Just Before Starting
I’m going to be using IPA a lot but I don’t know if I’m using it correctly 100% of the time. If you’re not familiar with it, the main things you need to know for this post are that /ʃ/ is pronounced like the English ‘sh’, /ɔ/ is like you’re saying ‘a’ and ‘o’ at the same time, and /j/ is the English ‘y’ and not ‘j’.
I’ll also be using a lot of non-linguistic words (like “squished”).
In this series of posts, we’ll be exploring the way languages sound. In this part, you will get to listen to a whole lot of languages to get a feel for the way they sound. I’ll talk about those languages in a general-ish way. In the next part, we’ll focus on Dhivehi, and I’ll go into as much depth as I can about the way it sounds.
The Flavour of a Language
Every spoken language has a characteristic feel to it that immediately gives it away as being that particular language. This feel or flavour (these aren’t proper linguistic terms, by the way) arises as a result of three things:
- Phonology – These are all of the sounds in a language
- Phonotactics – This is the way sounds are allowed to fit together in a language
- Prosody – A simple definition of this is “the way a language flows when spoken”. It includes things like stress, pitch and accent. At this layer of the language, things get a bit fluffy because there aren’t any discrete auditory units. This is also the aspect of language which is usually never represented in writing, which is ironic because it is through prosody (and other suprasegmentals) that we convey a lot of the meaning in our speech.
Each language has its own set of sounds, its own rules for combining sounds, and its own way of (for lack of a better word) “melodifying” those sounds in larger units of speech like words and sentences. Most languages share at least one of its features with another language, but when all the features are combined, that’s when you hear the unique sound of a language.
Keeping all this in mind, you are now going to go on an aural journey around the world (with some pictures of traditional dresses and dances as an added bonus). I’ve stuck with the “big” languages (mostly) with which I have some sort of familiarity, meaning that you miss out on the languages of a few continents. Most of the audio clips are taken from news reports and the like, but despite having that newsreadery tone to them, they still show you how the languages sound.
Even if you don’t develop an ear for identifying these languages, or don’t understand my explanations about their sounds, you will at least come out of this with a greater appreciation of the diversity of languages on this planet.
I’ll start with Bengali because it’s a frequently heard foreign language in the Maldives. Two features of Bengali that give it its characteristic flavour are the high frequency of palato-alveolar fricatives and affricates (like /ʃ/ and /tʃ/), as well as the back vowels /o/ and /ɔ/, where most other Indian languages would have /a/ or a schwa. Many consonant clusters are also reduced to a geminated (doubled) consonant.
If a non-native speaker were to stereotype Bengali speech, they might say something like this:
“shob shobbor osho bosho”
This is what actual Bengali sounds like:
The most widely spoken language on the Indian subcontinent has a phonology similar to that of Bengali, with the main differences being a clear distinction between /s/ and /ʃ/, and the use of the front vowel /a/ instead of /ɔ/. Apart from that, the set of consonants in both languages are the same. In Hindi, consonant clusters are not reduced, and depending on the variety being spoken, there may a higher frequency of Persian and Arabic sounds like /z/, /x/ and /q/.
The biggest thing that gives Hindi away is the word है (hai), which is used in pretty much every other sentence.
Tamil and Malayalam
These two Dravidian languages are very closely related, and being Dravidian languages, the feature that gives them away is the frequent use of retroflex consonants (That’s ޓ ,ޑ and ޅ for all you Dhivehi speakers). This is particularly noticeable in Tamil because of its conservatively Dravidian lexicon (Malayalam has a much higher frequency of Sanskrit loanwords). The languages can be differentiated based on the speaker’s accent. Malayalam speakers often put a particular melodic emphasis on initial syllables, their vowels can sound “squished” due to the insertion of the semivowel /j/, and consonants /l/ and /n/ are very dental.
This is Malayalam:
This is Tamil:
Japanese phonology is relatively simple, as are its phonotactics. A consonant must always be followed by a vowel, but syllables are allowed to end with /n/, with the exception being geminated consonants. There is no distinction between /r/ and /l/, and the vowel /u/ is compressed (pronounced with the lips tight and drawn together).
These features give Japanese words their Japanese-ness. For example, the Japanese word for Maldives is モルディブ (morudibu), and the word for Sri Lanka is スリランカ (suriranka). Other words/names that you have probably heard before which are distinctly Japanese include 福島 (fukushima), 原宿 (harajuku), ミツビシ (mitsubishi), 寿司 (sushi), and 津波 (tsunami).
But apart from the sounds, the thing that makes Japanese sound really Japanese is the way it’s spoken: light, fast and sometimes breathy. I don’t know – it’s hard to describe. Listen for yourself:
Korean sounds a lot like Japanese. Phonologically and phonotactically, they are basically the same. However, Korean has more vowels, and syllables can end in a greater number of consonants, for example /k/ and /m/. In Korean, /l/ and /r/ are two versions of the same sound, and the pronunciation depends on where the sound is in a word.
When it comes to prosody, Korean sounds more bouncy than Japanese. And when a syllable is emphasised, there tends to be some aspiration (a puff of air after the consonant).
Mandarin and Cantonese
A stereotypical impression of (any kind of) Chinese pretty much always goes like this:
“Ching chong ching chong”
And while that may be offensive to some, there’s a reason why people think of Chinese that way. Like Bengali, Chinese also makes great use of palato-alveolar fricatives and affricates – this explains the “ch”. And besides vowels, Mandarin Chinese phonotactics only allow syllables to end with the nasal sounds /n/ and /ng/ (with one exception) – this explains the “-ing” and “-ong”.
Another feature of Chinese which gives it its flavour are its tones, which make it sound like the speaker is singing (or kind of jumping up and down with their voice, if that makes sense). Listen for yourself (this is Mandarin):
The tones have a similar effect on Cantonese, with the difference being that syllables can end in /p/, /t/ and /k/, which gives it a more choppy sound. Cantonese also has more vowels than Mandarin, with diphthongs containing schwas being particularly noticeable.
Phonologically, Thai and Cantonese have many similarities, even though they are in different language families. However, Thai makes greater use of long vowels and has more complex phonotactics which allow for initial consonant clusters (/kr/ and /pr/ are common). The rolled /r/ is also not found in Cantonese. Finally, Thai is very nasal; a feature which is common to South-East Asian languages. Have a listen:
Like Thai, Vietnamese is nasal, and like Cantonese, it sounds choppy (and for the same reason – syllables are short and they can end in /p/, /t/ and /k/). Some sounds that make Vietnamese stand out are /v/ and implosive consonants /ɓ/ and /ɗ/. These are pronounced like /b/ and /d/ except air is pulled in rather than pushed out (hence, implosive).
Indonesian is not a tonal language like Thai and Vietnamese, so there isn’t so much “jumpiness” when people are speaking. And because it isn’t monosyllabic, it isn’t choppy either. However, it does have that Southeast Asian nasality. The general phonotactic rule is no consonant clusters, but this isn’t always reflected in speech, as speakers tend to omit schwas (which are otherwise very common) when speaking fast. Trilled /r/ is common, /t/ is dental, and /d/ is almost retroflex (and also sounds implosive).
Italian and Spanish
I’m lumping these two together because they sound similar (they’re even mutually intelligible to a certain extent) and some people have trouble telling them apart, even though they’re kind of very different.
One of the biggest give-away characteristics of both these languages are words ending with vowels (usually /o/ and /a/, but sometimes /e/ and /i/ for Italian. If you’re hearing too much /u/, it’s probably not one of these languages). This is more true of Italian than it is for Spanish, as Spanish words can end with /s/, /n/, /r/, and /l/; for Italian, it’s just /l/, and that’s restricted to a few common words.
In Spanish, you will hear the sound /h/ whereas this sound does not exist in Italian, and the Spanish /r/ is more trilled than in Italian.
When it comes to prosody, Italian is bouncy and Spanish is more slurred. In fast speech Spanish speakers don’t fully pronounce all consonants, whereas the same is not true for Italian.
Guess which is which:
Portuguese sounds like a squished version of Spanish or Italian. The letter o is pronounced /u/ and e is /i/. There are also more nasal sounds and more diphthongs. In European Portuguese there are more guttural sounds, the letter s is frequently pronounced as /ʃ/, and it almost sounds like people don’t pronounce the vowels. Brazilian Portuguese, on the other hand, is a lot softer, s is /s/ (usually), and all vowels are pronounced.
A really funny comment about Portuguese pronunciation from this video is that it’s “congested” and you “get bored in the middle of the word”. It’s funny because it’s true.
This is European Portuguese (listen to all the vowels she doesn’t pronounce):
This is Brazilian Portuguese:
French is probably the easiest language to identify out of the major Romance languages because it sounds so different to the rest of them. Some things to look out for are nasal vowels, the guttural R (/ʁ/), and the sound /ʒ/. Rounded vowels occur frequently in French, making it sound like speakers are constantly making kissy faces (This probably reinforces the stereotype that French people kiss a lot – click the link, the video is funny). In fast speech, it can sound like all the words are slurred together. This is because syllables can cross word boundaries – a process known as resyllabification, or enchaînement in French – making the language sound very smooth.
Lots of people have the idea that German is a “rough” or “harsh” sounding language, and while I don’t completely agree with the use of those words, I understand where they’re coming from. It probably has something with the presence of guttural consonants and a melody that overall sounds very direct (it must be that German efficiency!). However, it may also have to do with stereotypes of the German language and people in the media.
When is comes to phonology, there aren’t too many consonants that would immediately make you think “this is German”, but you will hear plenty of schwas, rounded vowels, and the diphthongs /ɔʏ̯/, /aɪ̯/ and /aʊ̯/.
Lady Gaga did a pretty good job of imitating German in her song Scheiße (it doesn’t mean anything though – “she doesn’t speak German but she can if you like”):
Dutch sounds a lot like German, but it’s a bit more nasal sounding (or pronounced higher up in the mouth, if that makes sense). Dutch contains more guttural sounds (or they’re more frequent), and amongst the various ways the letter R is pronounced is the “American R” /ɹ/, which can make speakers sound like they’re speaking American English.
Many people say that Russian sounds like Portuguese. Phonologically, there are many similarities, but Russian has more palatalisation (which basically means that consonants can more “squished”), more schwa-ish vowels, and no nasal vowels. There are also consonant clusters that are completely alien to English speakers, like /vl/ and /ʃt/.
Because Iran is in the middle east, everyone thinks of it as an Arab country. But Iranians are not Arabs and Persian is an Indo-European language, not a Semitic language. Like Bengali, Persian has a lot of /ɔ/ and /ʃ/ sounds, but unlike Indian languages, it does not have any retroflex consonants, making it sound much softer. The vowel /æ/ (or something close to it) is also very common, and this is probably what gives Persian its Persian-ness.
It would be fair to describe Arabic as a “language of the throat” since it has 9 consonants which are pronounced from the back of the throat (including those “emphatic consonants” that even Arabs can’t pronounce). Apart from that, Arabic consonants are generally soft and apart from /u/, there are no back vowels (but this can vary from region to region). Phonotactics allow for a whole number of strange consonant clusters at the end of syllables but none at the beginning.
Hebrew doesn’t have as many throaty sounds as Arabic, but the ones it does have are super guttural. Hebrew also has more vowels than Arabic (you’re looking for /e/ and /o/ – sounds that don’t exist in standard Arabic), and a high frequency of the sound /ʃ/. At some points, it sounds a bit like French:
I’ve always thought of Swahili as sounding quintessentially African. It has simple phonotactics which require all consonants to be followed by a vowel, but it allows prenasalised consonants at the beginning of words/syllables. The stop consonants /p/ and /b/ are almost implosive, and /t/ and /d/ are pronounced with the tongue higher on the palate compared to English, but not completely retroflex. Some speakers do not make the distinction between /l/ and /r/. Emphasis is usually on the second last syllable of words.
This is probably the most obscure language I’ve included in this list (strangely though, it has almost the same number of speakers as Dhivehi). It is one of the languages of Namibia. If you’ve heard of it before, then you know what to expect. If you haven’t heard of it, just know that it has a very unique feature that is rare in the world’s languages. I won’t say anymore; you can hear it for yourself:
The sounds you just heard are not exclusive to this language; click sounds are also found in other Southern African languages (the most well known probably being Xhosa and Zulu) but they do not occur as frequently.
And with that our journey has come to an end. I’ll leave you with some links:
- the Great Language Game, where you have to identify languages based on short audio clips. You should do well, now that you know how the world’s languages sound!
- Here’s a video of impressions of various languages.
- For those of you who didn’t understand the Sound of Music reference