How "aggressive" is the English language, comparatively?

Yes, yes, I understand this is a highly subjective question, but…

How “agressive” or “mean sounding” is the English language when compared to other languages?

For example, to me, German and Japanese sound more aggressive than Spanish or Italian. Obviously this has to be adjusted depending on the speaker (some are louder and more staccato than others), but is there any way to judge how English sounds as compared to other languages?

Basically, how does English sound to others?

Chinese sounds even more aggressive than Japanese to me. When I was a little kid, my parents would take me to this Chinese restaurant and the sound of all the cooks yelling at each other in Chinese would scare the hell out of me.

I think it’s more the listener who determines whether the sounds he hears suggest aggression to him. I suspect that to a large extent this depends on the listener’s cultural background.

Are you talking about Mandarin or Cantonese? I agree that Cantonese sounds pretty aggressive, due to all those harsh tones and strong accents. Mandarin sounds more neutral to me, although it would depend on who is speaking it (ie, a news anchor vs. yelling cooks).

OP: I find English rather neutral. I hear a lot of Asian languages, and I would say Cantonese and Vietnamese sound a lot more “aggressive” to me than English.

Since the OP will require mainly opinions, let’s move it to IMHO.

samclem Moderator, General Questions

My parents immigrated to the US as adults. They spoke Yiddish (Hebrew/Germanic roots) as their primary language, Polish as their secondary, German, Russian and Hebrew as well. My mom always said English sounded very guttural to her and not very nice to hear.

Japanese comes across as rather mild, unless its from angry movie Yakuza. Agree that Cantonese is harsh.

I expect that “harshness” can be quantified by number of vowels vs. hard consonants. Finnish and Estonian have lots of vowels, and seem way less harsh than German or Arabic. The “ch” phoneme present in many languages, as in “loch,” is particularly “harsh.”

I think of French as the language of loooove, and German, of war. I can’t imagine making love in German. Too harsh.

The “harshness” of the languages you mention, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Italian, varies a lot in the context. Listen to Arnold Schwarzenegger in person and he has a mild almost comforting accent. Listen to Conan O’Brien imitate him and it always sounds like Hitler declaring war on Russia at a mass rally. Mussolini in a newsreel pronouncing from a balcony sounds as harsh as Hitler. Then look at Hitler’s home movies in Berchtesgaden and Hitler sounds as silky as any Italian opera.

This video may be of interest to you. It’s a French guy “faking” a bunch of languages, including English.

Well both The Governator and Conan are speaking English, right?

Tonal languages such as Cantonese may sound “harsh” to Western ears because we tend to use different tones of voice to express states of emotion. To “raise one’s voice” means to get agitated, to us. In Chinese languages, it is used to distinguish between phonemes. So an innocuous utterance in Cantonese might sound questioning, dismissive, or argumentative to Western ears unused to tonal languages.

(I’d echo the caveats above about this all being highly subjective and dependent on the speaker. etc. One person’s “harsh” is another person’s “euphonious”. That said, there do seem to be some areas of consensus. For example, while I personally prefer the sound of German to that of French and other Romance languages, most native English speakers do seem to prefer French, Spanish, Italian etc.)

To my non-Spanish-savvy ear, Spanish can (does not always but CAN) sound very very aggressive. It tends to have more syllables per word and more words per sentence, so the net effect is that, on average, native Spanish speakers cut loose with more syllables per second than typical native English speakers. Put a little enthusiasm and animation behind it and you get machine-gun Spanish. I can’t tell where one word stops and the next starts (due to not knowing Spanish) and many more of OUR words are single-syllable words, so it sounds like a long string of words being reeled off almost faster than you can think. That can sound angry, emphasic, definitely aggressive.

A lot of the aggressive/passive aspect of a language has less to do with the structure of the language itself but cultural standards of intonation. Italian sounds smooth and pleasant in TV commercials, but two Neapolitans having a friendly conversation on the street will often sound (and, to a degree, look) like they’re about to throw down in a hand-to-hand deathmatch. It’s about standards of emotional expression more than the actual language.

Well, Spanish is a syllable-timed language, while English is a stress-timed language. So English actually has more syllables per sentence stress, and for a Spanish speaker (or a Japanese, French, Italian speaker) it’s very difficult to hear all the syllables that English speakers cram in between stress points.

Differences in stress patterns cause difficulty in both directions. For English speakers, distinguishing between:

A) Mr. Smith is in the green house.
B) Mr. Smith is in the greenhouse.

isn’t a problem. But it can be for speakers of other languages.

So the OP needs to specify who is listening to the language: a native speaker or not?

Exactly. Because of blending, deletion, etc., if it’s not your native language, or if you’re not very fluent, it will be difficult to differentiate single words–but all languages do this. Words are both spoken and cognitively processed by listeners in semantic groups: Each…word…is…not…spok…en…as…a…dis…tinct…u…nit…of…mea…nig
for the benefit of non-native speakers’ understanding.

Speak these two sentences as naturally as possible:

A) I’m so hot I’m going to have a swim.
B) It was such a hot time of year we rarely went hiking.

Compare hot I’m with hot time. The difference is as difficult for speakers of other languages as Spanish blending is for you.

Also most languages sound different depending on the sex of the speaker.

Interestingly, to me, his ‘Arabic’ nonsense sounds German, and his ‘Finnish’ sounds like Inuktitut.

Judging from my experience, foreign languages lose imagined or preconceived qualities of being guttural, musical, soft, or harsh as soon as you begin to know them pretty well. I can assure you that after a year of college French it does not sound “romantic” or lyrical at all. In German, many of the sounds that initially seem harsh to native English speakers learning the language really aren’t in context. The phonetic features of German that initially sound harsh to English speakers really don’t in context, because in natural speech a German speaker doesn’t sit on the “-ch” in ach or ich the way a foreign-language teacher inevitably does in demonstrating how it is to be pronounced. Instead, the sound just floats by like any other consonant.

Off topic from the OP’s intent, since it’s not about the sound per se but about the acquisition of new words, but this pops into my head at the mention of the English language being aggressive:

Sourced here:

Something which I didn’t find out until some two years ago and which drives those of us from syllabic languages nuts, specially hearing a Briton speak. Give a Briton a sentence that’s got 20 words, of which 19 are monosyllabic, and you can bet money he’ll stop for air in the middle of the only polysyllabic word - where we never would. And the funny thing is, a lot of English-as-single-language folks aren’t conscious of the “stress-timed” thing at all.

English doesn’t sound harder or softer than Spanish to me (both have dialects that sound harder and softer), but English cussing sounds much softer than Spanish cussing, as well as a lot less varied. 90% of it seems to be F-word variants.

Catalan sounds softer than Spanish: many people use Catalan cusswords as euphemisms for Spanish ones (I’m talking about people whose knowledge of Catalan is often limited to the cusswords). French sounds softer too; Italian is thereabouts.

I like that cite from Emperor Charles V: “I speak Spanish to God, French to women and German to my dog.”

Sure, it’s subjective, but I’d say there’s at least a plurality concensus on the extremes. There’s a reason so many metal songs are in German, after all. On the other side of the coin, my vote goes to French.

I’m no linguistics expert, but English (and here I’m discussing American English) always sounded pretty neutral to me. A little heavy on the consonants, but we end up dropping a lot of the harder sounds, especially at the ends of words. Off the top of my head, compare German “nacht”, English “night”, and French “soir”.

  • In German, it’s “nachKT”; the harsh ‘ch’ sound followed by a clipped and enunciated ‘t’. Very aggressive-sounding by my standards.

  • In English, it still ends with a ‘t’, but you’d never know it from the way most of us pronounce it in casual conversation. It’s more like we started saying “nigh” and decided to stop 3/4ths of the way through. Lends an air of noncommittal neutrality.

  • In French, it begins with a soft ‘s’, elides into the illustrious ‘oi’ sound, and ends with the near-aspirated French ‘r’. Very soft and smooth; almost melodic.

Of course, there are pros and cons to each. German may sound harsh, but it allows Rammstein to write lyrics like “The tears of an aged group of children / I thread onto a white hair / Throw the wet chain into the air / And wish that I had a mother”, and still sound to American ears like they’re ready to beat some people down.

French, on the other hand…well, just listen to French gangsta rap sometime. :wink: