What does "Schmetterling" sound like to a German?

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I'm prompted to ask this question in response to the very first comment on this post:

"'Butterfly' words as a source of etymological confusion" (1/28/16)

The comment supplies a link to this YouTube video, in which russianracehorse tells "The Butterfly Joke".  A Frenchman, an Italian, a Spaniard, and a German each pronounce the word for "butterfly" in their own language.  The words for "butterfly" in the first three languages all sound soft, delicate, and mellifluous.  Finally the German chimes in and shouts vehemently, "Und vat's wrong with [the joke teller could have said 'mit'] Schmetterling?"

The angry enunciation of the German word for "butterfly" has kept me wondering for the last two days, "Why this prejudice against 'Schmetterling'?"  Does "Schmetterling" innately sound horrible, awful, forbidding?

Here's a video of the comedian Tim Allen making fun of the word "Schmetterling" and the audience roaring with laughter.

I started to look around for more evidence of bias against "Schmetterling", and found this on Know Your Meme:  "Differenze Linguistiche", significantly billed as "Part of a series on Rage Comics".

There are many more related links here, and Urban Dictionary accords "Schmetterling" a highly unflattering entry.

But it's not just "Schmetterling".  In this Live Leak video, "German Pronunciation Of Words Compared To Other Languages", it seems as though all German words (e.g., those for airplane, surprise, butterfly, pen, daisy, ambulance, and science) sound positively awful in comparison with their equivalents in French, English, Italian, and Spanish (but note that, in each case, the German word is shouted loudly and angrily, whereas the words in the other languages are pronounced daintily and demurely.)

Let us try to take a more innocent, guileless approach to "Schmetterling".

Here's what the word sounds like, when spoken without animus.

There's also a recording available in this Wiktionary entry, which in addition relates a quaint, and widely believed, etymology for the word:

From Schmetten ‎(cream) due to an old belief that witches transformed themselves into butterflies to steal cream and other milk products.

Steve White, in "Stories about German Words", describes "Schmetterling" thus:

…a funny, cute-sounding word for butterfly, but what is the sense of it? A pocket dictionary definition of schmettern gives only “make a loud noise” or “strike”.

But the Schmetter here is from an older usage, having to do with milk products.

The Duden Deutsches Universal-wörterbuch, has (in my free and broken translation), under Schmetterling:

“…from the High Saxon to ‘Schmetten’, following the old folk belief that witches fly about in the form of butterflies, in order to steal milk and cream”

And under Schmetten, it says this was an Eastern German and Austrian word for cream, deriving from the Czech “smetana”.

I also like to think, the English (and Germans) very much like their butter. Butterfiles are also nice, and often the color of butter (and sometimes cream).

This benign approach to "Schmetterling" is so vastly different from the evil cast put upon it in the sources quoted above.

The distinctiveness of "Schmetterling" leads to our next question, namely, "Why do languages not share a root for 'butterfly'?", concerning which we find a nice discussion on StackExchange, Linguistics beta.  It is a point worth pondering, since such is not true of most words.  There's something about a butterfly that inspires speakers of different languages to come up with their own words for this elusive, ephemeral, exquisite creature.

Here we encounter an interesting article by William O. Beeman, "The Elusive Butterfly. Iconicity in Language" (2001), which examines the role of sound symbolism and phonesthesia in words for butterfly in many different languages.

There have been innumerable poems written about butterflies in German, where this diaphonous delight is depicted as soft, tender, adorable, and beautiful.  Schmetterling is also used as a surname (I don't think anyone would be happy to have a name whose pronunciation made them sound eternally furious).

Marko Pajević has a thoughtful essay on "German Language and National Socialism Today:  Still a German 'Sonderweg'?" in Edinburgh German Yearbook, Vol. 8 (2014).  Under the heading "Stereotypes of the German Language", Pajević (pp. 10-11) observes:

Everything depends on the meaning we give to it.  We can continue to stress the putatively anal character of the Germans and of German language by pointing at the Germans' focus on scatology in cursing, but we can also interpret this fact as a reluctance to use sexual metaphors in a negative way.  In English, something unpleasant provokes the swear-word "fuck," yet nobody accuses all English-speakers of being sexually perverted.  And does it not seem rather healthy to connect the unpleasant to shit rather than to sex?  As so many thinkers — such as Humboldt and, following him, Wittgenstein and Jaspers — have pointed out, it is not language but its use that is decisive.  Our conception of a language is determined by the historical context.

The problem of ignoring this becomes obvious in the sketch of the comedian Tim Allen, who mocks German by first sarcastically calling it a beautiful poetic language, and then offering unflattering comparisons:  he gently pronounces "butterfly," "papillon," and "mariposa," then suddenly delivers an aggressively screamed "Schmetterling."  He comments that in German, even butterflies are afraid of their name.  People find that funny; it serves all the clichés.  Germans are an easy target for such jokes.  But obviously, when the German word "Schmetterling" is perceived as aggressive as opposed to the gentle "butterfly" or "papillon" or "mariposa," that is not for inherent, objective linguistic or acoustic reasons, but the result of the audience's conditioning.  It is in the perception, not in the language, and is related to associations and representation.  Of course, in the imagined mouth of the inhumane SS-officer, "Schmetterling" becomes a threatening sound, but it does not in the mouth of a joyful German child.  Of course, the world does not hear many joyful German children speak German, but they do hear the SS-officers, or the standardized representation of them, in films.  The English word "butterfly" would be just as frightful in the mouth of the cliché-Nazi.  The character of a language is not in the language but in the person who speaks that language.

In the final analysis, "Schmetterling" can be said as sweetly, softly, and sensuously as any of the other words for "butterfly" in the diverse languages of the world.  Simultaneously paraphrasing Marko Pajević and proverbial wisdom, "beauty is in the mouth of the speaker and in the ear of the hearer".

Now listen to a Turkish designer pronounce the English word "butterfly" and describe the majestic dress she created for Intel with her sister (second video embedded in this article).  Her sui generis pronunciation is every bit as charming as the different pronunciations of "Schmetterling" in these four recordings.

As rufenstein says on reddit:

Schmetterling to me sounds way cuter than butterfly, but that might have to do with the fact that I don't imagine every German word to be shouted by a Nazi soldier.

To each their own.

[Thanks to Joseph R. Mair, the Wandering Vanman]


  1. Bob Ladd said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 6:25 pm

    I distinctly remember simply not getting the Schmetterling joke the first time I heard it. I already spoke German at that point, which may make a difference. Or maybe I just never watched enough WW2 movies when I was growing up.

  2. Thorin said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 6:32 pm

    As a German translator and interpreter, I have to deal with people's prejudices against the language pretty frequently. They often say, "Oh German is just too harsh, you know? It always sounds like they're angry." My assumption, like in the excerpt from Pajević above, is that the only exposure they have had to actual spoken German is industrial rock and war movies, two instances in which German isn't really spoken so much as shouted.

    Another example is hearing somebody use the German phrase, "Ich liebe dich," as evidence that it is an ugly language. The problem is that with the -ch- sounds, they will pronounce it like the end of "Loch" when instead it's a far gentler voiceless palatal fricative in "ich" and "dich".

  3. Zeppelin said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 6:52 pm

    There's a sweet poem by Michael Ende called The Dragon and the Butterfly that seems relevant:


    "Schmetterling" looks like it contains the verb schmettern, "to smash, bash violently" (the actual source word "Schmetten" being obscure).
    On the other hand the old-fashioned word Lindwurm for "dragon" (from long-obsolete OHG lint "snake" and wurm "worm") looks like it contains "(ge)lind", which means "gentle".
    The dragon is frustrated because no matter what he does, he remains lind, while the butterfly really doesn't want to be schmetter-y.

    So they decide to swap, the butterfly going by Lindling and the dragon by Schmetterwurm.

  4. Jens Ørding Hansen said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 7:03 pm

    I wonder if Americans instinctively associate the consonant cluster /ʃm/ with slangy American English words of Yiddish origin, many of which (e.g. "schmuck") have pejorative meanings? That could perhaps explain the prejudice against "Schmetterling".

  5. raempftl said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 7:05 pm

    When ever people quote Twain's "The awful German language" to illustrate how awful German is/sounds, I know they didn't read much beyond the title.

    Here is what he says about how German sounds:

    "I think that a description of any loud, stirring, tumultuous episode must be tamer in German than in English. Our descriptive words of this character have such a deep, strong, resonant sound, while their German equivalents do seem so thin and mild and energyless. …

    There are some German words which are singularly and powerfully effective. For instance, those which describe lowly, peaceful, and affectionate home life; those which deal with love, in any and all forms, from mere kindly feeling and honest good will toward the passing stranger, clear up to courtship; those which deal with outdoor Nature, in its softest and loveliest aspects — with meadows and forests, and birds and flowers, the fragrance and sunshine of summer, and the moonlight of peaceful winter nights; in a word, those which deal with any and all forms of rest, repose, and peace; those also which deal with the creatures and marvels of fairyland; and lastly and chiefly, in those words which express pathos, is the language surpassingly rich and affective. There are German songs which can make a stranger to the language cry. That shows that the sound of the words is correct — it interprets the meanings with truth and with exactness; and so the ear is informed, and through the ear, the heart."


    I always wondered how much Twain's view of the sound of German was prejudiced by viewing Germans through the works of German Romatics.

  6. Eric Ringger said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 7:29 pm

    Having grown up around my Swiss relatives, lived in Germany for two years and in Austria for a summer, spent cumulative days or maybe weeks in the company of sweet German grandmas lovingly serving up baked goods and telling their bittersweet stories, played checkers with German schoolchildren, all I can say is that German of all varieties carries all of the pathos and innocence of my native American English when spoken, absolutely depending on the speaker and the mood. I'm with V. Mair, it's the intent that colors the word.

  7. Patrick B said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

    As a Germanic Studies MA graduate long ago, here's one LL topic I'm vaguely qualified to comment on…(!) I think it goes back to the anti-German propaganda in US/UK during World War I. not helped by the movie portrayals others have mentioned. Schmetterling seems like a pretty high-sounding name for an insect to me. Whereas English seems to always hit insects with the -fly or -bug label.

  8. Scott said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 8:26 pm

    There's a nice parody of the "German Pronunciation Of Words Compared To Other Languages" video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLvL7a8Y0pI

  9. Jacob said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 8:30 pm

    The correct response to the German's question is "I don't know – I've never schmetterled."

  10. AG said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 10:15 pm

    I'd like to respectfully suggest that English speakers' stereotype of German as harsh or clumsy compared to other languages is definitely not simply a conditioned reaction to the aggressive tone of voice used by Nazis in movies.

    In my opinion, there are at least three separate things going on which might have combined to various degrees to build up this perception over the generations:

    1. Frequency of certain sounds / sound combinations in words (I'm not a linguist so I won't even try to use terms like "phoneme" or whatever) – for example, if you asked English speakers to rank spoken sounds by pleasantness alone, with no language context, I would guess that, for example, the "-CH-" sound in "Schnarchen" or "Loch" would probably fall near the bottom.

    I would guess that anything that sounds like you're clearing your throat, gargling, scoffing, panting raggedly, or getting ready to hawk up spit is not immediately appealing to the average English speaker.

    Everyone always says Arabic is a beautiful, poetic language, and I'm sure it is, but to my ears it often sounds a bit "throat-cleary" and I assume I'm not the only one, and my feeling is that that certain frequent sounds in German strike native English speakers in a similar way.

    2. When there are German compound words for things which are a lone/loan word in English, I think to English speakers the German word often seems primitive in comparison, as if Germans of old had no ability to make up new words and so were forced to comically hammer together two old words.

    "Brustwarze", "Zahnfleisch", "Handschuh" – these common German words and their thousands of siblings often have a hint of the faintly comical or crude to me. Of course there are German compound words which are majestic, insightful, etc. etc., but it's the "Brustwarze" that stick in the mind, so to speak. I know there was a character in Beowulf named "Hondscio", but ever since English-speakers started using "glove", the compound "hand-shoe" has understandably begun to seem a bit childish. German, with its many cognates to English, has a lot of "hand-shoe" moments for learners.

    3. Whether it's true or not, I think there's still an almost instinctive feeling among English speakers that short, consonant(?)-heavy "Anglo-Saxon" words are blunt or homely. German words often remind English speakers of curse words, bodily functions, and unpleasant onomatopoeia (- probably more recently boosted through the influence of Yiddish "Schmuck", "Putz", etc.).

    Think of words like "snark" – Wherever it comes from, whatever it means, I think many English speakers would agree that a) "snark" sounds a bit German-ish, b) that a lot of German words sound like "snark", and c) that it doesn't sound pretty.

    None of this is to say that German actually IS inherently more clumsy or aggressive than any other language, or that it sounds that way to native speakers, at all – of course that's absurd. But I do think there are more complex factors behind English-speakers' perception of German and its sounds than just "Oh they're all Nazis and Rammstein"

  11. Thorin said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 10:30 pm

    @AG I do want to point out – and not to discredit anything you said above, which raises a lot of good points – that the -ch- in "schnarchen" is more like -sh- than the -ch- you mention in "Loch".

    I have also heard numerous people say that they once found German to be an ugly and abrasive language in movies, but then when they heard it being spoken in public they changed their minds about how it sounds to them. The minority of people I've spoken to who've heard German both in movies and from a person simply speaking it in conversation still find it to be harsh.

    Also, I'm learning Arabic right now, and I do agree with you that while it is a deeply poetic language, the letter 'ayn (ﻉ) always sounds quite rough to me.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 11:11 pm

    I like the sound of German, but I have to say the prejudice against it isn't all about shouting. Once when I was listening to a record of Lieder performed by great singers, a friend came into my apartment and said something like, "You can tell that's German. It's the ugliest language."

    Jens Ørding Hansen: "Schmetterling" has sonic similarities to "butterfly", and I agree that the initial "schm" is probably the culprit. English speakers have also adopted it from Yiddish in the dismissive "ready-shmeady" construction.

  13. djbcjk said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 11:24 pm

    So Bedrich Smetana is Fred Cream.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    January 30, 2016 @ 11:59 pm

    From a colleague:

    The mere heading (without getting to the post itself)
    sounds to me like something fluttering, without deep
    thought as to the root of the word or true meaning
    of schmettern.

    Beyond that I was startled how the derision of German
    truly annoyed me. But why, while reading raempftl's
    comments, did Goethe come to mind with his

    Über allen Gipfeln
    Ist Ruh,
    In allen Wipfeln
    Spürest du
    Kaum einen Hauch;
    Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
    Warte nur, balde
    Ruhest du auch.

    VHM: My colleague said that she could not imagine how to capture the loveliness of these words in English. I found this translation in Wikipedia:

    Above all summits
    it is calm.
    In all the tree-tops
    you feel
    scarcely a breath;
    The birds in the forest are silent,
    just wait, soon
    you will rest as well.

  15. AG said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 12:44 am

    Rilke's "Herbsttag" is an example of a German-language poem which I can't imagine moving me in translation. Or "Archaischer Torso Apollos". Anything by Rilke, really. (Except the Duino Elegies. I can't understand them in any language.)

  16. Y said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 1:41 am

    I wonder if the German-is-Ugly trope came to be at the same time as the French-is-Beautiful one.

  17. Rachael said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 2:00 am

    I think "Schmetterling" sounds cute. I agree that the -metter- part evokes fluttering. "-ling" is diminutive in English as well, as in "duckling". And I don't personally have the Yiddish-insult association with initial /ʃm/ – instead it suggests baby-talk or cutesy-couple-talk to me, like pronouncing "snuggle" as "shnuggle".

  18. Lazar said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 2:13 am

    The truth is that German is pretty, and all other languages are ugly.

  19. rjp said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 3:16 am

    Even when Blümchen shouts "Schmetterlinge!", it doesn't sound terrifying (unless you have an aversion to happy hardcore music, I suppose.)


  20. Rubrick said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 3:30 am

    To anyone who believes "butterfly" in English is objectively lovely on phonetic grounds, try removing the "er". Either you have to stick to your guns and proclaim "buttfly" similarly beautiful, or argue that it's the "er" which makes it sound so lovely. I think either position would be challenging to defend.

  21. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 4:28 am

    I remember as a kid being baffled by the assumption that German was ugly – especially as vestigial bits of Yiddish were spoken in the house with great pleasure and none of these connotations.

    When I asked I got the 'explanation' you'd expect: 'guttural'. It seemed obvious even to a kid that this had everything to do with history and nothing to do with phonology.

  22. maidhc said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 4:40 am

    I'm with Rachael. I get a good feeling from words like duckling and seedling. Tolkien & Co. were inspired calling themselves Inklings.

    I think it's a big problem in English that words for young animals aren't related to each other or to the parents: puppy, foal, calf, fawn and so on. It would be a big improvement to call them dogling, horseling, cowling, deerling etc.

    The first syllable makes me think of Yiddish "shmatte" (rag). So it's a little ragged insect flying about. Rather a nice image.

    Whatever you think about "Schmetterling", "Fledermaus" is a great word. So much better than "bat". We should have stuck with calling them leatherwings.

  23. Charlie said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 4:44 am

    Why, UK citizens consider Schmetterling the most beautiful German word, though Germans know nine words that beat it.

  24. Gunnar H said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 5:47 am

    While we're comparing prejudices, I'll say that I do find "Schmetterling" ugly, but feel much the same about "butterfly" and Danish/Norwegian "sommerfugl" (lit. "summer bird"), the latter of which even sounds a bit like "fugly" (although the g is reduced in many dialects). On the other hand, I've always found Swedish "fjäril" (from Norse "fiðrildi", ultimately cognate with "papilio"/"papillon"/"farfalle") particularly beautiful.

  25. Keith said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 6:59 am

    The Germanic languages seem to have a quite rich set of terms for 'butterfly'… All mixed up and in no particular order:

    Skoenlapper, Pennenvoegel, Dagvlinder, Dagsommerfugle, Tagfalter, Bottervagel, Dagsommerfugl, Dagfjäril, Deiflinter, Summervögel, Vlienders, Flieflotters Beutervliegn…

    Many share common elements, either to do with daylight hours, summertime, or butter, and something to do with flying.

    When studying, I was struck by the similarity between the the words 'бабушка' and 'бабочка' (respectively 'grandmother' and 'butterfly'), the Wikipedia article links the two words in a folk-belief about butterflies being the spirits of the dead.

  26. Jonathan Wright said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 7:41 am

    On the question of lexical diversity in Europe for butterflies, it's interesting that many completely unrelated languages have words that are phonetically similar to 'papillon' and 'farfalle' etc. For example, Maori pepepe, Nahuatl papalotl, Samoan pepe, Ainu heporap, Akan afafranto, Ateso eporiporit, Basque pinpirin, Ch'orti pehpem, Fula palapala, Jarawa peʈpel, Malayalam pūmpāṟṟa, Marathi pʰulpākʰaru. Mekeo fefe-fefe or pepeo, Mossi pilimpiko., Santali piprriang, Swahili kipepeo.There are many more too from all over the world. So perhaps we should be asking why butterflies should be associated with reduplicated unvoiced labial consonants.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 8:28 am

    @Jonathan Wright

    From the gentle, soundless flapping of their wings.

  28. Keith said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 8:36 am

    Maybe the reduplication of the syllable with initial /p/ or /f/ is to convey the idea of repetition in the beating of the insects wings, or in the halting, stuttering movement of its flight… a universal behaviour that could explain a universal trend in the insect's name.

  29. Frances Cliffe said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 8:55 am

    Currently writing my dissertation on how the German accent is perceived and I must say the amount of youtube videos with Germans shouting words is overwhelming. I don't get it either, but with the most popular video receiving over 10,000,000 mil views perhaps I've missed something. I did enjoy the reply video where a softly spoken German women pronounces Schmetterling etc. and the speakers of other languages are shouting their translations…the irony of this video seems to be lost on many as they comment 'but everyone is just shouting in the other languages!!!' *Sigh*

  30. Alan Gunn said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 9:18 am

    Schmetterling sounds fine to me, but there are languages which contain sounds that are unpleasant to most English speakers, the Dutch G being the best example I can think of. In one of Janwillem Van de Wetering's novels, "The Maine Massacre," an American character hears a Dutch police officer speaking Dutch on the phone and says something to the effect that it sounds like someone throwing up. (This is from a 30+ year old memory and so may be off in detail.) German does have words that sound amusing, though. Even my wife, a German speaker who is fond of the language, admits that the word "entgegengegangen" (roughly, "gone to meet up with") is somewhat funny, especially when spoken with a Berlin accent.

    Furthermore, don't most people consider some foreign accents in English more pleasant sounding than others? I'd bet that many Americans consider a French accent more appealing than a German or Russian one, and I've heard one German say that German sounds better when spoken with a French accent than when spoken by Germans.

  31. Eneri Rose said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 9:48 am

    I do think that to an American ear all of the "cat coughing up a hair ball" sounds are unpleasant. I do not think anti-German prejudice is involved. Rather, if people have not been exposed to a sound as part of language, it is natural for them to feel repelled by that sound when it invokes visceral memories of the miseries of coughing, choking and vomiting. And since these are our only experiences producing this sound, it is natural that when we try to produce it as part of language, we do it harshly.

  32. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    I am not sure if AG's citation of "Schmuck" and "Putz" refers to the German words meaning, respectively, "ornament" and "finery", or to the anglicized versions of the Yiddish shmok and pots, meaning "penis" and used as a pejorative for men. The former, incidentally, probably comes from the Polish smok, meaning "dragon".

  33. AG said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 10:29 am

    @coby – all of those words sound extremely ugly to English speakers, though, which is what we were discussing (I thought)

  34. ===Dan said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 10:45 am

    I first heard the joke on TV, told by Danny Thomas on a talk show, maybe in the 70s.

  35. raempftl said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 11:33 am


    I (German native speaker) pronounce "Putz" and "puts" (3rd pers. sing. of to put) exactly the same way.

    Am I doing something wrong or does the "puts" in "He puts his book on the table" really sound extremely ugly to English speakers?

    @Eneri Rose

    But "Schmetterling" does not contain any of those "cat coughing up a hair ball" sounds. Why does the joke use such a "nice" word to show how harsh German sounds?

    Some of the German words Mark Twain cites as being a lot milder than their English equivilants are "Schlacht" (battle, he says it's "tame") and Ausbruch (explosion, "Our word Toothbrush is more powerful than that.") which do contain these sounds.

  36. Bob Ladd said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    Last summer I ate at a restaurant in Sardinia which has already put your idea into practice. Perhaps the best-known Sardinian culinary specialty is porcetto (Sard. porcheddu) or roast piglet. On the English part of this restaurant's menu it was listed as porkling.

  37. Rodger C said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

    Back when I was a chemistry major, I took a course in German for scientists. (This was half a century ago, when German dominated the literature.) It taught me my favorite German words: "Stickstoff" (nitrogen) and "Futternutzung" (nutritional requirement).

  38. Andrew McCarthy said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 4:39 pm

    raempftl: Most Americans tend to pronounce "putz" with the vowel of initial U in "ultimate", whereas the third-person verb form "puts" has a U more similar in sound to the vowel in "look".

  39. Klaus said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 4:56 pm

    @Jonathan Wright

    What about the glottal stop in diné kʼaalógii

    (Young and Morgan don't give an etymology)

  40. Xtifr said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 5:12 pm

    AG wrote: "all of those words sound extremely ugly to English speakers"

    As an native English speaker who doesn't know German or Yiddish, allow me to respectfully but firmly disagree. "Schmuck" sounds charmingly humorous, like the sound you might make while walking through mud. (Schmuck-schmuck-schmuck) "Putz", in turn, evokes the word "puttering" to me. "I'm just going to putz around the house for a bit."

    Neither word sounds even vaguely ugly to me.

  41. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 5:44 pm

    Is this not an evident example of how "imposed norm" (as in the Imposed Norm Hypothesis) works? Or am I missing something? German is ugly because Germans are horrible, etc. Just that it goes much further back than WW2 movies. Maybe as far back as 1066 and having a French-speaking aristocracy vs. a Germanic-speaking peasantry. Who knows.

  42. AG said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 5:48 pm

    @ raempftl – American-Yiddish "Putz" is pronounced not like "puts", but like the golf term "putts" – rhymes with "butts".

    @ Xtifr – The pleasant sounds of… walking through mud or cleaning the house? I rest my case.

  43. AG said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 6:03 pm

    @ raempftl – I think the (subjective) "ugliness" of Schmetterling to English speakers comes from two things, the front and back of the word. "SCHM-" only shows up memorably in English in rare occasions, and not particularly beautiful ones – "Schmuck", "fish-meal", "Ishmael".

    "-LING", on the other hand, sounds like a small and evil version of something, like a henchman. It shows up mainly in the hideous "underling" and "Quisling", and as a not-particularly-lovely ending for verbs in certain situations (participle?) – curling, hurling, twirling, unfurling. I guess there's "darling" and "sterling" to even things out…?

    I'm being a bit flippant here but I really do think that neither "SCHM-" nor "-LING" shows up in very many words with positive connotations in English, so even without the "throat-clearing" sounds, it's not hard to see why it might come across as ugly to English ears.

  44. raempftl said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 6:33 pm

    @Andrew McCarthy, AG

    But the discussion is why German words sound naturally harsh to English native speakers. Not why American-Yiddish words where the pronunciation is completely changed form the original German word sound harsh to them.

    The Cambridge dictionary gives the pronunciation of the English word "putz" as pʌts and of "schmuck" as ʃmʌk . The ʌ sound isn't even part of the German vowel inventory. So how can those word form the basis for a discussion on how German sounds?

    The German words both use the ʊ sound (Putz, Schmuck ) as do put and look, i. e. Putz and puts have pretty much the same pronunciation.

  45. Thorin said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 7:12 pm

    The Ach-Laut also isn't as frequent as it is in Dutch, Hebrew, and Afrikaans (I don't know exact figures, but I've been speaking German all my life and have had a lot of exposure to the languages mentioned above). And where non-German speakers see the -ch- digraph in a word, they pronounce it as an Ach-Laut instead of an Ich-Laut, which is far "gentler". I don't know that it's necessary to keep mentioning how German has a tendency to hack.

    I feel that the expression "ach" has become so synonymous with German and Scottish that any time a German word contains -ch- without the preceding s-, a lot of people believe that it's supposed to be an Ach-Laut. To go back to my earlier example, I hear a lot of people use the phrase, "Ich liebe dich" to exemplify the hideousness of German, although when they say it, it comes out entirely in Ach-Lauts.

    Plus the German "r" is, in most forms of the language, the same "r" that many find so attractive in French.

  46. Thorin said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 7:14 pm

    I say "synonymous" when I should say "strongly associated", but I've been working all day and am too tired to think.

  47. AG said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 7:23 pm


    I'm just giving a very personal, subjective, conjectural, and unscientific opinion here (as I have been throughout these comments), but I think most American English speakers view the vast majority of German words as either very short and ugly, or very long and ugly. "Putz" is just one example of a short and ugly word that most US English speakers would identify as "German-sounding". The facts that it happens to be Yiddish and not pronounced as a proper German word are true, but not really relevant to how US English speakers view the word or similar words. "Schlong" is another example which was recently in the news thanks to Trump.

    I'll try to think of more "real" German words that the average American might know:


    …I know this is a personal value judgment, but none of those seem particularly mellifluous or beautiful to me, either as sounds or concepts. Well, pretzels are nice, but the word could be described as aggressive-sounding.

    Again, I'm not trying to prove that German is objectively ugly, just trying to explain why native English speakers like myself have the stereotype that the "butterfly" joke plays off. I studied German in school and lived there for five years. I have German ancestors. I worked as a German-English translator. I really like German. But I understand the stereotype. It isn't just based on negative political or cultural views of Germans – I really feel there's more going on there.

  48. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

    @ AG –

    Your aesthetic judgements are very different from mine. In particular, "Ishmael" sounds quite nice to my ear.

    But also, '-ling' showing up " 'mainly in the hideous 'underling' and 'Quisling' "? Not only are they inoffensive to me (I suspect your judgment is being affected by the semantics), but because they're less common than diminutives like duckling, sapling, seedling.

  49. AG said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

    @ Pflaumbaum – I completely agree with both of your points. Underling and Quisling were the first -lings that came to mind, but of course there are many less negative ones.

    I wasn't trying to describe statistically provable linguistic reality, but rather my own sense of a general stereotype among US English speakers. I'm realizing that I'm kind of alone on this here, since every subjective example of German's "ugliness" I give seems to be met with "NO I LOVE THAT WORD IT'S A BEAUTIFUL WORD VOLKSWAGEN IS MY FAVORITE WORD I HAVE A TATTOO OF IT!!!"

    I just wanted to stand up for the view that German's negative reputation among English speakers is not entirely based on politics or prejudice – that my gut feeling is that there are a few other factors involved. I'm not doing it very scientifically, though, and it seems I'm just getting people upset, so I'll stop!

  50. maidhc said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 3:32 am

    I don't know if you can really count "quisling" as a native English word. It comes from Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian Nazi collaborator, and during WWII his name was used so often by Churchill and others as an example of evil conduct that it turned into a generic term. So much so that now many people have forgotten about the original person.

    I'm trying to think of other foreign surnames that became English words. Guillotine. Vandyke (beard style). I'm sure there are more.

  51. Pflaumbaum said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 4:35 am

    @ AG –

    I'm aware you're not trying to make a scientific claim, and it certainly didn't upset me! I just meant I come to different judgements.

  52. Gunnar H said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 8:07 am


    Relevant to this discussion, from a Times 1940 editorial (quoted on Wikipedia): "To writers, the word Quisling is a gift from the gods. If they had been ordered to invent a new word for traitor… they could hardly have hit upon a more brilliant combination of letters. Aurally it contrives to suggest something at once slippery and tortuous."

  53. anglogermantranslations said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    A lot has been written in answer to the original question. I just want to point out that

    "We can continue to stress the putatively anal character of the Germans and of German language by pointing at the Germans' focus on scatology in cursing, but we can also interpret this fact as a reluctance to use sexual metaphors in a negative way. In English, something unpleasant provokes the swear-word "fuck," [Pajević]

    is not true any more for German. "Fuck!" (the English version), is probably used more often by Germans now than anything scatological. Quite often you also hear the F-word and the Sch-word in the same sentence. It's supposed to be hip or something. I listen to a lot of discussions and chats on the Internet to keep up with 'German as she is spoke', because I need it for translating dialogues. My impression is that the English fuck is the most popular loanword now, oddly enough even out of the mouths of middle-aged and older people. Quite a vulgar phenomenon that German seems to share with many other languages. O tempora, o mores (linguae)! ;-)

  54. Zeppelin said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 11:55 am

    I note that standard French has a high frequency of both /χ/ and /ʁ/, plus nasal vowels. Both those consonants are typically cited as harsh, unpleasant sounds in German, and are also typical of what consonant clusters French has. And "nasal" is used as a pejorative to describe accents all the time.
    Yet French has a reputation for being smooth and sensual, following the stereotype of the French national character. And as we've noted Mark Twain thought German was limp and sentimental, following the perception at the time of Germans as a sentimental, Romantic people.

    If we interpreted the French national stereotype negatively — as lazy and vulgar instead of suave — we could easily characterise the language as "guttural", "mushy-mouthed", "lazy", "hoarse"…

    So I find it hard to believe that the popular perception of German in English-speaking countries is to any great degree conditioned by how the language actually sounds. (Also, I realise I sound kind of bitter about French here — I do have decent German school French, but maybe the German cultural inferiority complex is breaking through…)

  55. Zeppelin said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 11:59 am

    It's the classic pattern of stereotype confirmation, in the case of both languages: Any individual case that conforms to the stereotype is latched on to and remembered, anything that contradicts it is considered irrelevant.

  56. leoboiko said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

    The criticism about angry, harsh enunciation is on-point, as is the observation about cultural stereotypes. Still, there is such a thing as a personal aesthetics of the sounds themselves. Speaking for myself, in general, I find vowels sounds to be the most harmonic (being regular sound waves and all), followed by liquids and sonorants (except trills)—one can sing these sounds. Fricatives, being literally noise, don't sound as good (though [ʒ] is unusually pretty). Glottal/uvular/pharyngeal consonants tend to sound the worst, resembling throat-clearing, angry animal roars, or having a cold; long sequences of fricatives are like radio static. And occlusives are, well, abrupt—particularly syllable-final occlusives, which sound like a brusque interruption.

    All of these are only partially due to acoustics, and I'll be the first to admit the determinant factor to be personal and cultural bias. But, for my own subjective perception, it has the consequence that languages like Finnish and Māori sound unusually mellifluous. As for Germanic languages, I'm aware that my perception of them is further shaped by my heavy-metal-listening habits; but I think you guys gotta admit that, if you do want to sing heavy metal, sounds like German /x/, Icelandic voiceless /tl̥/, Norwegian /ʂ/ or English CCVCC syllables are particularly well-suited for a death growl.

  57. Zeppelin said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

    The point isn't that German doesn't contain "harsh" sounds — it's that other languages which also contain them don't get characterised as overall "harsh", and German itself was quite recently characterised as incapable of sufficient harshness(!) by Mark Twain in a way that was pretty clearly inspired by a now-obsolete set of cultural stereotypes.
    To me that indicates that the existence of those features is very much secondary to the cultural perception of the language.
    Of course personal aesthetic preference is a real thing, but I must assume it's also strongly dependent on existing cultural biases.

    As an anecdote on that theme, I notice that as I study more languages where Arabic takes the role of Latin as the language of Big, Important Cultural Things, it has started to sound very important and intellectual to me, the same way Latin does to people from Western countries.

  58. un malpaso said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 12:20 pm

    (as an English speaker) I have had enough study of Russian and German, and experience with native speakers of them, to know that both languages are much more mellifluous than stereotypes would claim. So I fundamentally agree with the conditioning hypothesis.

    And yet… I can't find a logical reason that anything said in French sounds uniquely beautiful to me, it just does. :) Why is that? It's not as if there aren't such things as rude or abrasive French speakers, or horrible nasty concepts with French translations. And yet….

  59. Zeppelin said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 12:21 pm

    For non-mellifluous Finnish, I would recommend Korpiklaani, if you're not familiar already :)


  60. Chris C. said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 5:18 pm

    Tim Allen's "observation" is an old one. I've never heard this particular routine, but I heard the same thing from my father when I was a kid, probably around 40 years ago. And he didn't pronounce it in a particularly angry way, although maybe he exaggerated the mellifluous quality of the French and Spanish.

    I'm afraid "Angry German Kid" remains the model for how many non-Germans think Germans actually talk, though.

  61. Gunnar H said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 7:31 pm


    I think that there in fact are similar stereotypes that Dutch and Hebrew are unlovely languages, but because they are less prominent, the thought is less commonly expressed. (For Afrikaans I don't even know.)

    If we try to trace the development of linguistic prejudice over the centuries, surely we can't forget Charles V?

  62. Hans Adler said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 3:30 am

    As a native German speaker I fully agree that Schmetterling is an inappropriately harsh word for a delicate animal. In fact, I believe most German speakers agree and this is probably the reason for the choice of word in the joke – the German's reaction, driven by feelings of inferiority because the German word for butterfly is no match for those in other languages, is quite plausible.

    The problem isn't the sounds, though, it's the associations to other German words. As Zeppelin has explained already, the real etymology is completely obscure to German speakers. The word sounds as if it were derived from schmettern (ein Lied schmettern = belt out a song), or to zerschmettern (crash, smash). A close literal English translation based on this false etymology would be smashling.

    Raempftl mentioned the numerous soft and poetic sounding German words for the homely and the lovely (I can think of good examples such as Geselligkeit or Stelldichein, but it's hard to explain their effect on German speakers to English speakers – it is similar to the adjectives I just used, though); AG mentioned the primitive composites (breast wart, tooth flesh, hand shoe) for various everyday things.

    I think both phenomena could be related. Most words of the first kind and quite a few of the second are part of a wave of new German words coined around 1800 or so to replace words of French or Latin origin. The less universally successful coinings such as Stelldichein (Germans normally still use Rendezvous, or nowadays Date) are still primarily associated with the Romantic authors of the era, and for many of the more successful such associations still exist. Those coinings that describe homely or lovely things probably received special care. Others did not, but sometimes managed to survive anyway because there was a genuine need for a new word – e.g. an unambiguous and non-sexual, 'clinical' word for nipples. (AG's other two examples appear to be much earlier, but I think a longer list of weirdly literal compounds would yield more.)

    When people think of the sound of German, they often think of the sound of Hitler and his contemporaries blaring into microphones using the techniques they had learned for reaching large crowds without one. That was a temporary historical phenomenon and is not at all typical of German in general.

    I guess German must sound to native English speakers roughly like Dutch and Swiss German, and to some extent also Russian, sounds to me. (E.g. Dutch and Swiss use the χ sound a lot more than standard German does.) These languages appear more harsh to me in some ways, and softer in others. Therefore, how I experience them perhaps says more about my attitude to the speakers than about the objective phonological differences. This explains why essentially the same word can sound soft when considered Yiddish and hard when considered German. (In terms of the phonetical inventory and its statistics, I think Yiddish is closer to standard German than most German dialects are. If true, this may have to do with the standardisation of Yiddish, which I think happened rather late – and in Vienna.)

  63. Derwin McGeary said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 4:02 am

    If you had the funding, you could get some mileage from a comparison study asking "What do you think the X language sounds like?" and "What do you think X people are like?". Do it over a couple of decades, and see which leads and which lags.

    Also, I kind of like the word schmetterling, and I first heard that joke told to me by a Russian. If you think phonology can be "harsh", then I would say Russian is just as harsh as German, which makes me lean towards the culture side of the debate.

  64. Veronica said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 7:55 am

    I've been studying Scots Gaelic for a few years. There are a few sounds in Gaelic that are both very frequent and unfamiliar to English speakers — the ch in loch, a gh (as in Abu Ghraib), and a chd, which is like the ch in loch immediately followed by a k.

    I find that English-speaking Americans who hear Gaelic generally describe it as unattractive and harsh, despite the fact that they have no negative feelings about the Scots or the Irish, and in fact find Scottish and Irish accents in English quite nice.

  65. Philip Anderson said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 9:01 am

    I would tend to agree that monoglot English speakers dislike some sounds, in Welsh as well as German, and I suspect that the use of achtung in films reinforces this whereas most don't listen to lieder. But not the schm- sound, since the name Schmidt is the only German association for me – schmuck is an ugly AMERICAN word to me (Yiddish is not a significant influence in the UK.

    -ling on the other hand makes me think of darling, pigling and duckling; sometimes the diminutive sense can be contemptuous, but not when it is appropriate. I have no problem with schmetterling, certainly not compared with bu'erfly with a glottal stop (although pili-pala wins).

  66. January First-of-May said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 9:48 am

    My favorite encounter with the word "quisling" was in a book about the biggest mathematical problems (can't recall the name); near the start, there was an example of what descriptions of progress on such problems usually look like. At one point, there was a paragraph of vaguely mathematical technobabble that ended with "byzantine quisling theory".
    I knew, by then, what a "quisling" was, so was surprised by the implied reference to the Byzantine Generals (a rather well known cryptographic problem). Then I realized that the author probably didn't intend that, and just used some cool-sounding words (like in the rest of the paragraph).
    As for my first encounter with the word "quisling", it was in a context involving Scrabble in Swedish, and the word sounded Swedish enough (not that I knew why), so when I saw the word used in English I thought it was borrowed from Swedish. I didn't find out until later.

    Back on topic… I personally consider the "soft" version of German "ch" (as in "ich") harsher (less gentle, and definitely more ugly) than the "hard" version (as in "Bach"). But that might be because the closest Russian equivalent is much closer to the latter.
    I would not consider the word "Schmetterling", by itself, particularly pretty or particularly ugly. It's probably less ugly than "mariposa" or, well, "butterfly".

  67. Jeff W said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 6:02 pm

    But not the schm- sound, since the name Schmidt is the only German association for me – schmuck is an ugly AMERICAN word to me (Yiddish is not a significant influence in the UK.

    Well, there’s also the shm-reduplication, which many people in the US would have some familiarity with, which can convey derision or skepticism. It’s not the specific meaning that might be at play here but the general negative valence.

    The related “What do you think the X language sounds like?” occurred to me also—which I’ve tended to think had a lot to do with features that aren’t in the language of the person being asked, along with prominent features of X language; preconceived notions, if any, of what X language sounds like; and specific features, if any, that map to those in the language of the person being asked (e.g., schm- or shm- in English). (That’s just my own personal theory.) But that probably ties in with “What do you think X people are like?” also.

  68. Dan Asimov said,

    February 4, 2016 @ 2:16 am

    "Und vat's wrong with [the joke teller could have said 'mit'] Schmetterling?"

    Sheesh. I know the joke was just used for illustrative purposes, but it there is one way to completely, totally definitively ruin a joke, as well as distract the reader from your point, if any, is to insert a parenthetical phrase inside the joke.

  69. Erin Jonaitis said,

    February 6, 2016 @ 7:34 am

    I used to share this American prejudice about German, and then I met some actual Germans and listened to them talk, and my opinions shifted entirely. I agree with those above who say Americans probably think the "ch" harsh largely because they're pronouncing it wrong.

    Absolute favorite German word: Eichhörnchen. Every bit as adorable as its referent.

  70. Victor Mair said,

    February 6, 2016 @ 9:10 pm

    "Germans can't say squirrel? Try 'EICHHÖRNCHEN'!"

  71. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2016 @ 12:22 am

    From a German friend:

    You're teasing again.

    Who says Germans can't say squirrel? Of course we can. But have an American try Vogelhaendler. (I had a friend who'd almost break his neck trying to get that word out, i.e. the v pronounced as f and the Umlaut.) Now try Knopfloch – the "kn" simply refuses to come out of American or English mouths.

    What's wrong with Eichhoernchen? Try listening to the Bavarian pronunciation thereof: Oachkatzlschwoaf (here spelled phonetically) and spoken in SIX short syllables. Of course, as you know, dialects are always SPELLED the proper high German way, even when PRONOUNCING a word in dialect.

    It would appear the Schmetterling comments have gone to endless length by now. What's the Anglos' problem? Aren't English and German both anglo-sachsen languages that merely evolved into their own form of dialects? One look at plattduetsch (as pronounced in platt) should be one clue. Even the spelling, i.e. in platt we pronounce it knife (incl'g. the "kn" and "i" pronounced as in infant). English speakers spell it so but forgot how to pronounce the "kn" and botch the phonetic "i".

  72. Kaleberg said,

    February 10, 2016 @ 12:46 pm

    Since they are called butter-flies in English, it sounds like there might be a common derivation, as association with dairy products. The OED is no help. They suggest the name is from Dutch and based on the insect's fecal matter.

    The "harsh German" thing clearly comes from World War II movie German. The movie "Nord Wand" (North Face) about a failed ascent of the Eiger in the 1930s has some wonderful play on this. Nazi Germany is seen as an exciting movement that is bringing Germany out of its post Great War funk. The two mountaineers seem destined to play their part cleaning latrines in the Wehrmacht. One day they are in a pub griping when a Nazi storm trooper in dark coat and full regalia enters the room. The tone suddenly darkens. We've all seen this movie before, and if we haven't we've seen a Star Wars knock off.

    The movie plays with this. He's their old friend from back in their home village. They joined the army. He had joined the SS. The next thing you know they are sharing a beer.

    We forget that before WWII, things like the Nazi movement and Stalin's communism were seen as part of the brave new world, as exciting as the new world shown at the 1939 Worlds Fair in NY. Some of those imperial storm troopers might have actually believed in the empire and the Death Star was their "new hope".

    I more recently watched Go, Trabi, Go, and the German in that was almost poetic as was the mood.

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