe essere scritto su raso."

the magic of italian is that its words almost always end in vowels, which means that whatever you're saying is rushing towards the ultimate destination of a sensuously opened mouth, the sound fading from the lips rather than coming to a crashing halt against your teeth or getting shot like an arrow from the tongue. while not all romance languages share this trait, to the ears of someone used to communicating in a west germanic tongue that crackles like crusty bread, they all sound softer and more buttery.

although i'm hardly equipped to offer a comprehensive list- there are seven thousand languages in the world and i have only two ears in which to put them- i thought i'd share some of my favourites with you, my own personal "loveliest and most luscious languages".

xhosa

i don't know nearly enough about african languages to pick favourites, but it is impossible not to love a language that incorporates a variety of clicking sounds. [really, though, the question should be why the rest of us don't.] but the end result is that the language basically comes with its own rhythm section.



polish

what can i say? i think the language world cup might have gotten it right. although those consonant clusters look like someone got their face stuck in a typewriter and like it would sound much the same, polish is a language of incredible lightness and delicacy. the key to getting it right is to just let it flutter out of you. a friend of mine described it as being whispery, which it is thanks to the frequent use of affricates [those sounds you make by pushing them through your teeth]. so it combines the elegance of french [including all those vowel sounds we westerners struggle to reproduce] with a mystery all its own.



greek

if you like the softness of the romance languages, you're going to love greek. they don't even bother with bumpy sounds like 'b', 'd' and the hard 'g', and make great use of 'th' [voiced and unvoiced]. there is definitely an element of serpentine temptation that coils its way through everything in this language.



mongolian

i don't even know how to describe this. it's tempting to think that it's a combination of asian and russian/ slavic, but the fact is that it predates any russian presence in the area. i personally think this jewel of a language was a gift from aliens who came to the siberian wilds centuries ago.



icelandic

this language is a sort of living antique, being closer to the old norse of epic poetry than to its near nordic cousins norwegian, swedish and danish. [it's also apparently fiendishly difficult to learn compared to those languages.] and indeed, it does sound rather like poetry. well, maybe not at this one infamous moment... but normally.



vietnamese

i feel like this is what language would sound like if you fused a human being with a glockenspiel. there's a crisp, bell-like sound to every phoneme and phrase, so that it has that shivery effect like when someone runs their fingers very softly over your skin.



lithuanian

being the closest thing to the original indo-european language, it's fitting that it sounds like everything and like nothing else. its only close relative is neighbouring latvian, but while you can spot similarities with several european tongues, it also has a number of parallels with sanskrit. i haven't yet managed to find a good online course for this beauty, but i'm determined that some day, i'm going to be able to sound like that...



so that is my list of favourites. it's admittedly european-heavy simply because those are the languages to which i've been most frequently exposed. do any of these tickle your eardrums? or are there others that hold you rapt? 

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