Shortcuts for identifying languages.
September 4, 2013 10:53 AM   Subscribe

Even before this language quiz was featured over in the blue, I've been meaning to ask this question: What are some handy ways to distinguish between a particular language or regional variation and its closest counterparts, based just on a few words, a certain cadence, or unique kind of pronunciation.

For example (but not limited to these examples), how can you quickly tell the difference between different kinds of Latin American Spanish? Or what is the simplest way to quickly tell the difference between different Eastern European or Scandinavian languages?
posted by umbĂș to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Given how many people incorrectly identify European Portuguese as a Slavic language of some kind, I don't think there's a way to do this reliably in the general case. I know two Slavic languages and have passing familiarity with a couple more, and my strategy for identifying Slavic languages is basically (a) can I find some simple cognates, barring differences in pronunciation. If successful, I proceed with (b), finding regularities that suggest a particular language or languages to me.

I'm kind of a language nerd, so I have at least looked at and heard a bunch of different languages. I can identify Hebrew and Japanese and Farsi because I can pick out the words I actually know in those languages. If I'm faced with a language such that I'm not familiar with any of its close relatives, it sounds to me like noise, because I don't know what its inventory of meaningful speech sounds consists of and I have no way of knowing where words begin or end. I can't even repeat what I'm hearing, unless it's said very slowly and clearly and contains no unfamiliar sounds.

I could write up a quick, incomplete, and unreliable cheat sheet for Slavic languages with entries like "in Bulgarian, listen for nouns that end in -ta," but I'm not sure a general user would have any luck getting use out of such a thing.
posted by Nomyte at 11:32 AM on September 4, 2013

I would go on youtube and categorize accordingly. Listen to Farsi, then Arabic. Compare/contrast. Then listen to Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese. Then listen to Italian, Spanish & Portuguese. Then listen to Russian, Polish, Czech.... you get the idea.

There are lots of youtube videos that compare dialects.

tl;dr: youtube.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:37 PM on September 4, 2013

I agree with the above commenters that listening to native speech is really the best way. I would also suggest studying some different languages -- take a look through some learning material for Cantonese, Russian, Portuguese, Arabic, Dinka, and Serbian, for instance. You don't have to become fluent -- you just have to study long enough to get a feel for the accent and an understanding of the phonology.

The Latin American dialects of Spanish all sound pretty similar unless you are a native speaker. However, there are plenty of little vocabulary differences -- e.g. "tickete" is often used instead of "boleto" in Colombia -- and you can pick these up by browsing through the WordReference forum, where these differences are discussed often. This might be kind of hard to pick up on in an audio sample, though. (As a side note, there is a very noticeable accent difference between Spain and Latin America, which is that "z", "ce", and "ci" are lisped in Spain.)

The Eastern European languages can be divided very roughly based on whether they sound sort of like Russian. Macedonian does, for instance, and Serbian doesn't as much. The Scandinavian languages -- Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish -- are all very similar, but Finnish is actually not a part of this family.
posted by myitkyina at 2:06 PM on September 4, 2013

Telling the difference between closely related languages/dialects is going to be very difficult unless you are very familiar with at least one language in that group. For example, I know Russian, which helps me to identify almost all Slavic languages (if not by speech, then certainly by text). I then identify each language based on superficial knowledge (e.g. the word "pan" in Polish), my sense of whether it sounds more harsh or more soft than my reference language, and an awareness of general pronunciation quirks or unique noises. For example, I think Ukrainian sounds "softer" than Russian, and it also pronounces hard initial "g" like "h."

Likewise, I'm pretty familiar with Swedish, so I can identify Scandinavian languages, and I only ever have to distinguish between Norwegian and Danish anyway. I think Danish sounds harsher than Swedish, and Norwegian sounds "happier." Icelandic sounds like a Scandinavian language with a lot of "ai" and "au" noises and trilled r's.

And some languages are just difficult to distinguish without knowing them. If you can distinguish Portuguese from Romanian, you're doing well in my book.
posted by pravit at 4:53 PM on September 4, 2013

Also, this Essentialist Explanations link posted in the thread you linked to is good for a laugh, but I agree with many of their descriptions. You need a reference language.
posted by pravit at 4:56 PM on September 4, 2013

I find that knowing about language families and etymology helps. When you have some basic knowledge of language families, you can listen closely for cognates, root words, prefixes, suffixes, etc that give some clue of what group a language is in. That can be enough to arrive at the right answer via process of elimination.

I also think etymology helps, because I've learned a lot of bits of other languages by looking up the etymologies of English words.

Your best bet, of course, is simply exposing yourself to a lot of languages. When I took that quiz, I was surprised at how well I did distinguishing various Asian languages across different language families (Sino-Tibetan, Altaic, etc), given that those language families aren't close to any of the ones I'm familiar with: the only familiarity I have with most of them is hearing them in and around Southern California immigrant communities, and that's enough to be able to take a stab at guessing what language is what. When you listen to a bunch of languages in this kind of superficial way, you can get a sense for the prosody of the language, so you don't need to know any individual words, but the rise and fall, rhythm, and general tone of the language become a little familiar.
posted by yasaman at 8:26 PM on September 4, 2013

For Asian languages, listen for tones. Mandarin and Cantonese have a different number of tones, and languages like Vietnamese have even more. The more tones, the "jumpier" the language will sound.
posted by obviousresistance at 10:31 PM on September 4, 2013

You can use names to get a feel for the sound of a language. For example, stressed final syllable -yan points to Armenia, based on zero knowledge of Armenian, but knowing a few guys with Armenian names. Also, any distinctive sounds like English 'i' or French 'r' or 'th' in some varieties of Spanish.

If you want to know about closely-related and even mutually-intelligible languages, it would all be ridiculously specific stuff that you could find out by asking people in those language communities what those other guys talk like.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 12:47 PM on September 5, 2013

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