Saturday, 27 August 2011

Languages and beauty contests

Asking for judgements from mirrors, mirrors on the wall is not exclusive to jealous queens obsessed with their looks. Real-life nobility, clergy and commoners also find plenty of opportunities to enquire about the aesthetics of their languages, so that they can then devise ways to plague themselves and everyone around them about their findings.

Needless to say, linguistic beauty is as elusive as its fairy tale counterpart. We are not told, for example, what the original jealous queen looked like, we are only told that she was beautiful. Which means that we don’t know what exactly is it that made her beautiful and, therefore, what exactly is it that the mirror is going on about.

Linguistic mirrors pass similar obscure judgements. Take language X, for example. Whether we know the language or not, when we say that it is a beautiful language because it is the language of love, we’re not judging the language: we’re judging love, because we do know that love is a beautiful thing. Language Y, in contrast, is a language of war, and hence ugly. Or conversely, of course. Some people love the smell of napalm any time of day.

Statements such as these seem to imply that speakers of language X and language Y spend their linguistic lives basking in beauty and ugliness, respectively. If true, this would mean that multilinguals in those languages might have an expressive edge over monolinguals or multilinguals in other languages. Multilinguals in general, however, switch language in order to mind bedchamber, barracks and other business appropriately, not aesthetically.

Such statements forget that any language can be put, and is put, to any use which it is called upon to serve. As the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson wrote, in his 1959 book On Translation, “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they can convey.” In other words, we can express ex-aequo beauty and ugliness in any language, which means that no language beats another in the contest. The same is true of words: you can have a look at this Lexiophiles post, Discriminating words on aesthetics grounds, to appreciate the election process – and you can participate in it too. The bottom line is that it all depends on where you choose to look for your evidence.

Image: © Nieve44/La Luz (Flickr)

When we say that some languages are beautiful and others aren’t, what we’re saying is that we’ve now joined the ranks of fellow well-behaved mirrors. We can now be relied upon to reflect judgements about languages which derive from love, war, and other things that have as much to do with intrinsic features of those languages as a shopping list or a fairy tale. Whether Miss Language is indeed the fairest one of all on its own merits is irrelevant: the reason why the mirror knows best is that we’re looking at it blindfolded.

Languages that we take to be beautiful are desirable languages, perhaps on the persuasion, or the hope, that the ruling mirrors will thus approve of their users too. But languages come in varieties, and varieties are played by ear, not by looks. Mastering Miss Language may mean little if you don’t heed its sidekick, Mister Accent: the desirability of languages swells and fades along time, but accent beauties seem never to go to sleep. Beauty contests turn ugly when you find your job application, or yourself, rejected not because of what you have to say in your languages, but because of the way you have to say it. I’ll leave this for next time.

© MCF 2011

Next post: Accent cosmetics. Saturday 10th September 2011.


  1. Hello,

    I enjoy reading your blog and it is quite inspiring.

    I was hoping you can help me or guide me through something if possible. The internet search was unsuccesfull.

    I would like to teach Skye, my three year old a third language which is Arabic.

    The one-parent-one language- rule does not apply to me. My British husband speaks to her in English. I, being Lebanese, speak to her in French and we live in Australia, away from both families. And Arabic? Should I speak to her on weekends...maybe, or mix my sentences with Arabic and French? Not sure. So, any advice would be appreciated. Thank u...



  2. Sandie: You’re free to choose when you should speak each of your languages to Skye, so long as the use of each one comes naturally to you.

    If you decide on weekdays vs. weekends, for example (which is a fine choice in itself), you may find yourself bound by the demands of the timetable that you imposed on yourself, rather than by which language you feel like using with your little one. Say you decide to use French on weekdays, but you wake up in an Arabic mood on a Friday: I don’t see why you shouldn’t forget the timetable and use Arabic on that weekday instead.

    Have a look at “Ask Madalena”, for questions, answers and discussion on choices about language use from multilingual parents raising multilingual children. Do contact me privately, if you’re still wondering about this?

    Thank you for your kind words about the blog!



Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...