What Does English Sound Like

In first grade, someone’s grandfather came to our class to talk about his worldly exploits — I think he’d been a foreign correspondent for a newspaper, and he’d fought in the Pacific during World War II. And during the speech, he mentioned his fluency in Mandarin Chinese, at which point this kid Dominic raised his hand and asked, “So what does, like, ‘ching chong bing bong’ even mean?”

This was, of course, a terribly offensive thing to say, though I’m not going to use this column to chide a first grader. The point here — a totally reasonable one — is that hearing a foreign language you don’t understand might not mean anything, but you still recognize its sound. Most adults could discern between Chinese and Vietnamese, or Danish and German, even though we don’t understand a word in any of those languages. And just because we couldn’t speak a lick of German doesn’t mean we couldn’t imitate it. Say you’re sitting in a diner in New York and a Frenchman scoffs at your Freedom Fries—you might mock him with a few “voule-vou fa fa fa”s, even though (I think) that doesn’t mean anything. He’ll get the point. It’s fake French.

Which leads us to this Sunday afternoon’s mindf**k — what does fake English sound like? That is, if you had to imitate English without using any real words, how would it sound? Could you even do it?

Luckily, there’s a whole conglomerate of folks on YouTube who’ve given this a try — some of them are from other countries and don’t actually know any English, and some are English speakers who’ve managed to imitate the sound without using any real vocabulary. The Italian singer Adriano Celentano’s song “Prisecolinensinenciousol” is probably the longest and most impressive example of gibberish that really sounds like American English — It’s not too hard to mistake it for a Dylan song (though for all I know, Bob Dylan speaks a different language).

But what makes fake English sound like real English? What are the hallmark sounds of our tongue? Germans will often refer to English as Kaugummi English, or Chewing Gum English, because it sounds like we’re speaking with gum in our mouths (fair enough, since TV shows about high school girls are a major American export). Of course, this marks a difference between American English and British English. A friend of mine who’s English told me she envies our consonants, and fears that her long vowels make her sound pretentious (she’s very sweet — but they do). On an upcoming episode of A Way with Words, Martha shares a lovely excerpt from Richard Rodriguez’s memoir, Hunger of Memory, where he describes the “loud, booming” confidence of the American voice. He compares the “high nasal notes of middle-class American speech” with the “high-whining vowels and guttural consonants” of his immigrant parents, and writes of the comforting elements of his native Spanish.

Thus, tied in with the sound of a language are the personalities we associate with its speakers. That cowboys and newscasters are touchstones of the American voice says something about what we value. An imitation of German will often reflect not just the sound of the language but also the *cough* authoritarian qualities we associate with that society. “Bunga Bunga” has made its way into the global vernacular, but you’d still likely imitate a nonna if you were to take a stab at Italian, because Italian language and culture just has a grandma-ness about it. And the French, of course, sound like they’re hawking loogies all day, because, you know, socialism and stuff.

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James Ramsay

James Ramsay lives in Brooklyn and works for the public radio show "A Way with Words".

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