What does English sound like to foreign ears?

BY Robert Lamb / POSTED June 14, 2011

We’ve all heard examples of fake Chinese or German from speakers who lack familiarity with either language. While typically cringe-worthy, these examples do raise interesting questions regarding our own language. What does English sound like to non-English speakers? After more than 40 years, Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinainciusol” remains one of the most illuminating examples. Prepare to rock out and sorta kinda rap with an Italian comedian:

I think I love it. The entire song is nonsense verse, neither English nor Italian, but the sounds are meant to resemble English. Linguist Mark Liberman wrote an interesting post about this sort of thing over at Language Log discussing yaourter, the French word for an attempt to speak or sing in a foreign language that one doesn’t know all that well. This often involves trying to sing a foreign song with nonsense or random words filling in the blanks. Liberman shares this wonderful quote from a random Internet user:

“Just for the story, in France, when we don’t speak English and we want to imitate the sound, we call it “yaourter”(to yoghourt), the imitation sounds like a very nasal language, kind of like a baby crying. It mostly imitates the “cowboy” accent.”

Along similar lines, onomatopoeia (words that imitate or suggest the words they describe) provide amusing insight into the differences between different languages. Let’s look at a few videos. First up, here are various animal sounds in Japanese, Indonesian, German and Italian:

And here’s a BBC Radio 4 interview with Derek Abbott from the University of Adelaide on animal noises in other languages:

Here’s a duck’s quack in Iran, Kenya and Romania:

Ah, but to go back to pure nonsense language for a moment, here are two more examples. First, on the artsy side of things, consider Vonlenska, the nonsense language employed by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós in many of their songs. Foreign listeners frequently assume these songs are in Icelandic, but this track, “Sæglópur” is all Vonlenska with just a little  Icelandic at the end:

And finally, here’s a bit of American nonsense singing as Joel and the bots from “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ misinterpret the music to an outlandishly bad song from the film “Pod People.” Enjoy it:


About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks.com, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.

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