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Telling Where People Come From


  11:43:43 pm, by Nimble   , 1052 words  
Categories: Thoughts, Languages, People

Telling Where People Come From

I've always had an interest in spoken languages. We boarded foreign students to help make ends meet once upon a very long time ago, so I got exposed to quite a few people whose first language was not English. I thought it was the most fascinating thing ever. My maternal grandpa, bless his heart, gave me two phrase books for my ninth birthday, Collins German and Collins Spanish.

That said, I can't really claim fluency in any of the languages I've studied, really. I've got enough of a lot of different languages to know the alphabets, some fundamental grammar, and to know how they work. A lot of the pronunciation errors that people make in English can be directly traced back to pronunciation rules or lacks of particular combinations in peoples' native tongues. Sometimes you can use these to trace where someone comes from, even if just in general. Sometimes you can look for clues if you hear them speaking their native language.

Let me give you a few samplings...

English accents

Arabia in general: Arabic lacks the letter p. This is no guarantee of identification, but if whoever you are speaking to keeps saying a b sound instead of a p sound, their native tongue might be Arabic. I identified a nifty PhD guy we met just last week this way; turned out he was from Libya.

China, south: Chinese languages in general are restricted in the kind of sound combinations that can be made. A general feature of the southern dialects is that they do allow t, p, and k sounds on the end of a syllable, but they are "violently cut off". Say "pop" but hold your lips entirely shut when saying the second p. This isn't a surefire identification, because some other South Asian languages do similar things. Consonant blends, that is, where you have two consonants in a row, are also troublesome. They are likely to say "ben" instead of "blends" :) When trying to say "think" (the "th" sound is hard to make), it seems to come out as "ting" or "tingk" (with a cut-off k).

China, north: Chinese in the north does not have any consonants on the end of words except for n, m, ng. So no violent sound cutoffs. That said, they seem to 'try harder' and speak more carefully, even though they should have more trouble with English than south Chinese because the rules are more restrictive. Still, there are often numerous giveaways. They tend to say "w" or "oo" instead of "l" if l is combined with anything. For example, "told" will often come out "toe-ood" (or "toad"). The "v" sound is often said as "w" instead. 'Th' seems to come out as 's' instead of 't', so "think" will often come out as "sing".

Japanese: I can't say that I've met enough to suss out a lot of patterns here. They do have some quintessential confusion over the letters "l" and "r", which can cause some hilarity when they do English translation. Reason being is that they have a 'letter' that's actually halfway in-between. In linguistic terms, it's called a "flap", and it's the same sound as pronounced in North America when you say the tt in "butter", or the r in Spanish "para". They may also tend to say "see" as "she" and add in some extra vowels, but I haven't seen those habits persist consistently. Japanese is based on syllables, which is why extra vowels often get inserted after sounds (there's a semi-official means in Japan to import English words, e.g. vaccuum cleaner = bakkyuumu kuriina), but some combinations they get right because of other rules (e.g. u and i go silent between sounds that you don't 'voice', so "suki" sounds like "ski")

Korean: Different than Japanese, but shares some characteristics. They have a different r/l confusion, because the rule is it's the same letter, but it's pronounced r at the beginning of a syllable, and l at the end. They tend to add an "uh/oo" (a little more rounded than the sound in "book") after letters to make things easier to pronounce (meri kuhrismasuh), although Korean has more consonant blends than in Japanese, especially with the letter s, so it's used slightly less often. Dena also tells me that in Korea, at least, they say Superman as "shoo-per-maan".

India in general: Their t's and d's will often sound more hollow. If you have ever imitated an East Indian accent, when you say a t or d sound, you put your tongue on the roof of your mouth instead of at the back of your teeth. East Indian languages actually have two kinds of t's and d's, one with the tongue on the roof of the mouth, the other right on the teeth.

Russian in general: Russian has no problem saying bazillion consonants in a row. A formal word for hello, "zdravstvooitye", indicates their penchant for this quite well. That said, there are some interesting restrictions. Russian does not really have "short vowels" like English does. So the distinction between "hit" and "heat" may be hard for them to make. (If you're wondering why I didn't say "lit" and "lite" or something, that's because English long vowels are actually 'rotated' from what they should be, but that's another topic). Their "r"s are usually very trilled (a friend's mother used to call me "rrrrreetchee"). There is also a rule in Russian about hard and soft sounds, so you may also hear them put a "y" sound in front of vowels on occasion (think "nyet"). Ukrainian is very similar in most respects.

I know, I know, not the most complete of guides. You can tell a lot more by listening to people speaking their native tongue. For example, in East Indian languages, you can tell Bengali speakers because they have no "v" sound, say "sh" instead of "s" almost everywhere, and say "ah-cheh" on the end of a lot of sentences, whereas Hindi speakers' "v" is halfway between a v and a w, they distinguish s and sh, and say "ha" (nasally or not) on the end of a lot of sentences. Sometimes, distinctions like that get lost when you're trying to place the accent in English.

Maybe I'll come up with a guide to that later :)

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