September 5, 2003

· Misc

Tim Dunlop and Jonathon Delacour wonder if whether some languages are more pleasant to listen to than others, whether you understand them or not. This is certainly true from person to person. When I moved to the U.S., I sometimes found that things I complacently thought were due to my natural wit and charm were in fact explained by my speaking in a pleasant Irish accent. Conversely, these days I am routinely berated by almost everyone for having lost that accent after a mere six or seven years in America.

The more general proposition—that some languages are inherently better-sounding than others—is usually just a step back before taking a kick at the Germans. But Clive James, I think somewhere in his autobiography, makes an elegant case for Italian. As I remember, he quotes this bit from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, III, 1-3):

Per me si va ne la città dolente, per me si va ne l’etterno dolore, per me si va tra la perduta gente.

“Through me you pass to the city of woe / Through me you pass into eternal pain / Through me to amongst the lost people.”

Bitter words, James says, but because it’s Italian you still get to say “tra la.”

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.

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