Sociolinguists, who study the ways people’s cultural beliefs affect their beliefs about various languages, say this is no coincidence.
“A lot of times people’s negative or positive attitudes about a particular group get transferred onto the language,” explained Christopher Lucas, a professor of Arabic linguistics at SOAS in London. “They start to believe that it’s just the linguistic content of the language that is the bearer of those features that they experience as negative or positive, when that is almost never the case in actuality. … Sounds are just sounds. They don’t have any objective content that you can map onto specific emotional states.”
That’s not to say the perception of sound is entirely socially constructed. “There is some non-arbitrary link between sounds and the meanings people associate with them,” said Morgan Sonderegger, an associate professor of linguistics at McGill University. For instance, he said, it’s pretty well established that words with higher-sounding vowels tend to denote smaller objects, while words with lower-sounding vowels tend to denote bigger things; this is true cross-culturally. He cited a 2016 study that examined words from nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages and found that people everywhere often associate certain sounds with certain meanings. And an earlier cross-cultural experiment found that when people are shown a curvy shape and a jagged shape, and are asked which one is a bouba and which one is a kiki, they overwhelmingly associate the curvy shape with bouba and the jagged one with kiki. Sonderegger noted, however, that although human beings do seem to have some built-in associations, even these are just “raw materials that can be overwritten by cultural biases.”
The linguist Vineeta Chand argues that there’s actually nothing inherent in the sounds of a language that make it more or less enticing. Instead, people tend to find a foreign language attractive when the group it’s associated with enjoys economic or sociocultural prestige—think of the popularity of French as “romantic.” And the linguist Guy Deutscher argues that people tend to find sounds or sound combinations grating when they appear rarely or not at all their own native language—like the consonant cluster lbstv in selbstverständlich, which is German for obvious.
Lucas added that he believes Dawkins’s “vague soup of negative ideas [about Islam] is bleeding into his transcription.” The author’s tweet refers to “Allahu Akhbar,” but the proper transliteration would be Akbar, because this Arabic word contains no kh sound (as opposed to, say, the word sheikh). “He’s transcribing it as if it’s a kh, and for people who are native speakers of a language that lacks a kh sound—like most dialects of English—that is very often felt to be a harsh, ugly sound. People here in the U.K., when you ask them what’s your opinion about German, will say ‘Oh, it’s ugly! You’ve got all these kh, kh, kh sounds.’ But there are many other languages with these sounds, like Dutch. And no one in my experience says that Dutch is ugly.”