What does English sound like to foreign ears?
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.
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.
The dancing in this video is so ace. Also, cool science-y thing: my brain recognised the sound similarities, and was trying to create words out of the sounds in this song, even after knowing it’s gibberish.
This is really cool.
It’s educational AND fabulous. Never thought about what English must sound like to someone else. Neat stuff.