How do you fake American?
April 10, 2008 6:43 AM   Subscribe

How do you fake American?

Okay, follow me on this. You're an English-speaking person. Say you want to fake like you're talkin' Swedish but you don't know Swedish. So you go something like, "Kvarn ne barn coffer doofern veedin ..." You don't know Russian so you go, "Vlashski dos zhiva da blooski vaha ..." You don't know Italian so you go, "Baleeni! Lorri a vicci comma dacienda mi amore ..."

But what if you're not an English speaker, and you want to fake-speak English, or more precisely, American? How does it sound? I've asked several people this question and what I usually get is a string of brand names.

Any ideas how it would sound? And if not, why is it so hard with American English?
posted by lpsguy to Society & Culture (63 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Xurando at 6:46 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Would you like to super size that value meal?"

This is a really good question. As an american, I've often played at "faking" other languages just like you described. Never thought about how someone would do it in 'Americaneze". I'm looking forward to the answers but my guess would be to just string along a series of sounds that sound "American". Just like you would do otherwise. Sorry if that was kind of obvious. Looking forward to answers.
posted by pearlybob at 6:50 AM on April 10, 2008

Lots of languages don't have the hard (german-ish) "K" of english, so they like to pick on this aspect. Also, English is presented as staccatto, without any voice modulation. Very short, harsh, syllables without much rhythm or pattern.
posted by zpousman at 6:50 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Rar-rar-rah, ruh-rar-rah-rar.
posted by Prospero at 6:50 AM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

It's hard because you know English already. I couldn't "fake speak" Spanish either because I actually speak it... But some buddies in Iceland used to "fake speak" American. Usually the question was, "Would you like some cheeese on that?" Yeah, weird, I know.
posted by letahl at 6:54 AM on April 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

It's the same as English-English ONLY LOUDER.
posted by oh pollo! at 6:57 AM on April 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Previously here, here, here.
posted by shadow vector at 6:58 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, previously.
posted by steef at 6:59 AM on April 10, 2008

Best answer: Find a non-English speaker who has passing familiarity with the sounds of the language (usually through US blockbusters) and ask them to fake American English for you. If indeed what you get is a strong of brand names, or "rar-rar-rar", then that IS what fake American sounds like, to THEM. Exactly in the same way that an American who doesn't know Swedish might fake Swedish by saying "Kvarn ne barn coffer doofern veedin ..." . To someone who does indeed speak Swedish, it sounds idiotic and wrong. Just in the same way that to you, listening to someone try to fake "American"sounds like it's not right. Sometimes, when we try to stereotype ourselves, we realize how utterly stupid we probably sound/look when we stereotype others.
posted by peachy at 7:00 AM on April 10, 2008 [6 favorites]

From my travels I've noticed that the most common American impression is typically someone saying, "Duuuuude" in a super SoCal drawn-out way. Oh, oh, oh! And being excessively, excessively loud.
posted by banannafish at 7:02 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Previously on AskMe...
posted by prefpara at 7:03 AM on April 10, 2008

I've asked several people this question and what I usually get is a string of brand names.

in your "italian" bit, I notice you included some real italian, because you know those sounds are "italian" sounds... people who don't speak english will still be exposed to english language brand names, because they're everywhere, so stringing a bunch of them together would provide a slab of the appropriate sounding syllables while carrying no meaningful content...

see also this question and the other previous questions linked in the first answer...
posted by russm at 7:03 AM on April 10, 2008

posted by fire&wings at 7:04 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

After I read one of the previous AskMes dealing with this, I mentioned the "rar-rar-rar" thing to an Austrian friend and a French friend. They laughed really, really hard. And then got sheepish. That's when I knew it was true.
posted by Mapes at 7:09 AM on April 10, 2008 [8 favorites]

For non-English speakers: shrarararzraarararar.

For British English speakers: Sports. Seriously, if you say the word "sports" with a really strong emphasis on the R, it's really hilarious, as compared to the British alternative ("sport").

For Canadian English speakers: HOWDY, Y'ALL! Or just in generally being really loud.

I don't know what English speaking people from countries other than the above two might do, but I assume it's somewhere around the same sort of thing. It's the "R" thing that's really distinctive, the other features are more subtle.
posted by blacklite at 7:21 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know, but an Italian who was studying English at an advanced level once asked me in all seriousness why female Americans spoke so loudly and an octave higher than anyone else. Was it a dialect thing? I suspect most of his experience was with parties of excited tourists in Rome.
posted by Phanx at 7:23 AM on April 10, 2008

Make the rar-rar-rar nasal and somewhat whiney and you'll hit it squarely. Make it loud. One thing that always strikes me is how Americans use their nasal cavities as a resonator, which makes them incredibly decibel effective.
posted by NekulturnY at 7:23 AM on April 10, 2008 [6 favorites]

My English co-worker, who was on assignment in the US for a number of years, has a few words that she practiced in an American accent. Specifically, "awesome" and "banana." I have no idea why those words, but it was funny to hear her say them.
posted by cabingirl at 7:27 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Many years ago I went to a SIGGRAPH conference which included an exhibit called "Neuro Baby" - basically an interactive baby CGI character which would react to the emotions in the voices of those viewing it (see demonstration video). Like any baby if would get upset if it thought that you were too.

Alas the system had been developed and emotionally calibrated in Tokyo but was being shown of in San Diego. It therefore seemed to be having permanent emotional breakdown.

So - there is an element of that too.
posted by rongorongo at 7:42 AM on April 10, 2008 [12 favorites]

Long ago, my British co-workers said we all sound like John Wayne. I've since asked speakers of other languages if that carries across an actual language barrier vs a dialect barrier, and it does.

"Yeww ah'll sayound lahhk Chaahn Uh-waihne."
posted by notsnot at 7:47 AM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

You can't fake American. You can fake Texan, New Yorker, Californian (Southern and Northern), Deep Southern, Bostonian. It's all regional.

My Scot friends have said that we are loud, oddly pitched and use brutally hard consonants.
posted by 26.2 at 7:56 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've actually heard Europeans fake-speak English, but I can't recall what the syllables were. I do remember that it sounded right, somehow... I guess I'd also say, be sure to add a rising inflection? On the end? Like this?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 7:56 AM on April 10, 2008

There's nothing "American" about being loud, even stereotypically. There's hardly a single ethnic group that isn't stereotyped that way. The question is what does a fake American accent sound like?

Part of the answer: hard R's and lots of glottal stops.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 8:15 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm Australian, but I lived in the US and moved back here about 5 years old. Other kids at school used to try and make me say words with 'r' in them and then laugh. These days, attempts at 'sounding American' basically equals either a huge southern drawl attempt*, or Valleygirl**.

*Like Cletus on the Simpsons. Needs to include "y'all".
**Like, whatEVER! You know?
posted by jacalata at 8:28 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was in Japan a long time ago (20+ yrs), a tv comedian had an "american guy" schtick that consisted of saying an exaggerated "UMMM HMMMMM" at the end of every sentence. Apparently those little "uh-huhs" that we throw in to keep the conversation rolling sound ok coming from a woman, but hilariously effeminate coming from a man.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:31 AM on April 10, 2008

I once saw Isabella Rossellini do this on David Letterman's show. It sounded like "mrrrna mrrrna mrrrrrna." Again with the r's. But it sounded mumbly and flat too.
posted by zerbinetta at 8:38 AM on April 10, 2008

But some buddies in Iceland used to "fake speak" American. Usually the question was, "Would you like some cheeese on that?" Yeah, weird, I know.

I had a friend who lived in Ireland for awhile in high school and he said the other kids at school would say something very similar about cheeeese when they were doing an American impersonation.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:57 AM on April 10, 2008

yeah...something like 'doood....ohh my gawd! That is so, like, totally awesome!'
posted by nickerbocker at 9:02 AM on April 10, 2008

As a NZ-English speaker who has lived in the US for 6 years, I find I've stopped pronouncing the ts in the middle of words, and overemphasizing my rs. (Just to repeat what many people have said).
posted by gaspode at 9:03 AM on April 10, 2008

Since the 'previously' deals with non-English speakers... my (British) parents, who have never been to the US, and whose contact with actual Americans is probably limited to single figures, their stock phrase for what Americans say is 'Howdy, y'all.' They grew up in an era where their greatest exposure to American voices was cowboy films on the Saturday matinee.

(For German, though, from my dad, it's "zwanzig Minuten, mein Herr.")
posted by holgate at 9:05 AM on April 10, 2008

I had a Canadian co-worker, years ago, who used to say the word American like "Amurrric'n" (or something like that), when teasing the rest of us.

The scary thing is: GWB says it EXACTLY like she did. Freaks me out.
posted by epersonae at 9:23 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Like this?
posted by artifarce at 9:31 AM on April 10, 2008

beware the MYTHBUSTER

"For Canadian English speakers: HOWDY, Y'ALL! Or just in generally being really loud."

!? I lived in Canada for nine years and NEVER heard anyone say "HOWDY, Y'ALL", either loudly or softly. I lived in the USA for 32 years and again, NEVER heard anyone say "HOWDY, Y'ALL". But I was in Vermont. Also, SOME Canadians say 'eh', but NOT most Canadians, and NOT at the end of every single sentence, like Americans like to think.
I've now lived in the UK for 2 1/2 years - Americans are no louder than the people here. The British NEVER say 'old chap', so I wish my American friends would stop thinking they're clever by using this phrase. British DO say 'cheers mate' for any, all, and no occasions.
Some Americans and some Brits talk through their noses, and in both places it is an incredibly horrible accent. Here in Manchester people say 'yaaahhliiet!?', all through the nose, which in english should be 'are you all right?'. (Some) Americans, of course, say 'sup?'
Sometimes I hear Americans on the radio here. Most of them are fine, but there's a certain 'hardcore' American accent that is truly nerve-grating. I've been told I don't have it, thank god. Somebody on NPR has it bad, and advertises the website by saying "NPR DAHT CAHM". Brrrr.
And people from Glasgow, to me, sound like they weren't meant to speak English, and that it's causing them pain. I'm convinced that there's some other language that they're regularly speaking in Glasgow when nobody else is around.
My wife was approached by some girls on the street here who said 'wagadadashapfama?' After several repeats they gave up on her. They were of course asking her to buy beer for them. (Believe it or not: 'will you go to the shop for me?')
English, man, ya can't beat it.
If you're interested in languages and sound, find a recording of Kurt Schwitters performing his sound poem 'Ursonate'. It's a nonsense poem but interestingly sounds a lot like German (Schwitters spoke German).

So after all that verbiage, I'll try to answer your question:

posted by arcadia at 9:33 AM on April 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

I grew up in Hawaii, speaking standard English at home and in the classroom, but Pidgin on the playground and with my friends. Accent-wise, consonants tend to be softer, and the Rs less emphsized.

I'd never really heard the difference until we moved back to Hawaii when I was about 10, having been away for a little more than a year. All my friends made fun of my accent, which had become much more mainland U.S., full of hard consonants and RRRRs.
posted by rtha at 9:35 AM on April 10, 2008

You know when you're talking to someone and they're being a whiny jerk, and then you stop talking and turn away and pretend to be them, only you mutter under your breath some sort of nonsense phrase, but using their tone of voice? That's it.

"But I was going to go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters!"

"Wah wah wah waaaaah rah rah ra ra rahhhhhhh!"
posted by blue_beetle at 9:46 AM on April 10, 2008 [21 favorites]

lots of round sounds ... think YOWL and WOHWSAS. everyone also knows COOL, though it gets pronounced differently between places. (german kids make it sound kind of like CUHL, which always makes me giggle.)

I actually tried to order some french fries when I was perhaps five and didn't speak a word of english. this was in london. I read the menu and pronounced it the way it seemed logical to me - every letter as I would in german. the result was something that to me absolutely positively was french fries but to the person behind the counter it might as well have been a dolphin steak. they either didn't get it or thought I was chubby enough. so I ended up listening to other people ordering and eventually picked up on how to get what I craved.
posted by krautland at 9:48 AM on April 10, 2008

It's the "R" thing that's really distinctive, the other features are more subtle.

But that is distinctive (and irritating) to Americans who speak a non-rhotic accent (like me - Noo Yawk accent). Sometimes I can understand a Brit easier than I can understand a twenty-something from California or the Midwest. Seriously. We had a consultant at work who said she was from what sounded to me like Floor-duh, I asked "Where is Floor-duh?"

She looked at me like I was an idiot and said "South of Georgia." It was then that I realized she was saying Florida.

Wherrrr did that arrrrr come from anyway?
posted by xetere at 9:49 AM on April 10, 2008

My relatives in Appalachian Virginia say "Howdy" and "Y'all," but they also call me a Yankee. So it does happen somewhere in the U.S. I find that most people attempting an American accent use a very cartoon-y Texas accent. This was even before Bush #2 was president.

I know the question isn't about accents necessarily, but I travel a lot and sometimes have trouble convincing European travelers that I'm American. I've had a Dutch woman convinced I was also Dutch and lately found out people assumed I was Canadian. I generally tone down my accent on the road by speaking softer and with less inflection. Another American I ran into in the middle of nowhere was trying to place my accent and could tell I was from Chicago because I "spoke really fast but paused longer in-between sentences." I would say that most people describe an American accent as "harsh" and "grating."
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:17 AM on April 10, 2008

I believe in Japan, the sound is "bara bara bara bara."
posted by Atreides at 10:33 AM on April 10, 2008

my grandma says it sounds like "glee gloo". She speaks cantonese.
posted by captaincrouton at 10:46 AM on April 10, 2008

I think they'd say "OK" alot, and other words that you often hear. Like maybe "Really", and yeah, like you said, brand names, or things like "Schwarzenegger", things that are known world-wide.
posted by Penelope at 11:03 AM on April 10, 2008

I had friends in England who loved (lurrrved!) to do a fake American accent to amuse me, usually in that hard, cartoon-y John Wayne voice. But the best part was that they retained certain little British-isms. So my friend Lea would do his impression of a cowboy ordering a beer in a bar, but he'd say it like this: "HOWDY! Giz a BUDWEISERRRR, mate!" And I would shriek with laughter, because of course no one says "giz" (or even "give us") in that context here; it would be "gimme." And if you said "mate" to a bartender in Texas, he would likely deck you for your troubles.
posted by scody at 11:20 AM on April 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't think there's a way to imitate the sound of English in a way that would make sense to someone who speaks English. People who speak different languages hear things in different ways. For example, English-speakers say a cat says "meow", but here's a list of how those cat sounds translate into other languages.
posted by orange swan at 11:38 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

23skidoo: Among Chinese, I've heard English called the "hissing language".

Considering that the Chinese think it's hissing with a lot of "s" sounds, Japanese think it's "bara bara bara" and others "rar rar rar", I would imagine that the archetypical fake English word might be "barrars" or "rasbar".

When I lived in New Mexico, I found myself amused by Mexican candy and snacks - the cartoon character-covered packaging that offers no hint at what lies inside, and the names that, to my Anglo ears, seem somewhat formulaic but still as made-up as the fake Spanish we used as kids.

posted by elmwood at 11:39 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

For Canadian English speakers: HOWDY, Y'ALL! Or just in generally being really loud.

Arcadia's correct. Canadians do NOT say howdy or y'all unless we're imitating western Americans. Nor are we especially loud.
posted by orange swan at 11:42 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just speak English louder and more nasally than usual. You might also draw out the vowels. With apologies to actual Americans here, the best shortcut I can think of is to put on your "annoying" voice, like that person who's in front of you in a queue demanding better treatment. (Sorry, again, but that's the American stereotype of annoying entitlement. Of course everyone on MeFi is much cooler, sensitive, well-adjusted and worldly!)

Laurie Anderson had a spoken-word bit about this, where she provided examples for comedic effect, but I can't find it online or remember which video/recording it comes from.

Chewing gum while talking is another useful stereotype.
posted by rokusan at 11:58 AM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

"But I was going to go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters!"

On preview, blue beetle's example is a PERFECT example of what I was trying to say.

(That line always makes me laugh.)
posted by rokusan at 12:01 PM on April 10, 2008

The way people think Texans talk is from decades ago. Want to fit in if you come here? Memorize these phrases:

Dude! No way!
My bad.
It's all good!
Damn this traffic!
It rained so hard it was like a cow pissin' on a flat rock!
Adios mofos!
Hell yeah!
Barack HUSSEIN Obama
Go home, damn Californicators!

Official state motto: The Friendly State
posted by Daddy-O at 12:26 PM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

And, oh yeah: "I'll take a venti half-caf soy mochalatte."
posted by Daddy-O at 12:27 PM on April 10, 2008

Considering that the Chinese think it's hissing with a lot of "s" sounds, Japanese think it's "bara bara bara" and others "rar rar rar", I would imagine that the archetypical fake English word might be "barrars" or "rasbar".

Oh, you know, that's interesting, 'cause I've heard that when you're trying to get people to seem like they're having a conversation in the background of a film, they can just repeat the phrase "peas and carrots" and it sounds relatively innocuous.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:03 PM on April 10 [+] [!]

I've also heard that backgound extras in films either just say "rhubarb" repeatedly or converse by randomly saying "natter" and "grommish".
posted by newmoistness at 1:53 PM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was on the phone a few years ago with an American friend who is living in a Spanish-speaking country. His Spanish-speaking friend kept bugging him, asking to get on the phone with me and say something in English. When he finally relented and handed the phone to his friend, the friend said to me, very enthusiastically, "You've got mail!" To him, THAT was American.
posted by amyms at 2:02 PM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

There was a song by a Japanese female duo in 1999/2000 that sounded like English but was really total nonsense. It was really big in Singapore (it was played in Power 98 often). Does anyone know what it was? Because that could answer this question.
posted by divabat at 3:43 PM on April 10, 2008

My parents (Australian) knew an American couple who came to visit them in .au . This couple had profoundly strong accents, and were kind of stupid and ignorant. Note that I am not denigrating Americans, these people were exceptions.

While at a dinner, the wife said, in a thick, thick accent, `Where I come from, people are all accentless".

So to me, the word `Ak-say-ant-lay-ass" brings to mind thick and overblown US accents.

I was told that to Chinese ears, a lot of english is `ba ba ba'.

Amongst friends, we used to use the phrase "STEP AWAY FROM THE AUTOMOBILE" in the thickest accent we could pull as a stereotypical American thing. I guess we saw it on cops or something! We liked the phrasing of `automobile' best.
posted by tomble at 5:10 PM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

To me, the strongest and most noticeably component of American speech (which is, in terms of accents and vocabulary, very regional, of course) is, as noted at least once upthread, and strong (and to me grating) tendency towards extreme nasality. The staccato speech and glottal tension that characterized stereotypical American speech in the first half of the 20th century has by and large, as far as I've noticed, been replaced by a widespread tendency, no matter the accent, for Americans to talk through their noses. Not universal, but very noticeable once you start to listen for it. Annoyingly so.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:13 PM on April 10, 2008

Okay guys, sorry about being confusing, apparently. The question was "How do you fake American?" My answers were "For non-English speakers: shrarararzraarararar.", "For British English speakers: [blah blah]", and "For Canadian English speakers: HOWDY, Y'ALL!", etc.

Two Canadians now have responded, aghast, that I would call Canadians loud and imply that they are loud and say howdy. I don't really know why you would get that out of how I phrased my answer, but just for the record, I was attempting to convey how various people from around the world can imitate American English. I'm surprised anyone would ever assume that loud, howdy-yelling people would mean Canadians...
posted by blacklite at 7:16 PM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

In conclusion, English is barbarian-speak.

posted by blacklite at 7:20 PM on April 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: German speaker "faking" English
posted by jpdoane at 7:29 PM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I was traveling in 1999 I had children in third-world countries chase me down on the street shouting "I did NOT have sexual intercourse with THAT woman," over and over. It was a little unnerving.
posted by bonheur at 7:35 PM on April 10, 2008 [20 favorites]

I'm late to this thread but I thought of the scene from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" where Spike (James Marsters), a Brit played by an non-Brit, pretends to be American and says "I'm a friend of Xanderrrrrr's" -- again, much emphasis on the "r" and completely nasally.
posted by frances1972 at 1:13 PM on April 11, 2008

English is a foreign language to me. And I remember growing up with a lot of hit song texts that were all meaninglessly reproduced sounds, mondegreenes to me.
But nowadays I know US english to well to be able to fake it using nonsense sounds. I guess that will hold true for everybody on metafilter.

The most common way of imitating US americans is by saying things in your native language, Dutch in my case, with an american accent. Similar to english speakerz imitating ze Dzyerman pronounziation. You do that approximately by pronouncing the R more like a vowel than a consonant and using drawn out vowels. Combine that with rounding off of most consonants to have them slur a bit into each other. Only keep K and S sounds clear.

Intersperse that with some social overstatements and a generalised upbeatness that sound like you're trying to sell something or just met your life soulmate; awesome, amazing, you rock ...
And talk rather loudly as if nobody understands english. But that last statement is just about american tourists abroad.

If that doesn't work one can resort to Texas and California surfer dude accents since these are so clearly marked that they're recognisable even to foreign ears.
posted by jouke at 4:26 AM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

"In conclusion, English is barbarian-speak."

I'm not sure if you were referencing this fact or not, but the word 'barbarian' comes from Greeks imitating non-Greek speakers.

"The word barbaros did not necessarily have the pejorative connotations that it does for us: barbaroi were simply people who didn’t speak Greek and whose speech sounded, to Greek ears, like bar-bar-bar." [1]
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:14 PM on April 24, 2008

This is such a cool thread, esp. as I just got back from a holiday with an American friend of mine where we'd repeatedly make fun of each other's accents (mine's British) and assure each other that we sounded nothing like the real thing.

Specifically, "awesome" and "banana."

I can't say "awesome" in a normal British accent. Ok I can say it but it always sounds American in my head!!

You can't fake American. You can fake Texan, New Yorker, Californian....

Rubbish. I can do a "deep south" accent but apart from that American sounds more or less the same to me no matter where they're from. I can tell a Seattle accent and a Brooklyn accent apart if you present them to me side by side, but if you give me "random US accent" I will just about be able to tell if they're South or North, East Coast or West Coast. If that.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 1:39 PM on August 5, 2008

I asked this once of a friend who'd lived in Hong Kong. She said gll-luk gll-luk gll-luk gll-luk.
posted by eritain at 7:41 PM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

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