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Why German Sounds Harsh

This nearly-year-old video was given new life on Digg. It’s amusing but doesn’t actually answer the implied question, “Here’s Why The German Language Sounds Harsh To Most People.”

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Why does it sound harsh? Because it’s spoken by Germans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  2. Tillman says:

    On the other hand, it sounds funny when their loan-words (for instance, “die Camembert” for the cheese) are pronounced exactly as they would be in the language it came from. “Die jeans” is, despite J signifying a different kind of consonant sound in German, pronounced precisely like we pronounce “jeans.”

    This video reminds me of the Simpsons bit when Lisa is going through the Russian quarter of Springfield.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Rafer Janders says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    You ever heard Dutch? It sounds like a throat disease. And Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese aren’t exactly mellifluous.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Yeah, when I went to the soccer matches in Rotterdam. I thought that Dutch sounded like something between English and German which would stand to reason.

    I find Arabic and Mandarin on the other hand quite beautiful.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. al-Ameda says:

    Having to listen to my sister complain (in English, her native language) is not pleasant either.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  6. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I’ve long held that Dutch isn’t a language, but a really elaborate prank of some clever German speakers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  7. Scott says:

    @Rafer Janders: I always thought Flemish was even worse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. Franklin says:

    @Rafer Janders: Cantonese can sound abrupt, certainly, but it’s not harsh. Personally I like the tonal languages.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Stonetools says:

    This is kind of in the ear of the listener. Speakers of Romance languages find English harsh. On the other hand, Brahms Lullubay and Silent Night sound to me quite tender in the original German.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. grumpy realist says:

    Just wait until you listen to Italian opera translated into German:

    “La ci darem la mano” –> “Komm in mein Schloss mit mir”

    No no no no…..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. Rafer Janders says:

    @Franklin:

    Cantonese can sound abrupt, certainly, but it’s not harsh.

    Not harsh, but as you say, abrupt and often quite short. I lived in an East Asian country with a large ethnic Chinese population for several years, and to my ears Cantonese didn’t exactly ring with music.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Rafer Janders says:

    @Stonetools:

    This is kind of in the ear of the listener. Speakers of Romance languages find English harsh. On the other hand, Brahms Lullubay and Silent Night sound to me quite tender in the original German.

    True, and English and German are very closely-related cousin languages. But since England, unlike Germany, was conquered and colonized by French speakers in the 11th century, English then imported and incorporated many more Latin-based Romance words than German has.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    I find Arabic and Mandarin on the other hand quite beautiful.

    There’s a lot of variation in spoken Arabic between the Arab countries, so it depends a lot on where you are, but being cursed at in Arabic can have a pretty back of the throat guttural ring to it.

    Not that I’d know that from first hand experience, mind you…..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. Pinky says:

    German sounds harsh because of exactly what we’ve been talking about the past week: trade routes to the Black Sea. It’s what gave German the Arabic roughness.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. MstrB says:

    I got a card one time that read:

    Tell someone you love them today, because life is short. But shout it at them in German, because life is also terrifying: ‘Ich liebe dich!’

    Found it rather amusing.

    Another one that is weird like the Dutch/German is Portuguese/Spanish.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Andre Kenji says:

    Português que é a língua mais bela.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. Rafer Janders says:

    @Pinky:

    Um, no. That’s not true. That’s a just-so story.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. bill says:

    i know a lot of 1st gen Germans/Swiss- they sound lie they’re arguing when speaking their native tongue.
    when i was in Thailand there was a lot of that too-very rough spoken language outside of Bangkok.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  19. Kylopod says:

    I loved the video. It made me laugh out loud.

    One of the consequences of American monolingualism is that we Americans think of other languages as having particular sounds, but we never think English “sounds like” anything. Because, to us, it’s simply communication. But when we hear a foreign tongue we don’t understand, all we hear is a string of strange sounds. When I was a child listening to my grandparents converse with each other in Polish, I perceived that the Polish language had one word in it, and that word was “mush.” My grandfather would go “mushtity mush mush,” and grandma would reply, “mush mush MUSH.” That’s what it sounded like to me.

    But, apparently, speakers of other languages do definitely think of English as sounding like something, just as we think of their languages that way. In the ’70s the Italian singer Adriano Celentano did a song in gibberish designed to approximate the sounds of English to Italian ears (it’s sort of the equivalent of Chaplin’s mock French/Italian nonsense song from Modern Times). You can see it here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcUi6UEQh00

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. SC_Birdflyte says:

    I think it was Emperor Charles V who said he spoke Spanish to God, Italian to the Pope, French to his courtiers, and German to his horse. But he didn’t make the mistake (as I did) of thinking that, because I spoke German, I could hack my way through a low-level business negotiation in Dutch.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Tillman says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: I thought it was “Spanish to God, Italian to men, French to women, and German to my horse.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Mikey says:

    @Kylopod:

    One of the consequences of American monolingualism is that we Americans think of other languages as having particular sounds, but we never think English “sounds like” anything.

    If you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  23. Mikey says:

    The video is pretty funny, but the guy is seriously over-articulating all the German words. I guess that’s what it sounds like to a non-German-speaker?

    Also, if you think regular German sounds funny, you should hear the Bavarians talk…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  24. Kylopod says:

    @Mikey: That’s essentially what my brother (who’s extremely literal) told me last night after I sent him the video. Obviously the guy’s exaggerating it for comic effect. But I still think there’s a lot of truth to it, even if the words were spoken less gruffly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. grewgills says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    Eastern Dutch pronunciation does sound like a throat disease. I was in a train to Nijmegen and a couple was speaking and every g sounded like death rattle. It is not as bad in the South and West of the country. The South in particular is a bit softer.

    @Neil Hudelson:
    The differences from German are strong. G, U, and SCH sounds do not have equivalent German phonemes (or equivalent phonemes in any language I know of). The Dutch underground exploited this in WWII by having their passwords filled with those phonemes. When the people heard the mispronounced code words, they knew it was a German spy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  26. Barry says:

    @Kylopod: That is frikkin’ hysterial.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  27. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Tillman: Actually, your recollection is more accurate than mine. That was what Charles V supposedly said.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0