When intermittently listening to Arabic versions of Lion King songs the other day, it seemed natural to ask why we found these versions so much scarier than the original soundtracks that we know well and love. Was it perhaps because it was unfamiliar and we couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, or was it more to do with the pitch and tone of the particular language? Are some languages prone to making us more scared than others?
When tackling these questions, it serves for us to look initially to sound scientists for their expertise on the perpetual relationship between sound and fear.
Taking the case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) victims and their distorted perceptions, Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have looked at how certain sounds trigger certain brain mechanisms and how levels of fear vary according to sounds and their context. Their study suggests that a fear reaction to sound is subjective and depends on a person’s experiences, thus leading us to infer, in the case of language, that different people find different languages scary by virtue of their exposure to these particular languages and the cultures with which they are associated. It follows that enduring screaming matches in Korean from next door or being screamed at by a hot-headed and high-handed lady in Spanish at aged 12 could imprint some level of fear on a long-term memory. Conversely, a lack of direct exposure to and therefore a lack of concrete understanding of the Arabic-speaking world, in our case, could be the reasoning behind our finding Arabic Lion King songs significantly more scary than their English counterparts. However, it also cannot be denied that negative political and historical factors relating to a certain culture and its language are crucial when considering the emotional effect of a language on a particular person. For example, the sound of German for Jews of a certain age can incite a legitimate sense of fear, due to past political connotations directly associated with the language. Current political relations can also affect the way in which a language is viewed.
Why, however, do online forums on the topic suggest that, across the board, German, Latin, Arabic, Russian and Japanese are the “scariest languages”? This general consensus must first be considered as representative of the context in which it is found – a western European context and more specifically, an English language forum found by an Italian search engine. With the exception of German and Latin, these opinions could be justified by the fact that the environments in which the (aforementioned) languages are spoken are unfamiliar to the average western European, and thus, fear of the unknown means that we are more scared by these particular languages. Exposure to Latin and Japanese Language Horror films within our occidental context, could provide the bridge between language and fear in these particular cases. On the other hand, it could be said that German’s current reputation as a scary language is founded partially on the sound and tone with which the language is delivered as opposed to a lack of contemporary cultural and linguistic exposure. Here’s a small interlude to help you understand what we mean:
According to Amplifon, “the world’s dedicated hearing specialist”, the amygdala (part of the forebrain) plays a key role in fear conditioning and acts as an “alarm bell” in the brain on hearing certain sounds. We, as animals, are programmed biologically to naturally respond to certain sounds, for example, the sound of a baby crying and animal screams and screeches. Some also argue that minor and dissonant sounds are omnipresent in nature’s constant hum and naturally evoke ominous emotions with “mathematical relationships of overtones” that affect our nerves, thus upsetting our natural equilibrium. This is why, in order to trigger the brain’s fear “alarm bell”, film music composers and sound producers employ innumerous minor and dissonant chords, screams and screeches and gradually ascending pitches, which reflect ascending animal calls that occur as a result of an animal’s fear and subsequent tensing of vocal chords. This must subsequently also explain why being screamed at in any language causes us to be scared, and perhaps also why the tone with which some languages are spoken may lead to their evoking more fear.
As for individual language phonetics, no research has yet been published (of which I am aware) on the relationship between fear and phonetics in particular languages. An online contributor does suggest, however, that the scariest languages are those with velar, uvular or pharyngeal fricatives. On this basis, Ubykh (an extinct language native to Turkey), French, Arabic, Japanese, Modern Greek and variants of Hebrew and Syriac are the most scary.
All things considered, it is clear to say that there is not ONE overriding scary language, but rather some languages are prone to making us more scared than others, depending on their historical, political and cultural connotations, their delivery and our direct personal experiences and exposure.