Be prepared for vehement disagreement with what follows, but mind that I am not proposing it as a binding universal truth, only as my own certainly arguable private views. What I am asserting, skewed or not, is a sense of the beauty or lack thereof of certain languages, with a considerable middle ground between extremes that I would call the in-betweens.
I am thinking of so-called Western. i.e., European and American languages, for no better reason than acquaintance with them, thus excluding Asian and African languages about which I know nothing. So let me designate Italian, French, and educated British as beautiful, Polish, Czech, Portuguese, Yiddish and Swiss German as unattractive, positing the presence or absence of melody in them as the determining factor.
So lets start with Italian as spoken in Italy, not Brooklyn. Not for nothing are there Italian composers, musicians, opera lovers in superabundance. Clearly a two-way relationship between music and language exists, whichever you consider the chicken and which the egg. I am asking you not to be swayed by dialects or the speech of the uneducated, whom I don’t consider inferior morally or mentally, only wanting aesthetically. But independently from what they mean, I aurally prefer “fa in culo” to “fangul.” Note that I am not thinking Dante, except where it may coincide with the speech of ordinary middle-class people as apprehended by an unprejudiced ear.
To be sure, there may be disagreement as to what is melody, or at least speech melody, but not so much about what is pleasurable. Consider the well-known story, true albeit attributed to different protagonists, whereby a foreigner being transported by truck to a concentration camp, recited some of ‘The Divine Comedy” in such exquisite Italian as to be released by his enchanted Fascist captors.
The basic musicality of a language depends on its presence in everyday speech, much as the melodiousness affects someone listening to music (please, no rap or hip-hop) and being spellbound by Verdi or Puccini even if unable to read music or recognize a sung high C. This presumes neutrality in the listener and absence of any particular agenda from his or her upbringing in a family awash in music of a particular kind. But to anyone hearing, say, the last line of ‘The Divine Comedy, “ which runs “L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle,” and is not that different from everyday educated Italian, melody ought to be apparent.
It has to do with the large number of vowels of every kind, and also with the frequency of flowing disyllables, whereas in the English translation, “The love that moves the sun and the other stars,” you get heavily accented monosyllables comparable at best to a drumbeat. Even “vietato fumare, “ for “no smoking,” is more melodious, to say nothing of “ti voglio bene,” for “I love you.” And so on, for even the music of ordinary conversational prose.
Now for no lesser melodiousness, though of a different kind, in French. There is a sort of fascinating singsong built into the language that all educated, and even many uneducated, speakers somehow spontaneously fall into. Some of it has to do with nasalization of the an, on. un, in, en variety; some of it with all those endings in mute e’s; some of it with diphthongs in oi or ie, e.g., moi or oie (goose), and hier or pied. Note the diverse e’s, as in ete (I can’t do accents), a kind of soprano, mezzo as in geste, and contralto, as in etre--the latter two with also the mute e ending. But even the mute e is often not really mute, as it follows the preceding consonant in, say, je.
Take a sentence like “Moi, j’ai toujours ete tres fier et meme entete,” and you have a whole gallery of various e’s making music. Then the pretty eu sound as doubled in
heureux or as diphthong in lieu; and the echoing ou of toujours. Further, the high u, in words like nue, or diphtongized as in pluie. Again, the rhyming repetition of nasals in enfant or the progressively lightening sequence o, i, i in colibri. And bear in mind that such effects come at you full throat in clusters, not just in fortuitously fortunate isolation. Or consider the sequence of vowels in the title of a ballet by Jacques Ibert: “Les Amours de Jupiter,” with even a rhyme on Ibert-Jupiter.
All this does have a lot to do with who is speaking, because the most beautiful languages benefit from a well-spoken exponent. This is where France has produced some exquisite speakers, either from the Academie Francaise, or from the theater (somewhat fewer from the cinema). Gerard Philipe comes to mind, and Louis Jouvet, Pierre Fresnay, Jean Desailly-- even in his exaggerated way, Sacha Guitry. Also Marcel Herrand, Louis Salou, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Dux, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Jean Marais. I remember the fabulous Iago at the Comedie of Aime Clariond, prematurely deceased like Philipe.. And then the women: Edwige Feuillere. Maria Casares. Micheline Presle, Renee Faure, Arletty. Berthe Bovy, Germaine Dervoz, Gabriele Dorziat, Valentine Tessier. Danielle Darrieux. and perhaps also Marie Bell and Gaby Morlay. Even merely reciting their names proves melodious.
But melodious too are even the most commonplace utterances casually uttered, take “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” This with the sequence of three ous, interlarded by the three e’s, albeit one differently voiced in “avec.” Or compare the prosaic English “Pull he handle only in case of danger” with “Tirer la manivelle seulement en cas de danger,” where I leave it to you to parse the sundry beauties.
All of which brings me to my third melodiousness, well-spoken British English. I recall, quoted from memory, Bernard Shaw’s brilliant “America and Britain, two countries separated by the same language.” Let’s face it: American English has no discernible melody, whereas upper-class or theatrical British English very much does. Just listen to a recording featuring such actors as, for instance, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Paul Scofield, Michael Redgrave. Or women, such as Judi Dench, Celia Johnson, Edith Evans. Sybil.Thorndike, Joan Plowright, Joan Greenwood, Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Bown.
And still others I can’t think of at the moment.
The extreme form of the British accent, a sort of flute melody rollercoasting up and down,the scales is that of Oxford dons sand some students, called Oxonian. It was most imperiously (or imperially) exhibited by Professor Garrod, and required utmost concentration to comprehend. (Isaiah Berlin also had it.) I experienced it in a milder form from Professor (later Sir) Maurice Bowra, when he was guest lecturer at Harvard.
He seemed to like me, because he chatted with me in his office. I recall his having experienced Kenneth Burke, and not having understood him (although that may have been less a matter of an American accent than of certain weird neologisms invented by Burke), asked me to provide interpretations. I mostly couldn’t. This is a good, though perhaps extreme, example of how some accents may become problematic.
We come now to what I call the in-between languages, not quite ugly but not quite beautiful. There is, for example, Spanish, where I fund the purest, i.e., Castilian, most accessible, although still not without a certain harshness. The most interesting are the Scandinavian ones, notably Danish, which, though not lovely, have a certain likable droll quality, what with profuse glottal stops and other idiosyncrasies.
I myself first learned as a toddler German, because that was the language of my beloved nanny, Mia, who came from Austro-Hungarian Bielitz, which is now, Bialistok in Poland, as well as in the Broadway musical, “The Producers.” Those speakers are largely Jewish, and subjects of numerous anecdotes, some jovial, some hostile.
I soon added Hungarian, which we spoke at home, my father being Hungarian but, as we lived in the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, a nationalized Yugoslav. My mother came from a Yugoslav minority of Hungarians, and never even learned proper Serbo-Croat, later Serbian, which was the language of that capital where we ended up. It is from that dominant Serbia that, first Slovenia (whence Mrs. Trump), and later Croatia, seceded.
So my next language, which I picked up in the streets, was Serbian, as I preferred to call Serbo-Croat, which was ever so slightly different in Croatian Raciat. So already trilingual, I proceeded to French, the language of most of the intelligentsia. This I learned in private lessons from a charming lady French teacher, the popular Marcelle Raciat. At 13, I was starting English lessons from an Englishman who may well have been a spy, and who regaled me with stories of his female conquests. Then I was sent to public school in Cambridge, England, about which I have already written.
My great regret is that I never properly learned Italian, except from what I picked up in treasured Italian movies, and much, much later from frequent Roman visits to Lina Wertmuller, whose American champion I became. It was her reception on American screens that finally led to Italian critics granting her the well-deserved acclaim they previously withheld for specious reasons.
What I would like to convey is that multilingualism is a wonderful thing, not only because the polyglots get to enjoy and learn from so many more people, but also because certain differences and similarities teach them greater command of the native language. Thus, perhaps, it is that I have no difficulties with “lie” and “lay,” which, largely with the collusion of TV and social media devastates the speech of so many native speakers knowing and using only “lay.”
Or take my avoidance of such pleonasms as “old crone,” or tautologies like “cannot help but,” redundant for either “cannot help” plus a participle, or “cannot but” plus an infinitive. It may also account for proper pronunciation, such as EXquisite rather than exQUIsite, which one hears all over the place and is gaining acceptance from dictionaries. I can see no good reason for it, except that lazy speakers prefer medial accents, easier to handle than initial ones followed by more than one unaccented trailing syllable..
I suppose that in the end the purist or traditionalist cannot win, but I think there is a certain glory in fighting even a losing battle for what one believes to be right. Which brings me to my conclusion: German.
German is basically an in-between language. In its vulgar, Southern form, known as Plattdeutsch, it is downright ugly. But in its well-spoken Northern form, known as Hochdeutsch, it can be very lovely indeed. Consider a fine actor reading out loud a poem by Goethe. Rilke, or Stefan George (or many others), and you can have a musical feast. When I assisted Archibald MacLeish in a Harvard poetry course, he asked me to recite a Rilke poem to his large class. I did, and was well received. Later MacLeish summoned me to his office and I wondered what did I do wrong this time? Well, he merely wanted to know the name of the beautiful Radcliffe girl who came just to hear me. It was Christine Bosshard , and though she was impressed, I never even got to first base with her—and neither, I imagine, would have Archie.
I conclude with a favorite passage from Rilke that I may have quoted before, but that can bear repeating. The scene is a riverside afternoon in a Grande Jatte or Sunday in the Park With George setting, with the poet and his mistress present.
Befriedigungen ungezaelter Jahre
Sind in der Luft. Voll Blumen liegt dein Hut.
Und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
Mischt sich mit Welt als waere alles gut.
Hear this and feel it, and its music and meaning may well leave you with tears in your eyes.