By Jasmyn M. ’23
When people hear that I speak German, I am often jokingly teased about it and receive comments about how harsh German sounds and that they even think it sounds like a throat disease. German is, in fact, the most widely spoken native language in the European Union and the third most widely taught language worldwide, so people should really give it a chance, especially given the fact that English and German share much of their vocabulary. In reality, if spoken correctly, German is a very melodic, beautiful, precise, and expressive language.
Online, there are many videos and jokes about the German language. On YouTube, you can find numerous videos comparing German words to the same words in other languages. The videos have all the other languages saying their words in a calming tone, and then they put German at the end saying their words in a severe and angry tone. To counter, at least there have been videos made to make fun of those videos, as well. Instead, these videos have all the other languages saying their words in the aggressive tone, and they put German at the end saying their words in a gentle tone. This goes to show that German is, for the most part, all in the tone. We have all seen scenes in movies where someone is in a foreign country, and one of the natives realizes that the person does not speak their language. The native then teases and insults the foreigner in their native language all while smiling and nodding as if making polite conversation. The visitor is none the wiser. My fourth-grade teacher also used to tell us that if you go up to a dog and say “aren’t you just the stupidest doggie?” while beaming and speaking in a babyish tone, the dog will be happy and wag his tail. I do not know whether this is true or not, but it all demonstrates that a large percentage of the way one perceives dialogue is in the tone.
Another reason that people think German is harsh-sounding is because of movies. The large majority of the German that people hear comes from World War II films where the Nazis are yelling at people for most of the movie. This is military language, which will be harsh no matter which language it is in. In addition, the German that Hollywood often uses is a dialect, because it sounds “scarier” when yelled and adds to the mood of the war setting. There are over ten different major German dialects. They vary so greatly that the people from the north of Germany have an extremely difficult time understanding the people from the south. Hochdeutsch (translated as “High German”) is the standardized variety of the language and the one that is used in literature and business and taught in schools. Hochdeutsch also underwent a consonant shift likely between the third and fifth centuries. For example, the “t” sound became the “ts” sound, the “p” sound became the “pf” sound, and the “k” sound became the “ch” sound. (The “ch” sound in German is different than English, though; the German is more like a hard “h” sound.) All this added a much softer tone to the language which one rarely hears in a typical Hollywood film.
Let’s backtrack for a minute. What does “harsh” even mean? “Harsh” sounding languages refer to ones that use the back of the vocal tract which produces stronger sound. This is, in fact, all in the eye of the beholder, or, in this case, the ear of the beholder. Most people think that harmonic and melodic sounds are the most beautiful because it is what they are used to. German is more rhythmic and crisp, so it is just a different sound. People usually like what they are accustomed to hearing. Sounds that people are not accustomed to may sound stranger to them for the simple reason that they are expecting to hear totally different sounds (their standard of “beauty”). Therefore, whereas an American may think German a “harsh” language, a native German speaker does not hear German as harsh and aggressive at all.
If one does not understand a language, it tends to sound louder than it really is. Hearing a language that one is not familiar with often makes a person think that it is being spoken at an alarmingly fast rate. “Fast talking” sounds louder because your brain is more focused on it. Also, since the sounds are different from what you are used to hearing, they will stand out more. However, the more you hear a language, the more you will get used to it, and the more you will respect it and its sounds.
One article that I read from Grounded Traveler compares German to a marching band, where French is an orchestra, Italian is an opera, and English is a jazz band… all very different types of music, and as you would expect, people have varying preferences. After all, we all have our favorite types of music, but also enjoy music more overall if we are exposed to more genres. The more types of music you listen to, the more you will understand and appreciate music overall. Each language is beautiful in its own way, and the more we learn about their sounds, the more beautiful the tones will become. It’s the tone that makes the music.