Linguaesthetics
April 10, 2006 10:08 AM   Subscribe

What does English sound like?

I'm fascinated by languages as aesthetic objects, and I sometimes enjoy listening to languages that I don't understand for this reason. However, I can't voluntarily stop understanding English in order to hear it in this way; furthermore, I suspect that any judgement I make about how it sounds is influenced by the things I naturally know about regional accents, dialects, the connotations of the words I'm hearing, and many other factors.

I'd like to know, especially from anyone who didn't grow up speaking English, what does it sound like to you? What did you think of it before you could understand it? Is it beautiful, bland, melodious, or simply hideous? As lovely as French, as harsh as German, as alien as Mandarin?

And what about accents: British, Aussie/Kiwi, Canadian, Northern/Southern US etc.? Is a certain American president's voice as objectively ugly as it sounds to me? Sometimes I can't keep myself from associating the sound of these variants with certain stereotypes; I'd be fascinated to hear a less-biased opinion - that is, if there is one.
posted by xanthippe to Writing & Language (51 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Non-native english speakers I've asked this question to say it sounds like singing. They didn't mention whether it sounded like nice singing or not.
posted by daver at 10:11 AM on April 10, 2006


Simple test— Get someone to spout gibberish in English. They'll talk with their regular accents and cadences, thus providing the aesthetic sense without the meaning. (Further, the subjective feelings of other languages don't carry across barriers, so you're making more Anglophonic assumptions).
posted by klangklangston at 10:13 AM on April 10, 2006


Related questions here and here.
posted by occhiblu at 10:15 AM on April 10, 2006


A lot of what you are describing is very subjective, however I would agree that, for example, German is very harsh sounding, and Spanish is very rapid. English-English sounds to me much more uptight than American-English, and I'm British, but that really depends on the accent within. Comparing Keira Knightley and Ricky Gervais with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show led me to think that Ricky was much more relaxed and genuine (but also condescending) whereas Keira's accent is outright annoying. No one in England speaks like that to my ears, but then again it could have been the contrast. Jon Stewart has a very friendly and comical tone.
posted by Acey at 10:19 AM on April 10, 2006


Incidentally Sharon Stone was on the show as well, and her accent is horrible. "Go figure", as they say.
posted by Acey at 10:20 AM on April 10, 2006


I once heard a recording of some asian (chinese?) kids imitating english in the same way that american kids might imitate how chinese sounds to them. It was actually pretty neat to hear that from their perspective. Damned if I know where I heard it.

Anyone in china care to make us a recording of your kids imitating english?
posted by RustyBrooks at 10:37 AM on April 10, 2006


Previously on AskMe. I think the schwa and rhotic R are pretty distinctive. "Rar rar rar!"
posted by letourneau at 10:39 AM on April 10, 2006


I was way up in the mountains in Guatemala in an isolated village one time and these indian children surrounded my companions and I. We chatted a bit with them through a translator. They were nice kids. After a while, the kids would make a sort of out-loud whispering sound to each other, like saying "pish, pish, pish" over and over, and giggling. We asked the translator what they were doing. He told us they were trying to speak English, to them that's what English sounded like.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:40 AM on April 10, 2006


German is very harsh sounding, and Spanish is very rapid

The funny thing about Spanish is that it only sounds rapid. In terms of actual words per minute it's not especially quick.
posted by kindall at 10:42 AM on April 10, 2006


I've heard French children imitate Americans while playing. While American children do French as "ooh la la la la" in meliflous tones, the French children do American english as "nya nya nya nya nya" with a nasal tone.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:45 AM on April 10, 2006


Someone once described English sounding like dogs barking.
posted by bshort at 10:53 AM on April 10, 2006


I've always thought that Russian sounded like backwards English. So maybe if you listen to some Russian backwards it would soound like . . . gibberish, sorry.
posted by spakto at 10:54 AM on April 10, 2006


My grandparents, who could only speak (continental) Portuguese, said Americans talk like we have potatoes in our mouths, particularly because of our use of the 'oh' sound.
posted by driveler at 10:57 AM on April 10, 2006


Most of the french girls I talked to in France said my Canadian/American accent while speaking french was very sexy and that english was beautiful, in the way that North Americans think french or italian is beautiful.

I'm just sayin...
posted by blue_beetle at 11:06 AM on April 10, 2006


Thanks for the links to previous questions.

Something not previously asked that I was trying to get at: do you/they like how it sounds, or not?
posted by xanthippe at 11:08 AM on April 10, 2006


I've always thought that Russian sounded like backwards English. So maybe if you listen to some Russian backwards it would sound like . . . gibberish, sorry.

English played backward sounds like Russian. Russian played backward sounds like... Russian.
posted by kindall at 11:09 AM on April 10, 2006


Rent the Monty Python film "The Meaning of Life." Towards the end, some of the Pythons play Americans, with an exaggerated American accept -- presumably the way we sound to the Brits.
posted by grumblebee at 11:14 AM on April 10, 2006


And: What adjectives would you/your Japanese friend/etc. use to describe English? I think that's more what I was trying to ask.
posted by xanthippe at 11:26 AM on April 10, 2006


A friend of mine who lived in Hong Kong tells me their local imitation of the sound of English goes /gl 'lk gl 'lk gl 'lk/. (Read more or less as in IPA, with syllabic l.)

As to accents, a story. I'd been overseas, and was flying back home to the US on Austrian Airlines. The captain made his English-language announcements in a posh, British-Received-Pronunciation-type accent, but he also announced everything in German -- and, until I realized that it wasn't making any sense to me, I initially took his (presumably Austrian) German for an American accent. Seriously. A 100%-American, northern-Midwest, white-bread accent in both intonation and sound inventory. It was a head trip, I'll tell you. So my guess is that American broadcast-standard English sounds a lot like whichever dialect of German that was, if you don't know what it means.
posted by eritain at 11:40 AM on April 10, 2006


I used to drink with some German guys and they thought it was hilarious when I'd go off in made-up German. Then they'd try to translate it.
Anyway, once I asked them to speak in made up English and they looked at each other, and, in perfect unison, went, "SHBLAH SHBLAH SHBLAH SHBLAH!"

I have no idea why we sound like that.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 11:41 AM on April 10, 2006 [3 favorites]


What adjectives would you .... use to describe English?

Okay, from an English-English point of view, American-English sounds generally whiney, nasal, cutesy, irritating, flowing and over-the-top. However American-English is far better when sung that English-English. If anything, I'd say it is very very close to the Irish accent. You might like to look into how Gaelic and Celtic sounds.
posted by Acey at 11:53 AM on April 10, 2006


Having spent considerable time in the UK and Irealnd I have been told by several (perhaps many) persons that they find my flat midwestern (Ohio) accent very pleasant. They used words such as pleasant, easy going, soft smooth, etc. What can I say except that is what they hear.
posted by rmhsinc at 11:53 AM on April 10, 2006


This is a great question, I've always wondered this exact thing.

I think though northern German is harsh and gutteral, southern German can be quiet soft and mellifluous. I'm wondering if that's what (some) American sounds like.

Brazilian speakers have always sounded to me like there are making it up as they go along--it's very chaotic. I had a Dutch boss once, and his Dutch always sounded like he was trying to cough up phlegm.
posted by tula at 11:54 AM on April 10, 2006


I once heard a recording of some asian (chinese?) kids imitating english in the same way that american kids might imitate how chinese sounds to them. It was actually pretty neat to hear that from their perspective. Damned if I know where I heard it.

I heard a similar thing once. Chinese young adults trying to imitate American English.

Most of them sounded like John Wayne.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 12:10 PM on April 10, 2006


An Australian friend of mine who did some extensive traveling through the US once said to me that Southern (and particularly African-American Southern) voices sounded "musical" to her ("I could listen to them talk all day long"), while the voices of Northeasterners sounded monotonous by comparison.
posted by Prospero at 12:10 PM on April 10, 2006


"It sounds like a bandsaw cutting glavanized tin."

Kurt Vonnegut
posted by fixedgear at 1:17 PM on April 10, 2006


I asked the same question to my MIL (native Spanish speaker), and she said that American English sounds hard and nasal to her.
posted by luneray at 1:23 PM on April 10, 2006


This last summer, my girlfriend and I visited France (she speaks fluently - me, none at all). We stayed one of the weekends there with some French friends in Strasbourg, and this very subject came up.

Like somebody else noted above, they and their friends said that Engish sounded musical. Like singing. I remarked that I had always assumed it to sound like German. They seemed almost taken aback by the very thought -- saying that German sounded harsh and gutteral, but because of the cadences, English was liliting. They said they thought it was a very pretty spoken language, and very rhythmic.
posted by kaseijin at 1:32 PM on April 10, 2006


*lilting
posted by kaseijin at 1:33 PM on April 10, 2006


This interests me as well. Once I asked a Spanish-Speaking friend (who spoke no English) to imitate a standard English accent and an American accent (having asked her if she could hear the difference, which, she could.) Her version of and English accent was quite plain and a sort of dark monotone, but her version of an American accent was very whiny, more aggressive and like the rrarr-rrarr-rrarr sound that others have mentioned. I asked her if she liked the sounds of English and she told me that she thought that an English accent sounded strange but beautiful.
posted by ob at 1:34 PM on April 10, 2006


...As an addendum to my comment, I have to wonder sometimes if non-native speakers' perceptions of how English sounds isn't colored somewhat by their age.

Perhaps the younger cohorts, being more exposed to English language music and pop-culture, would have a rosier impression of the language than those of older generations?
posted by kaseijin at 1:36 PM on April 10, 2006


Dutch is a cross between German and Klingon. There is no uglier language.
posted by klangklangston at 1:37 PM on April 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


My English friends all pinch their nose to speak American.

The best movie commentary I've seen on this topic comes from "Sneakers" when Robert Redford's character mistakes the sound of a flock of geese for a cocktail party.
posted by tkolar at 2:10 PM on April 10, 2006


A friend who lived in Japan told me that the Japanese slang for English talk was "pera pera" (emphasizing the second syllable.. per-RA per-RA)

Said quickly and in succession, it supposedly sounds like English... pera pera pera pera... Sort of an equivalent of "yackety yackety" or "blah blah blah"
posted by Robot Johnny at 2:17 PM on April 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


However American-English is far better when sung that English-English.

Really? That's hard to imagine. It seems to me that English singing diction as taught by vocal teachers is much closer to British English than American English. I mean, can you imagine singing a long note on the word "far" and trying to make it sound American? It's generally sung more like "fah," because vowels are emphasized in singing.

For the same reason, I don't think of English as sounding very musical (although we may be using different meanings of "musical"). By far the most musical language, and I have a feeling that most singers would agree, is Italian, largely because of the pure vowels, which we don't have in English.

I think it's interesting to note how much inflection and pitch varies between different English dialects, totally separate from pronunciation. I'm an American currently in London, and after hanging around for awhile with my flatmate from Liverpool, I don't pick up his accent, but tend to mimic some of his inflection. It's hard to communicate in text, but generally he seems to use a much wider range of pitch in his standard speech, with the highest points falling on the accents. Sort of like "What the fook are YOU doin here?" where "what" starts on a midrange note and the pitch rapidly rises, peaking on the word "you," then falls back again.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:19 PM on April 10, 2006


Some fairly-low-income Brazilians told me English sounded glamorous, probably because all the most popular music, TV and movies (their only exposure to English) are imported from America, and that it's extremely sexy to hear Portuguese spoken with an English accent. Huh!

And: "linguaesthetics"++!
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:21 PM on April 10, 2006


I'm half-French and more or less bilingual. When I was young I'd regularly go on a four week family holiday in the summer to France to see relatives, and speak French for the duration. I'd completely forget what English sounded like, and coming back on the ferry to England I would hear it as if for the first time.

Compared to French, English sounds so 'un-articulated' - people talk as if they've been anaethetised at the dentist - a bit like the "Nyah nyah nyah" people mention above. Certainly didn't sound glamorous or sexy to me.
posted by chrispy at 2:53 PM on April 10, 2006


I was born in Poland and learned English in Canada when I was twelve. I find that the British garden variety, Canadian and US South all sound like completely different languages. With south being melodic, Canadian rhythmic and British somewhat affected and nasal. (that's really generalizing it all)

All three English accents have much less clear vowels, so they do seem a bit blurred when compared with French, Polish or Russian. The "flow" of the language does seem musical, and it does not sound like German, which does sound pretty harsh to my ears, especially the hard "H" in ICH (don't remember which German accent uses that) but the other German accent is much nicer with the soft "iSh" of ICH.

Oh, and the English "three letters to make a muddled sound" is frustrating as well. the TH in THE, is really nasty. We won't even discuss think or three. R without the roll is somewhat strange to an European non-English speaker as well.

Overall, English is extremely rhythmic, and it's actually amazing to learn about the Shakespearean rhyme (Iambic pentameter) Also, remember that most of us have heard English in songs even without understanding it, so often we equate songs with English, so it's automatically connected to being musical if that makes sense.
posted by Yavsy at 3:33 PM on April 10, 2006 [1 favorite]


English has aspirated voiceless stops, a little puff of 'h' after 'p' 't' and 'k' for example. Generally, native English speakers don't recognize that their doing this. Learners of English who want a "perfect" accent have to learn how to do this if it's not in their native language, and English speakers who want to speak "perfect" Spanish, for example, have to learn to lose it.
posted by gimonca at 3:59 PM on April 10, 2006


This site is a growing reference of English accents.
posted by tellurian at 4:54 PM on April 10, 2006


Brazilian speakers have always sounded to me like there are making it up as they go along--it's very chaotic.

I remember seeing the movie City of God in Brazilian Portuguese and being quite surprised at the language. It sounded like no Romance language I'd ever heard, very raw and almost savage sounding. But quite fascinating.

I'd always assumed English sounded ugly and like German, since they are both "Germanic" languages, supposedly.
posted by delmoi at 5:32 PM on April 10, 2006


The New Zealand-English is the only English accent whose development can be traced through voice recordings as the first speakers of the accent were recorded in the 1940's and were 70-80 years old.

Generally speaking the vowels have shortened from English-English
Sick becomes Suck
Pen becomes Pin
Black becomes blek
Also important is to shorten words where possible and smudge vowels together -

gud'ol new zulan.
(Good old New Zealand)

If you want to hear more about my accent - RNZ have an impressive series of lectures on New Zealand-English which can be found here.

posted by Samuel Farrow at 5:39 PM on April 10, 2006


There was an interesting effect on "Lost" recently that attempted to replicate how Jin, a Korean who speaks very little English, heard what people speaking around him were saying. There's a zipped file of the scene here.
posted by Biblio at 6:03 PM on April 10, 2006 [2 favorites]


I can't voluntarily stop understanding English in order to hear it in this way
posted by xanthippe to writing & language


Last night I watched, for the first time, the movie Waking Life. If you don't know, it's about a guy having a dream in which he just goes aound and talks to (more listens to, really) various people. It's mostly some pretty heavy philosphical stuff. Watch it when you're a little tired (or drunk or stoned), so that you're not interested enough to really follow what they're saying, and you'll just hear english-language noise. Plus, there are a bunch of different voices, and some different accents.
posted by attercoppe at 6:54 PM on April 10, 2006


A friend who lived in Japan told me that the Japanese slang for English talk was "pera pera" (emphasizing the second syllable.. per-RA per-RA)

Said quickly and in succession, it supposedly sounds like English... pera pera pera pera... Sort of an equivalent of "yackety yackety" or "blah blah blah"

posted by Robot Johnny


pera pera is Japanese slang for "fluent," not just in English. It's not so much how English sounds like to the Japanese people, it's just an expression of how fluent someone is in a foreign language. So a Japanese person who only speaks Japanese would describe ALL other languages like that.

Japanese people in general can't accurately express how a native English speaker sounds like; if they could, more people would be able to speak English.
posted by misozaki at 8:35 PM on April 10, 2006


I had a friend from Spain. I asked him the same question, "how does English sound to a non-native speaker, relative to other languages?" The word he used was "pachanga". The closest definition he could give of that word was "commercial". (Can any Spanish speakers please expound on that definition, por favor?) He said the English language sounded most intriguing and gorgeous, to him, when spoken by male radio/tv announcers with a low voice. FWIW .
posted by theperfectcrime at 10:03 PM on April 10, 2006


Great post, and fun comments! It brings to mind — with apologies — Robbie Burns:

O wad some Power the giftie gie share us
To see hear oursels as ithers see hear us!

posted by rob511 at 1:09 AM on April 11, 2006


I second chrispy's impression that "English sounds so 'un-articulated' - people talk as if they've been anaethetised at the dentist - a bit like the "Nyah nyah nyah" people mention above. Certainly didn't sound glamorous or sexy to me."

When compared to Slavic, Romance, and even other Germanic languages the consonants are very very nasal and weak. In the other languages, you propel the consonants out with force (pressing your teeth and clenching your jaw) and there's an impact as if upon landing... a crash if you will that makes them sound harder, more enunciated. The American aren't produced by that narrow squeezing or clenching of jaw/teeth that would make them hard and enunciated. Because the mouth is unclenched, when the K, P, S, D, M are pronounced they sound very airy and breathy. So that's what it boils down to - breathy, airy non-enunciated consonants.
posted by gregb1007 at 4:34 PM on April 11, 2006


Dutch is a cross between German and Klingon. There is no uglier language.

When I was in the Netherlands, I thought that Dutch sounded remarkably like English in rhythm and cadence (I'm American, so I'm talking about American English). In a crowded restaurant, where there was a 'din' of voices, sounded like a crowded restaurant in America. It was weird because I felt like I should be able to understand what people were saying, but I couldn't. I figure that that was as close as I would come to knowing what American-accented English sounded like to non-native speakers
posted by Kronoss at 10:04 PM on April 11, 2006


When I was in the Netherlands, it was maddening for me because I had several years of German instruction, and the Dutch speak German wrong. At least shopkeepers could kinda make out what I was saying in German, because a lot of 'em were very annoyed if I had to switch to English (even though I think a lot of them knew more English than German).
posted by klangklangston at 7:23 AM on April 12, 2006


Listen to the nonsense language in the video-game The Sims to get a feel for the sound of English. (Although it also sounds somewhat Dutch to me, minus the gutturals.)
posted by stungeye at 8:57 AM on April 12, 2006


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