Looking for (the language of) love

langoflove

Every year as February turns to March, my boyfriend starts telling me about colleagues who’ve found love.  “You know, it’s springtime,” he always finishes with a smile.  Springtime in Paris: The sun is warm but the air is crisp.  People go without the heavy winter coats they’ve likely been donning since October’s first chill.  The parks are blooming with vegetation – and lots more visitors.  Yes, it’s a lovely time to fall in love.  But could the annual outbreak of amour also be because of the way people speak?

It seems like a majority of the world considers French the language of love (although French people themselves usually find Italian more romantic).  If you start looking on foreign language forums, though, other tongues are given their due, among them Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Urdu, and Tagalog. 

Of course, like love itself, language can be very personal. People might have memories of first loves in certain languages that have stuck with them, or romantic songs from foreign films that made their hearts beat a little faster.  It’s surprising, then, that so many individuals the world over still seem to cite French or Italian as the most romantic language.  I started to wonder if there were any studies that had been done about this.

If there have, like the secret to everlasting love, boy, are they hard to find!  I finally decided to look a bit into phonaesthetics – the study of the sounds of words and their appeal or the impressions they leave on others.  But the most interesting things I discovered in that domain have to do with the fact that, for many years, the phrase “cellar door” has been considered the most aesthetically pleasing in the English language, and that a recent survey of speakers of English as a second language dubbed “mother” our most beautiful word.  Of course, I don’t know if they mean that in a phonaestehtic way, or just because they love their moms….

I took up my search again.  This time, I found two surveys that yielded interesting results.  A majority of respondents to this one, from hotels.com, found that French is considered the world’s sexiest language, while this one, which was given exclusively to English mother-tongue linguists, gave that honor to Italian (but only by a small margin over French).  But neither poll gives reasons why.

The French consulate’s website is much more logical and dry when it comes to explaining the appeal of their language, which brings up a dichotomy that people mention on forums and the like: French may be “the language of love”, but it’s also a language of diplomacy and logic.

Still, most of us perceive the French as sexy and romantic, whether that’s truer for them than for other cultures, or not.  This interesting blog post by an American expat in France suggests that it might be the way the French themselves speak about romance and relationships that contribute to this reputation.  For example, you’ll often hear a couple referred to (even in their presence) as les amoureux (the lovers).  As for Italians, we tend to perceive them as people who love life and physical pleasures.  Plus, those two legendary lovers, Romeo and Juliet, were natives of Verona. But I still can’t help but think there might be a phonaesthetic element to the question, too. 

It seems that for now at least, “What’s the most romantic language and why?” is a question without a definitive answer. The next time you’re out with a group of people, ask them what they think.  It should make for some interesting conversation – and who knows, it could even lead to some participants finding l’amour, themselves.

Alysa Salzberg

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