Beauty is truth, truth beauty–except for language

I knew that I was meant to be a linguist the day that I was listening to a Brazilian guy being tortured on the radio.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
–John Keats, Ode on a Grecian urn

The symbols for voiceless and voiceless post-alveolar fricatives–two of the sounds that make Brazilian Portuguese sound like Brazilian Portuguese. Picture source:

I knew that I was meant to be a linguist the day that I was listening to a Brazilian guy being tortured on the radio.  As the Portuguese-speaking police officer questioned him and the guy screamed in the background, I thought: what beautiful fricativesI think that this is also strong evidence that I am a terrible person, but that’s a conversation for another time.

There’s something that you need to keep in mind about this story: my judgement about the relative beauty or lack thereof of a language isn’t a professional judgement at all.  Rather, it is an entirely personal one.  Linguists think of themselves as people who study language from a scientific perspective, and from a scientific perspective, beauty is not a relevant characteristic for describing a language.  Are there people who study language from a non-scientific perspective?  Sure–poets.  Poets typically have a very deep awareness of language, and fantastic insights into it.  However, a poet’s understanding of what language is and how language works is very different from a linguist’s understanding of what language is and how language works.  I can’t imagine protesting against a poet’s description of something linguistic as beautiful.  But, that’s not a word that you would hear coming out of my mouth as a linguist.  As a civilian?  Sure–for example, Brazilian Portuguese is beautiful.  But, as we’ve seen, I’m a terrible person–so, take my aesthetic judgements with a grain of salt.

  • la consonne: consonant.
  • fricatif (adj.): sibilant, fricative.
  • la consonne fricative: fricative consonant.
  • la voyelle: vowel.



3 thoughts on “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–except for language”

    1. Yeah, I went to grad school with a guy from Angola who spoke continental Portuguese. It drove him crazy when I would say “boa noite” in Brazilian–something like “boa noich’.” He would always correct me: “boa NOI-TE.”

      Liked by 1 person

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