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October 20, 2009 5:32 PM   Subscribe

What does English sound like if you don't speak it?

I'm really fascinated by languages and I love just hearing how unique each language sounds. It's an odd quirk, but I do love just listening to languages even if I have no idea what's going on.

Only, I can't do that with English, because even when I try to just *hear* it, my brain automatically starts filling in the words. What are the distinct sounds of English, as opposed to other Germanic languages? Is there some kind of, oh, Swedish Chef type thing where I can hear what English sounds like to a foreign ear?
posted by grapefruitmoon to Writing & Language (47 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
 
A few previous threads have touched on this using various approaches.
posted by SpringAquifer at 5:36 PM on October 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm no expert, but I've heard that Dutch sounds a lot like garbled English to non-English speakers.
posted by betafilter at 5:38 PM on October 20, 2009


I've asked Germans and Koreans this question. They all said, "ARRR ARRR RRRR YAAAAW RAAAW". Like Texan pirates- with lots of nasal R sounds and drawn-out vowels. I think they were thinking of a Britney Spears type accent- kind of drawly.
posted by twistofrhyme at 5:40 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here's one attempt.
posted by whiskeyspider at 5:44 PM on October 20, 2009 [4 favorites]


Whiskeyspider's link comes from a whole group of videos responding to a request for fake english - several more available on the sidebar. One of my favorites is this one by a 9yo Japanese kid - by the end, he is more or less shouting "RROW RROW RROW" into the camera.

Also, I think I hear him using the "pera, pera" gibberish that's mentioned in this thread - maybe someone with better skills at following Japanese phonology can confirm?
posted by heyforfour at 5:59 PM on October 20, 2009


An Arab artist friend of my father believes the sound of a language is derived from the world around where the language is created. He says Arabic sounds like camels as Arabs have always been around camels. German sounds like warriors at war. English sounds to him like the sea.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:59 PM on October 20, 2009 [40 favorites]


Weird. I was just wondering the same thing today.

On TV I once saw an American ask some Chinese twentysomethings to imitate American English. Most of them sounded like John Wayne.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 6:00 PM on October 20, 2009


Oh, I can recognize Dutch. To me it sounds like German spoken by a camel with a chest cold. If that's what English sounds like... well, I had no idea I've been so camel-esque all these years!

(Sorry, Dutchies.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:09 PM on October 20, 2009


I've asked Germans and Koreans this question. They all said, "ARRR ARRR RRRR YAAAAW RAAAW". Like Texan pirates- with lots of nasal R sounds and drawn-out vowels. I think they were thinking of a Britney Spears type accent- kind of drawly.

Yeah, pretty much, based on what I remember from before I understood the language.

Basically if you'd asked me to "speak English" at age 12 or 13 it would've sounded like a really crap Texan accent. [emphasis on "really crap" - but basically nothing like the British English I speak now, which I guess is also due to the fact that most of "our" exposure to English is US-centric]

But I think (corroborated by the above) it depends a lot on your own language background. I would never compare Dutch with English, but that's because my own language (I'm from Luxembourg) is very close to Dutch.

As for your specific question "what are the distinct sounds of English"...

I'd definitely say the "american R" for one - when we learnt English (Queen's English) one of the most frequent pronounciations our teachers corrected was the trailing R, e.g. car = ka: not carrr (sorry, too lazy to look up the proper phonetics).

Also the long (?) I (as in "while"), but really exaggerated. "whoa-iiiile", something like that. And definitely nasal, way more than it actually is.

Um yeah that's pretty much it, esp. as compared to other Germanic languages. The one other notable difference, the th sound, never really comes up, mainly because many people can't actually pronounce it. Heh.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 6:14 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


A Russian translator once told me English sounds like bells to her, probably because we don't roll our R's or have much "myeh" or "nyeh" or "zh" or particularly the "sh-ch" combo that make Russian sound so thick and rich.
posted by Quietgal at 6:33 PM on October 20, 2009


I had some Asian friends in high school who would often make humorous remarks to one another that involved a lot of hissing, sibilant sounds; I'd had no idea what they were doing until one day I finally asked, and it turned out that they'd been making fun of (American) English speakers as they thought we sounded. Apparently, at least some non-native English speakers find the language to be full of sibilants - "s's" in particular ...
posted by DingoMutt at 6:34 PM on October 20, 2009


They do a southern drawl in Italy. And they say "yeah" a lot. But they know English words and pepper the impression with real words.

That's because most "foreigners" know a lot of English words. So it's not like Americans who are mostly clueless of foreign language and can only do grunts or gibberish with a French or German accent- or the way the Muppet people do that Swedish chef.
posted by Zambrano at 6:36 PM on October 20, 2009


>: I've asked Germans and Koreans this question. They all said, "ARRR ARRR RRRR YAAAAW RAAAW". Like Texan pirates- with lots of nasal R sounds and drawn-out vowels.

When I was living in Austria and not really speaking any English, this is what the Americans sounded like to me. I sent my neighbor Austrians into fits doing a fake English impression like that, throwing 'like' in between every other word. It's startlingly accurate.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:51 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


IMO, native English speakers are loud. On the busiest streets in Seoul you can hear English 100 yards away.
posted by bardic at 7:09 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that there's a problem here, being "which english". Many non-english speakers first exposure is probably to American English, which sounds very different to Australian English (the true and proper form of english). So non-english speakers are reacting more to accents than to generic 'english'.
posted by wilful at 7:33 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


From another mefi thread somewhere: this was supposedly a nonsense song crafted to have the sound of English (intro in Italian, I believe)
posted by ctmf at 7:44 PM on October 20, 2009 [6 favorites]


Here's a big round-up of videos I collected for an FPP-that-never-was. Most of the videos are of non-English speakers doing their best impression of the language, which I think is pretty instructive about what the distinctive sounds of it are sans meaning.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:46 PM on October 20, 2009 [7 favorites]


When I lived in Venezuela, my non-English speaking Venezuelan friends would imitate English by making harsh , kind of barking like sounds, I remember thinking it sounded a lot like the way we would imitate Russian.
posted by cherrybounce at 8:00 PM on October 20, 2009


When I was in Germany, I learned that English speakers sound like they are talking "mit Kartoffeln im Mund"...talking with potatoes in their mouths. Whatever that sounds like...
posted by zardoz at 8:24 PM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


My long ago college friend from Colombia, S.A., who spoke English quite well but with a distinct Colombian accent, would imitate an American English accent by aggressively chewing gum while speaking. It was amazing how his Colombian accent disappeared and how he suddenly sounded alot like John Wayne!
posted by ourroute at 8:33 PM on October 20, 2009


I once asked the same question to a native german and a native french speaker. They also imitated the 'arrr/yarrr/ahhh' pattern. I think the inflection comes from American TV shows.
posted by TDIpod at 8:43 PM on October 20, 2009


bardic: IMO, native English speakers are loud.

I've always sort of wondered about this, too. I seem to always notice English speakers over the crowd, but then I suppose for every loud English speaker there are the quiet ones that I don't notice, so I've chalked it up to confirmation bias on my part. And also because I can understand what they're saying, maybe I unconsciously pick out their voices over the crowd.

But I do think part of the reason that English appears to stand out so much here in Japan is that the tone of the speakers, especially American ones, rises and falls dramatically unlike Japanese, which is a pretty flat language that can be spoken without parting your lips much. (I'm talking about the Japanese that people in Tokyo speak, not in Osaka. Kansai-ben is a different matter altogether; people from Osaka are generally as loud as any American in my view.) I say this because although I can speak English (American), I find it difficult to suddenly switch over from Japanese because I HAVE TO OPEN MY MOUTH WIDE TO SPEAK. And when I do start speaking it, I find myself getting noticeably louder, so I find it rather amusing that when I'm speaking Japanese I mumble like most other Tokyo-born Japanese speaker, but when I speak English I start rollercoasting with the accents and tone like a different person. So that 9 year old Japanese boy in heyforfour's link has a good ear and is pretty much on the mark, I think.
posted by misozaki at 8:45 PM on October 20, 2009


A friend of a friend went to high school in the South--I think this was in North Carolina--and liked to speak fake French. A French exchange student attended the school for a semester, and absolutely loved to hear the American guy say a bunch of fake French nonsense syllables:

"Eh du seh be qwaah? Dwaah la k-hhwat? Hoonh!"

And so on, and the French guy cracked up every time.

Eventually, the American asked the exchange student to imitate English (with a southern accent) in the same fashion. After thinking for a moment he replied with a low drawl:

Yaawma, yaawma, yaawma?
posted by Benjamin Nushmutt at 9:58 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


My wife says that when she first met native englishers, she was struck by how often they say "ummmm", and how often they interrupt each other.
posted by mjg123 at 10:35 PM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


heyforfour: "Also, I think I hear him using the "pera, pera" gibberish that's mentioned in this thread - maybe someone with better skills at following Japanese phonology can confirm?"

misozaki: "But I do think part of the reason that English appears to stand out so much here in Japan is that the tone of the speakers, especially American ones, rises and falls dramatically unlike Japanese, which is a pretty flat language that can be spoken without parting your lips much."

Both of these qualities are exhibited (and pretty amusingly) in this anime's take on English.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:15 AM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


IMO, native English speakers are loud. On the busiest streets in Seoul you can hear English 100 yards away.

That's because you notice it more. Really, that's the reason. There's research on this, but I can't remember where or by whom.
posted by smorange at 1:02 AM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've always sort of wondered about this, too. I seem to always notice English speakers over the crowd, but then I suppose for every loud English speaker there are the quiet ones that I don't notice, so I've chalked it up to confirmation bias on my part. And also because I can understand what they're saying, maybe I unconsciously pick out their voices over the crowd.

It's not confirmation bias, trust me. I live in a touristy part of London. Every day I hear British English, American English, Castilian, French, German, Dutch, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and other languages.

The loudest two, by far are:
1. Castilian (not Latin-American) Spanish
2. American (not British) English

Anyways, more on point, and my impression is that speakers of the above two languages have more of a nasal twang. This is in stark contrast to languages such as Japanese or French which it seems one can speak in whispered breaths.
posted by vacapinta at 1:08 AM on October 21, 2009


IMO, native English speakers are loud.

No, those are Americans.
posted by rokusan at 2:04 AM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks for all the responses! This video linked by Rhaomi is the one which to my ear sounds the most "authentic." (His nonsense Spanish also sounds dead-on to me, but I don't speak Spanish) - my brain found itself trying to understand it, only to realize that it's gibberish.

And yeah, the accents make a huge difference, but I'm mostly thinking about the sounds of the language itself. The phonemes or whatever. (I are not a linguist.) The observation about English being nasal is interesting to me, I'm trying to learn Portuguese and I'm finding myself having a hell of a time with their nasal vowels. (Portuguese, to me, sounds like the bastard love child of Spanish and Russian with the rolled r's and all of the "sh sh sh sh sh" sounds.)

To me, the sounds that stick out most in English are the hard consonants - b, p, k - so it's interesting to hear that for foreign speakers the s and the r are more distinct. Anyhow, thanks, and I hadn't realized there were so many other threads already covering this. I guess that'll learn me to use the search next time, but still, this is awesome. Keep it coming.

(And yes, we Americans are loud. We know.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:03 AM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


My wife says that when she first met native englishers, she was struck by how often they say "ummmm", and how often they interrupt each other.

This is an interesting observation - I can tell Native English speakers from non-Native fluent speakers by the number of filler-syllables used. That is, native speakers use a TON more filler syllables ("uh" "um" "like" "y'know").

This isn't unique to English though, other languages do this with other words. Icelanders, f'rinstance, insert "hérna" (kind of equivalent to "like") as filler with remarkable frequency as well.

I suppose this is the difference between thinking before you talk (non-native) and thinking while you talk (native). Or something.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:07 AM on October 21, 2009


I am not a dialectologist but I am a linguist and it's my impression that the phonemic inventory (the set of sounds used) of most of the dialects of English is pretty standard. For example, I say the word for 10 as [tɛn] (a fairly standard pronunciation) while some speakers in the south of the US would say [tɪn], which rhymes with the way I say 'fin' or 'kin'. Notably, they are not using a sound that I do not have in my dialect, just that a different sound is used in that particular word. There are also inviolable rules of patterning sounds that hold for all dialects of English, such as you can not start a word with [mb] or [tl]. This means that the speech sounds used by most speakers of English, and the patterning of those sounds, would sound pretty much the same to someone who didn't know any English at all.

I also know of no research that looks at the relative loudness of speakers of different languages, nor was I able to find any in a quick search of Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts. Of course this doesn't mean that there isn't any, but I would imagine that other factors have a much stronger correlation with amplitude of the human voice than the language spoken, including both biological factors (sex and size of the person) as well as cultural factors.
posted by tractorfeed at 4:11 AM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Actually /p/ and /k/ are among the most common consonants in the world's languages (I'm pretty sure that all human languages have at least one of those two). /ɹ / (the standard r sound in English) is rather uncommon. Perhaps these sounds stand out for you in English because they (along with /t/) are always aspirated when word-initial?
posted by tractorfeed at 4:23 AM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


A Tibetan guy I once taught wrote down his English words in Tibetan transliteration, with the exception of the "ai" sound in "like", for which he used an English letter "I", because it was distinctive, common, and not satisfactorily approximated by any combination of Tibetan letters.
posted by doiheartwentyone at 5:09 AM on October 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


You can never repeat this question too often. As an old hand at fake language (languages in my family include french, german, greek, hungarian, and chinese) I love hearing my own language faked. Thanks for a great start to the day!
posted by nax at 6:07 AM on October 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


This video linked by Rhaomi is the one which to my ear sounds the most "authentic." (His nonsense Spanish also sounds dead-on to me, but I don't speak Spanish) - my brain found itself trying to understand it, only to realize that it's gibberish.

That could be because the guy in that video only made up content words (verbs, nouns, etc). He left the function words and sentence structure of English pretty much intact. So the English he's speaking is only about as "fake" as the first stanza of Jabberwocky. Nonsensical, yes, but you can sort of follow along and picture what he's saying.
posted by arianell at 6:45 AM on October 21, 2009


See also Adriano Celentano's Prisencolinensinainciusol for what American rock lyrics sound like to an Italian pop star. (caution: awesome music)
posted by speicus at 10:57 AM on October 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I've asked Germans and Koreans this question. They all said, "ARRR ARRR RRRR YAAAAW RAAAW". Like Texan pirates- with lots of nasal R sounds and drawn-out vowels.

That's precisely the sound made by my friends when I lived in Germany and asked them.

You might want to listen to the gibberish spoken by the Sims characters. It took my forever to realize they weren't speaking English.
posted by jefficator at 12:56 PM on October 21, 2009


I think the "ARRR ARRR RRRR YAAAAW RAAAW" is spot on for the American accent. When I was learning English (from French), we always associated British English with someone speaking with a hot potato in their mouth, with lots of 'h' sounds everywhere, which we tried to replicate.
posted by tweemy at 1:49 PM on October 21, 2009


"Actually /p/ and /k/ are among the most common consonants in the world's languages"

No /p/ in Korean.

"No, those are Americans."

You've never met an Australian?
posted by bardic at 5:18 PM on October 21, 2009


Actually, there is, but it's in between an English /p/ and /b/.
posted by bardic at 5:19 PM on October 21, 2009


Er, Korean has three p-like sounds:

ㅂ /p/
ㅃ /p͈/
ㅍ /pʰ/

Certain combinations produce varying degrees of similarity with the English /p/
posted by smorange at 9:47 PM on October 21, 2009


English has at least the first and third of those sounds. The English phoneme /p/ is realized as [p] in the word 'spit' and as [pʰ] in the word 'pit'. The slashes denote a phoneme, which is what speakers of a language think of as "one sound" although it can be realized in different ways depending on the environment. My understanding of Korean is that the phoneme /p/ is realized as voiced (and thus sounding much more like a [b] in English) when it is between vowels and realized more like the English [p] in (some) other environments.

To relate this back to the original question, when you are a native speaker of a language, you tend to only notice the contrasts between phonemes in that language, and not between allophones. Native speakers of English will not normally notice the difference between the "p" sound in 'spit' and 'pit', because substituting one for the other would not change the meaning of the word. Native speakers of languages that do use these sounds contrastively, such as Hindi, would notice this difference much more. So "the way that English sounds" depends on the phonemic inventory of the listener, who might have discarded the perceptual ability to discriminate between pairs of sounds that English speakers would think of as "different sounds". [l] and [ɾ] are realizations of different phonemes in English, so native speakers of English hear them as "different sounds" and can perceive the difference between them much more easily than speakers of languages (e.g. Korean) where these sounds are allophones of the same phoneme.
posted by tractorfeed at 3:52 AM on October 22, 2009


To clarify why I think the consonants (particularly b & p) are distinct to me in English: the other languages I have the most familiarity with are French, German, and Icelandic. Icelandic to me is all k's & t's. French has a distinct "zjuh" sound, and German is mostly "ch." So, the b's and p's really stick out in English, even though they are present in the other languages as well, they're not used with quite the same frequency. I honestly never thought of the "r" as distinctive in English, but it does make total sense now that I really think about it.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:07 AM on October 22, 2009


Also, in English, but the lyrics to Getting the Job Done by the Books are total nonsense and the song sounds a lot like pseudo-Englsh, that is a non-literal interpretation of the language, to me.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:11 AM on October 22, 2009


Also related: Bouli Lanners singing "Sonny" in pseudo-English That is, English sounds but with no distinguishable words!
posted by vacapinta at 4:41 AM on October 22, 2009


Ok, way late with this comment, but re: the loudest language. I had a friend who was Iranian and spoke perfectly fluent English. I was around a few times when he was with his fellow Iranian friends and family and they would speak Farsi and the VOLUME LEVEL WENT FROM FIVE TO, LIKE, TWENTY! Maybe there are plenty of soft-spoken Iranians, but I suspect they're in the minority. Wait, is that racist??
posted by zardoz at 11:25 PM on October 27, 2009


There was an Icelandic artist, Magnús Pálsson, who made a "the sound of Icelandic" work for a chorus ensemble. It involved the ensemble whispering, saying and shouting various quasi-nonsense phrases in Icelandic. Hvissss! It was pretty amazing. A friend tells me that Magnús Pálsson wasn't the first guy to do this type of thing – there are supposed to be works like this for other languages.

The multitude of voices breaks your brain's ability to follow and understand, and you're forced into hearing it as a soundscape. Great for people on drugs.
posted by krilli at 1:35 AM on October 28, 2009


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