Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Speaking beauty

My novel In the Midst of Lions, the first of a trilogy, has a character named Anderson Quaice, who is a linguistics professor.  He also has a strong pessimistic streak, something that proves justified in the course of the story.  He develops a conlang called Kalila not only as an entertaining intellectual exercise, but because he fears that civilization is heading toward collapse, and he wants a way to communicate with his friends that will not be understood by (possibly hostile) outsiders.

Kalila provides a framework for the entire trilogy, which spans over fourteen centuries.  I wanted the conlang to follow a similar trajectory as Latin did; by the second book, The Scattering Winds, Kalila has become the "Sacred Language," used in rituals and religion; by the third, The Chains of Orion, it has been relegated to a small role as a historical curiosity, something learned (and mourned!) only by academics, and which few speak fluently. 

But of course, in order to incorporate it into the narrative, I had to invent the conlang.  While I'm not a professor like Quaice, my master's degree is in historical linguistics, so I have a fairly solid background for comprehending (and thus creating) a language structure.  I've mostly studied inflected languages, like Old Norse, Old English, Latin, and Greek -- ones where nouns, verbs, and adjectives change form depending on how they're being used in sentences -- so I decided to make Kalila inflected.  (Interestingly, along the way English lost most of its noun inflections; in the sentences The dog bit the cat and The cat bit the dog you know who bit whom by word order, not because the words dog and cat change form, as they would in most inflected languages.  English does retain a few inflections, holdovers from its Old English roots -- he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and who/whom are examples of inflections we've hung onto.)

One of the interesting choices I had to make centers on phonetics.  What repertoire of sounds did I want Kalila to have?  I decided I was aiming for something vaguely Slavic-sounding, with a few sound combinations and placements you don't find in English (for example, the initial /zl/ combination in the word for "quick," zlavo.)  I included only one sound that isn't found in English -- the unvoiced velar fricative (the final sound in the name Bach), which in accordance with the International Phonetic Alphabet I spelled with a letter "x" in the written form; lexa, pronounced /lekha/, means "hand."

Of course, in the end I used about one percent of all the syntax and morphology and lexicon and whatnot I'd invented in the actual story.  But it was still a lot of fun to create.

The topic comes up because of a really cool study that recently came out in the journal Language and Speech, by a team led by linguist Christine Mooshammer of Humboldt University in Berlin.  The researchers wanted to find out why some languages are perceived as sounding more pleasant-sounding than others -- but to avoid the bias that would come with actual spoken languages, they confined their analysis to conlangs such as Quenya, Sindarin, Dothraki, Klingon, Cardassian, Romulan, and Orkish.

The first stanza of a poem in Quenya, written in the lovely Tengwar script Tolkien invented [Image is in the Public Domain]

The results, perhaps unsurprisingly, rated Quenya and Sindarin (the two main Elvish languages in Tolkien's world) as the most pleasant, and Dothraki (from Game of Thrones) and Klingon to sound the most unpleasant.  Interestingly, Orkish -- at least when not being snarled by characters like Azog the Defiler -- was ranked somewhere in the middle.

Some of their conclusions:

  • Languages with lower consonantal clustering were rated as more pleasant.  (On the extreme low end of this scale are Hawaiian and Japanese, which have almost no consonant clusters at all.)
  • A higher frequency of front vowels (such as /i/ and /e/) as opposed to back vowels (such as /o/ and /u/) correlates with higher pleasantness ratings.
  • Languages with a higher frequency of continuants (such as /l/, /r/, and /m/) as opposed to stops and plosives (like /t/ and /p/) were ranked as more pleasant-sounding.
  • Higher numbers of unvoiced sibilants (such as /s/) and velars (such as the /x/ I used in Kalila) correlated with a lower ranking for pleasantness.
  • The more similar the phonemic inventory of the conlang was to the test subject's native language, the more pleasant the subject thought it sounded; familiarity, apparently, is important.

This last one introduces the bias I mentioned earlier, something that Mooshammer admits is a limitation of the study.  "One of our main findings was that Orkish doesn’t sound evil without the special effects, seeing the speakers and hearing the growls and hissing sounds in the movies," she said, in an interview with PsyPost.  "Therefore, the average person should be aware of the effect of stereotypes that do influence the perception of a language.  Do languages such as German sound orderly and unpleasant and Italian beautiful and erotic because of their sounds, or just based on one’s own attitude toward their speakers?"

I wonder how the test subjects would have ranked spoken Kalila?  If the researchers want a sample, I'd be happy to provide it.

It's a fun study, which I encourage you to read in its entirety.  It brings up the bigger question, though, of why we find anything aesthetically pleasing.  I'm fascinated by why certain pieces of music are absolutely electrifying to me (one example is Stravinsky's Firebird) while others that are considered by many to be masterpieces do nothing for me at all (I've yet to hear a piece of music by Brahms that elicits more than "meh" from me).  There's an emotional resonance there with some things and not others, but I'm at a loss to explain it.

So maybe I should end with a song by Enya, which is not only beautiful musically, but is sung in the conlang she invented, Loxian.  Give this a listen and see where you'd rank it.

I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty sweet-sounding.


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