There’s just something about French, a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it widely considered to be the sexiest language in the world. The sensuality of the language, however, is not limited to spoken French itself; the French accent, in English at least, is excessively charming. The sex-appeal of this language knows no boundaries. But what is so sexy about French?
It may be that French is sexy only because of its cultural appeal. Of course, Paris is generally viewed as the capital of culture, cuisine, and couture, and French people are famously beautiful, thin, and educated—all shared standards of beauty in the West. It does seem natural that our stereotypical views of France influence our views of the language and this probably plays a big part in the inherent sexiness of French.
But is that all there is to it? Are we such simple beings that we cannot separate a series of beautiful sounds from cultural stereotypes? I did a little speculating, followed by a little research, and found a few more explanations for why we go weak in the knees when confronted by the language of romance.
Here are three specific aspects of French that could conceivably make it sound “sexy” to us.
French is a syllable-timed language which means that the duration of every syllable is perceived as being equal. English, on the other hand, is a stress-timed language. This means that as English speakers, we divide our stresses, and not our syllables, to be separated by equal amounts of time. Think of it as a machine gun versus Morse code. Formal English poetry differs from quotidian spoken English in this way. For example, iambic pentameter is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable in sets of five, ten syllables in all. A little poet called Shakespeare is pretty much known for his swoon-inducing iambic pentameter.
Shall I / comPARE/ thee TO / a SUM / mer's DAY?
Thou ART / more LOVE / ly AND / more TEM / per ATE
When we don’t speak in iambic pentameter, we have to cram multiple syllables into the unstressed spaces in uneven ways. In the sentence "Did you NOTice how SHAKEspeare has a WAY with WORDS?" the unstressed spaces have one, two, or three syllables in them. In contrast, the syllable-timed iambic pentameter has a steady, lyrical sound, seducing its listener by its rhythm. French is somewhat similar to this form of poetry. In fact, one of the telltale signs of a French accent in spoken English is an inability to choose where a native speaker would put their stress, causing the speaker to produce that cadence that we find oh-so-charming. Other romantic language superstars Spanish and Italian share this quality with French.
HUSKY AND BREATHY
So if French and Italian and Spanish all share syllable-timing, what sets French apart from these other beautiful languages? According to a study out of the University College London, women find “husky” voices and men find “breathy” voices the most attractive. Some of the famous French fricatives, ‘zh’ as in je and ‘r’ as in rouge, mimic these qualities. The voiced alveolar fricative ‘zh’, like in the English word measure, relies on both a low, subtle voicing and the expulsion of a strong airstream. Comparable to a murmur and a whisper, these two things combine to create a husky and breathy quality, coming together in a perfect sexy unison. Perhaps the easiest sound to recognize as French is the uvular trill, the back of the throat French ‘r.’ Husky is a glamorous way of calling someone’s voice throaty and the uvular trill is the throaty sound all throaty sounds aspire to.
Lastly, we have the French ‘u’, as in une. You too can create this wonderfully sexy vowel by simply saying eeeeee, rounding your lips, and voilà! This vowel approximates a face we're all familiar with: selfie face. It’s no accident that young co-eds make this face to make themselves look Internet-worthy; this face accentuates cheek bones and evokes images of kissing. And we all know the French wrote the book on kissing; why else would it be named after them?