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
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 fricatives. I 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.