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Old 05-14-2010, 03:37 PM
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What does English sound like--REALLY--to foreigners?

I've always wondered this, but the answers one finds by Googling the question are woefully uninformative. ("Bien" ["good"] is the pathetically vacuous answer that a lot of Spanish-speakers tend to give.)

I'm looking for actual descriptions of how English sounds...you know, with like, adjectives?

For example, to me, Russian sounds dark and harsh, yet at the same time, velvety and melodious. German to me sounds terse, brusque, and biting, but also rather sing-songy.

So how does English--either British, Australian, or most especially, American--sound to non-English speakers?

Anyone know? Buehler? Buehler?

Danke.
Old 05-14-2010, 03:46 PM
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I have been told by more than a few Romance-language speakers (French, Catalan, Spanish) that English sounds like a "hissing" language because of the relative frequency of sibilants (sounds such as /s/, /z/, /sh/) and affricates (e.g. /ch/, /j/). Speakers of other Germanic languages and of Slavic languages may not share this impression.

This kind of thing will vary a lot depending on the language of the non-English speaking listener.


EDIT: for those who know the IPA, please forgive the way the examples given in the first paragraph

Last edited by bordelond; 05-14-2010 at 03:46 PM.
Old 05-14-2010, 03:47 PM
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It depends on your point of comparison.
Old 05-14-2010, 03:54 PM
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Umm, yeah, SageRat, I know.

That's why I asked for adjectives.
Old 05-14-2010, 03:55 PM
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There was a thread not too long ago on how different languages sound to speakers of various other languages, but my searches have failed to turn it up. Perhaps someone else will recall it better.
Old 05-14-2010, 04:01 PM
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Originally Posted by bordelond View Post
I have been told by more than a few Romance-language speakers (French, Catalan, Spanish) that English sounds like a "hissing" language because of the relative frequency of sibilants (sounds such as /s/, /z/, /sh/) and affricates (e.g. /ch/, /j/). Speakers of other Germanic languages and of Slavic languages may not share this impression.
Excellent answer. Exactly what I was looking for. Thanks!

Keep 'em comin'!
Old 05-14-2010, 04:14 PM
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Originally Posted by Cyningablod View Post
Umm, yeah, SageRat, I know.

That's why I asked for adjectives.
Okay well then, compared to Russian, English sounds light and gentle, yet somewhat lacking in melodic fluidity....

Just flip whatever descriptor you'd use for another language, and that's English.
Old 05-14-2010, 04:15 PM
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Are we describing languages or reading their horoscopes?
Old 05-14-2010, 04:27 PM
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According to my five year old son, English sounds something like "warsch farscjh sarsshjf", I interpret that to mean that English sounds to Spanish-speaking people almost like German sounds to English-Speaking people, something that checks with what I remember from the times before I learned English.
Old 05-14-2010, 04:30 PM
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Misha misha misha.
Old 05-14-2010, 04:34 PM
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The best example I had ever seem was posted by someone else here a while back


http://boingboing.net/2009/12/17/gib...rock-song.html

Enjoy!
Old 05-14-2010, 04:41 PM
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Originally Posted by Sage Rat View Post
Just flip whatever descriptor you'd use for another language, and that's English.
That's not true -- there ARE distinct things that can stand out. There's a lot of subjectivity to picking out what stands out, yes ... but there are actual, definable aspects of individual languages that leave impressions on non-speakers.

An example would be the aspects of spoken French that speakers of English commonly latch on to: the relative prevalance of nasal vowels (words like Jean, inviter, couchon) and of front rounded vowels (e.g. lune, jeune), for instance.

Another thing about spoken English (doesn't matter what dialect) that can come off as ... well, "odd", I guess ... is listening to the cadence of the words. Per the first wiki link below: "English is a stress-timed language ... stressed syllables appear at a roughly constant rate, and non-stressed syllables are shortened to accommodate this." This will sound unusual to speakers of languages such as Spanish and Japanese which "... have syllable timing (e.g. Spanish) or mora timing (e.g. Japanese), where syllables or morae are spoken at a roughly constant rate regardless of stress."

These differences in stress/timing are a major reason why some languages sound so quickly spoken -- it's not just because you don't know the words Listeners of a stress-timed language may interepret a stream of syllable-timed speech as something of a rapid-fire "breathless" delivery. Thinking of it like this: as English speakers, we're used to a stressed syllable, then a "downbeat" made up of a few consecutive unstressed syllables. The stressed syllables come at somewhat relative intervals, and there's an up-&-down to the delivery. To an English-speaking listener, a Spanish speaker is uttering an unusually long and unbroken stream of consecutive "stressed" syllables.


Good articles related to this topic:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stress_(language)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timing_(linguistics)

Last edited by bordelond; 05-14-2010 at 04:44 PM.
Old 05-14-2010, 04:50 PM
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It just sounds like "bar bar bar" to me.
Old 05-14-2010, 05:23 PM
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Originally Posted by Frodo View Post
According to my five year old son, English sounds something like "warsch farscjh sarsshjf" [...]
That is the best. band name. EVER.
Old 05-14-2010, 05:32 PM
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Originally Posted by lexi View Post
The best example I had ever seem was posted by someone else here a while back


http://boingboing.net/2009/12/17/gib...rock-song.html

Enjoy!

Omigod that was fucking HILARIOUS!!! Thanks!

Sounded like a cross between George Clinton (music) and Bob Dylan (lyrics)!

Last edited by Cyningablod; 05-14-2010 at 05:37 PM.
Old 05-14-2010, 05:36 PM
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Originally Posted by bordelond View Post
That's not true -- there ARE distinct things that can stand out. [...]

Another thing about spoken English (doesn't matter what dialect) that can come off as ... well, "odd", I guess ... is listening to the cadence of the words.
Thanks, bordelond, I actually remember that from my grad classes in linguistics, but didn't recall it 'til you brought it up. (My Master's is in Spanish language.) You articulated it very well, as it can be something of a dense, academic point.
Old 05-14-2010, 07:49 PM
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Here's an earlier thread on this topic, with some good replies.
Old 05-14-2010, 08:17 PM
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Originally Posted by lexi View Post
The best example I had ever seem was posted by someone else here a while back


http://boingboing.net/2009/12/17/gib...rock-song.html

Enjoy!
ROFL, that vid is great!

And as a native speaker of English, yeah, it does sound like English. Gibberish English, but the sound is right.
Old 05-14-2010, 09:00 PM
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Originally Posted by lexi View Post
The best example I had ever seem was posted by someone else here a while back


http://boingboing.net/2009/12/17/gib...rock-song.html

Enjoy!
I'm a person who has always found it very difficult to discern words in most songs, especially pop and rock songs with a lot instrumentals in them (drum beats, guitar, etc.). If I'm lucky, I can usually pick out the chorus with enough repetition.

(If you think this is odd, then think about how many people liked the song "Louie Louie" in which most of the song is unintelligible. That's how all songs sound like to me.)

The upshot is that this song sounded exactly like most songs sound like to me. It didn't sound like gibberish any more than any other song I hear. I even picked up actual words in the chorus (e.g. the repeated "All right!").

And I love listening to music. The lyrics just don't do much for me, because I rarely understand them. If I really like a song, I'll download the lyrics so I can find out what's being sung.
Old 05-14-2010, 09:17 PM
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I asked my wife this while English was still a relatively unpleasant experience for her.

She said that to her Brazilian-Portuguese-tuned ears it sounded choppy. Lots of breaks between words, in contrast to the more melodic flow of her native language.

I have long felt that our English rhythm is a challenge for new speakers to adopt. For lack of a better term, I have always imagined English as having an iambic rhythm (da DA da Da da Da da Da da Da...)

Now bordelond has provided me with better terms for this as well as proper cites.
Old 05-14-2010, 09:18 PM
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Originally Posted by lexi View Post
The best example I had ever seem was posted by someone else here a while back


http://boingboing.net/2009/12/17/gib...rock-song.html

Enjoy!
God, Adriano Celentano looks so much like Nicholas Cage.
Old 05-15-2010, 02:09 AM
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ROFL, that vid is great!

And as a native speaker of English, yeah, it does sound like English. Gibberish English, but the sound is right.
Amazingly like English, actually. The best description I can offer is that it sounds like something from Motown that I've never heard, played too softly to make out the words...only loud. It's weirdly impressive, as well as being hilarious.
Old 05-15-2010, 02:21 AM
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Originally Posted by bordelond View Post
That's not true -- there ARE distinct things that can stand out.
? That has nothing to do with what I said. If I'm standing here and my friend Bob is standing just East of me, by knowing that he's East, I know that I'm comparatively Westward from Bob's standpoint. If I know that Sally is West of me, then I'm comparatively Eastward from Sally's standpoint.
Old 05-15-2010, 02:22 AM
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Originally Posted by minor7flat5 View Post
I have long felt that our English rhythm is a challenge for new speakers to adopt. For lack of a better term, I have always imagined English as having an iambic rhythm (da DA da Da da Da da Da da Da...)
And it is one of the things which do vary between dialects: many native English speakers will "stop to breathe" in the middle of a word (actually, right before a stressed syllable), but it's very common in British English and Australian English, not so much in American dialects, and then you get the Jamaicans who just seem to turn every sentence into a single word (not everybody, and yes I'm conscious that people from the Isle of Skye don't speak like Mancunians).

This is something I understood when I heard about how English poetry metrics work: yes, you're iambic. In Spanish, Italian or French, verses are measured in terms of total syllables; in English, in terms of stressed syllables. Y'all use iambic pentameter, we use versos endecasílabos. An English speaker might pronounce that last word as "endecah (breathe in) SEElahbos", a Spanish or Italian speaker wouldn't even "come up for air" in the middle of esternocleidomastoideo.



Some dialects sound like there is one or maybe two vowels, too, and they're strange ones ("was that an a or an e?" "eeeh, neither" "what do you mean, neither?" "English vowels are different, they've got more" "argh!" "yeah... ").

Last edited by Nava; 05-15-2010 at 02:24 AM.
Old 05-15-2010, 11:17 AM
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To an English-speaking listener, a Spanish speaker is uttering an unusually long and unbroken stream of consecutive "stressed" syllables.
That's exactly right, and now I know why! Thanks!


Interesting! I hear iambic stressed syllables and long vowels.
Old 05-15-2010, 12:06 PM
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Misha misha misha.
Why are you calling my cat? What's he got to do with the OP?
Old 05-15-2010, 01:28 PM
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Originally Posted by Nava View Post
Some dialects sound like there is one or maybe two vowels, too, and they're strange ones ("was that an a or an e?" "eeeh, neither" "what do you mean, neither?" "English vowels are different, they've got more" "argh!" "yeah... ").
The most distinctive thing is that English has so many vowels, and in particular lax vowels which are not so prolific in most European languages. Also, what many languages produce as "pure" diphthongs, SAE issues like a single sound. Those dialects of English, however, (such as Southern US), will often stretch them out and "accentuate" the upper and lower production areas in the mouth.

What that Italian guy is doing to sound like English most of all, I think, is to emphasize the lax vowels on top of the stress-timed nature of the language. I think, in fact, that that has a lot to do with the distinctive sound to the vocals in English-language pop music.
Old 05-15-2010, 02:33 PM
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Are you sure English vowels are actually lax? I thought it was the 5 vowel languages (like Spanish, I think) where you could get away with pronouncing a single vowel in different ways and still get your meaning across. Is Serbo-Croat a 5 vowel language? I once had a discussion with a Croat who just could not hear the difference between 'pin' and 'pen'. I'm Scottish and I might say those words very differently from someone from Louisiana or New Zealand, but I think we'd all be able to tell one from another in each other's dialect.

My point is that subtle differences in pronunciation of vowels in English, which may not be audible to many learners, make for big differences in meaning.
Old 05-15-2010, 03:09 PM
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Originally Posted by Scheidt-Hoch View Post
Are you sure English vowels are actually lax? I thought it was the 5 vowel languages (like Spanish, I think) where you could get away with pronouncing a single vowel in different ways and still get your meaning across. Is Serbo-Croat a 5 vowel language? I once had a discussion with a Croat who just could not hear the difference between 'pin' and 'pen'. I'm Scottish and I might say those words very differently from someone from Louisiana or New Zealand, but I think we'd all be able to tell one from another in each other's dialect.

My point is that subtle differences in pronunciation of vowels in English, which may not be audible to many learners, make for big differences in meaning.
If the pronunciation is different, it's a different vowel, but I'm not talking about phonemes. And that's in large part why you understand the folks in Louisiana.

Yes, many English phonemes are lax. That's exactly one of the problems facing your Croat friend. (Perhaps being Scottish you might not perceive it, though--and context will inform comprehension anyway.)
Old 05-15-2010, 03:32 PM
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My Spanish wife says English sounds "nice, nicer than my own language sounds to me. Musical, because before I ever understood English I related it to the songs I heard and liked."
Old 05-15-2010, 03:42 PM
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Originally Posted by Cyningablod View Post
... For example, to me, Russian sounds dark and harsh, yet at the same time, velvety and melodious. German to me sounds terse, brusque, and biting, but also rather sing-songy. ...
am i the only one who don't understand how something can at once be harsh yet melodious, terse yet sing-songy?
Old 05-15-2010, 03:48 PM
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Guizot, I think you misunderstand me. As native English speakers we are used to distinguishing a large number (up to 20 perhaps?) of subtly different vowels. That is why we can easily hear the difference between 'pin' and 'pen' in a variety of English dialects, even if one person's 'pin' actually sounds closer to your own 'pen'; their 'pen' will still be distinguishable. Whereas a non native speaker might not be able to distinguish any of these pairs.

Perhaps what I'm having difficulty with is the use of the word 'lax' - is this a technical usage? Like I say, it implies to me that you can get away with pronouncing a vowel in a number of ways and still be understood within your own dialect; I do not believe this is the case in English. If anything it's the opposite; if I say to someone "put the pin by the peg and put the pen by the pig" I will be understood 98% of the time by someone from the same area as me, but a non native speaker might not be able distinguish any of the 4 crucial vowels. That suggests to me that I am in fact being very precise, not lax, in my pronunciation. I don't think being Scottish makes any difference, all native English speakers have an accent - like I say we might not understand what another native speaker means but we can still distinguish similar sounding words.

Or are you using 'lax' to describe the wide range of ways of pronouncing the same word across the various dialects and accents of English?
Old 05-15-2010, 04:00 PM
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Originally Posted by Scheidt-Hoch View Post
Are you sure English vowels are actually lax? I thought it was the 5 vowel languages (like Spanish, I think) where you could get away with pronouncing a single vowel in different ways and still get your meaning across. Is Serbo-Croat a 5 vowel language? I once had a discussion with a Croat who just could not hear the difference between 'pin' and 'pen'. I'm Scottish and I might say those words very differently from someone from Louisiana or New Zealand, but I think we'd all be able to tell one from another in each other's dialect.

My point is that subtle differences in pronunciation of vowels in English, which may not be audible to many learners, make for big differences in meaning.
That reminds me of when I was in Japan, and there was a Japanese word that had what would be close to our "e" sound, but the people there didn't seem to pronounce it consistently (I forget what the word was now). I asked my Japanese friend whether it was supposed to be an "ay" sound (as in 'mane') or an "eh" sound (as in 'men'). She said, "I don't hear any difference".
Old 05-15-2010, 04:03 PM
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Originally Posted by asian_riff View Post
That reminds me of when I was in Japan, and there was a Japanese word that had what would be close to our "e" sound, but the people there didn't seem to pronounce it consistently (I forget what the word was now). I asked my Japanese friend whether it was supposed to be an "ay" sound (as in 'mane') or an "eh" sound (as in 'men'). She said, "I don't hear any difference".
Indeed; correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Japanese is a 5 vowel language.
Old 05-15-2010, 04:19 PM
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Originally Posted by Scheidt-Hoch View Post
Indeed; correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Japanese is a 5 vowel language.
I'm pretty sure that's right. They actually don't have vowels at all; they have phonemes. We interpret the phonemes as a consonant followed by a vowel, but it's a single sound to them. It was my experience that Japanese-speakers were unable to pronounce English words that ended with a consonant, without adding an extra vowel sound to the end of the word. In fact, many didn't even seem to hear the consonant without a vowel following it.
Old 05-15-2010, 04:29 PM
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Originally Posted by lexi View Post
The best example I had ever seem was posted by someone else here a while back


http://boingboing.net/2009/12/17/gib...rock-song.html

Enjoy!
First, that does sound like English!
Second, after listening to all the versions of this "translated" I'm sure I will have this stuck in my head all weekend.
Old 05-15-2010, 05:45 PM
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On the English vowel thing, I remember trying to teach some Chinese neighbours to hear the difference among Mary, merry and marry. No matter how much I tried, they couldn't hear the difference at all.

And a Portuguese friend to whom I once posed the question in the OP said English sounded like it was spoken with a "fat tongue"- I guess it's all the th sounds - this, thing, think, that, thought, the, thorough - were what he was picking up on.
Old 05-15-2010, 06:03 PM
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Originally Posted by Scheidt-Hoch View Post
Guizot, I think you misunderstand me. As native English speakers we are used to distinguishing a large number (up to 20 perhaps?) of subtly different vowels. That is why we can easily hear the difference between 'pin' and 'pen' in a variety of English dialects, even if one person's 'pin' actually sounds closer to your own 'pen'; their 'pen' will still be distinguishable. Whereas a non native speaker might not be able to distinguish any of these pairs.

Perhaps what I'm having difficulty with is the use of the word 'lax' - is this a technical usage? Like I say, it implies to me that you can get away with pronouncing a vowel in a number of ways and still be understood within your own dialect; I do not believe this is the case in English. If anything it's the opposite; if I say to someone "put the pin by the peg and put the pen by the pig" I will be understood 98% of the time by someone from the same area as me, but a non native speaker might not be able distinguish any of the 4 crucial vowels. That suggests to me that I am in fact being very precise, not lax, in my pronunciation. I don't think being Scottish makes any difference, all native English speakers have an accent - like I say we might not understand what another native speaker means but we can still distinguish similar sounding words.

Or are you using 'lax' to describe the wide range of ways of pronouncing the same word across the various dialects and accents of English?
To me, what's "lax" about our vowels is that we let them vary a lot. Sure, when it's crucial to understanding, we'll keep the vowel sounds more exact, but not always.

And I think you are thinking about the wrong words. The most lax sounds are in unaccented syllables. We convert a lot of vowels into this lax, indescript sound called a schwa. We have to accent a syllable to clarify the vowel being used.

And the reason why Scottish is different is that the accent seems to actually distinguish between the vowel. A common example is that ir, er, ur, or, and ar all sound different in Scottish, but the same in most other varieties of English.
Old 05-15-2010, 06:37 PM
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On the English vowel thing, I remember trying to teach some Chinese neighbours to hear the difference among Mary, merry and marry. No matter how much I tried, they couldn't hear the difference at all.
Not sure if this is a joke. In California, those 3 words are pronounced identically.
Old 05-15-2010, 06:48 PM
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I'm pretty sure that's right. They actually don't have vowels at all; they have phonemes. We interpret the phonemes as a consonant followed by a vowel, but it's a single sound to them. It was my experience that Japanese-speakers were unable to pronounce English words that ended with a consonant, without adding an extra vowel sound to the end of the word. In fact, many didn't even seem to hear the consonant without a vowel following it.
A phoneme is a vowel or a consonant, never a combination of the two.

Japanese does have vowels and consonants. In Japanese, almost every syllable consists in a single consonant followed by a single vowel. (Some syllables end with a nasal consonantal sound.)

Japanese people tend to add a Japanese 'u' sound to the end of English words (and syllables) that end in a consonant because their native language usually doesn't allow a syllable to end with a consonant. But it's not because they somehow can't hear a consonant unless it's got a vowel after it. They can hear it, they're just not used to it.
Old 05-15-2010, 06:49 PM
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Not sure if this is a joke. In California, those 3 words are pronounced identically.
I assume there are dialects where these are different, but this Texan tongue makes no such distinction.
Old 05-15-2010, 07:09 PM
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Not sure if this is a joke. In California, those 3 words are pronounced identically.
Seconded, or whatever. I'm from Connecticut.
Old 05-15-2010, 08:58 PM
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Originally Posted by Frylock View Post
A phoneme is a vowel or a consonant, never a combination of the two. Japanese does have vowels and consonants. In Japanese, almost every syllable consists in a single consonant followed by a single vowel. (Some syllables end with a nasal consonantal sound.
)
Hmmm...I looked it up and phoneme was defined as "The smallest phonetic unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinction in meaning". The Westernized spellings use a vowel and consonant for each of the sounds, but when Japanese characters are used, it is a single character representing the entire sound, and cannot be broken up into smaller parts: ra, ri, ru, re, ro, for example, are basic sounds and cannot be broken up into their constituent "consonant" and "vowel" sounds, because the concepts of consonant and vowel, or "spelling", for that matter, do not exist in the language. At least that is my understanding.
Quote:

Japanese people tend to add a Japanese 'u' sound to the end of English words (and syllables) that end in a consonant because their native language usually doesn't allow a syllable to end with a consonant. But it's not because they somehow can't hear a consonant unless it's got a vowel after it. They can hear it, they're just not used to it.
They don't just add a 'u''; they transform the final syllable into katakana, using one of the syllables of their language. It might be a 'u' sound or an 'o' sound or whatever the sound of the syllable they are using. English words are sounded out phonetically using their own syllablic language, in a similar way to which we would say Spanish, French, or German words using our own English pronunciation of the letters.

Obviously, I meant they can't hear it because they're not used to it. What did you think I meant, that they have a genetic inability to hear consonants? Ha, ha! Do you think I'm an idiot?
Old 05-15-2010, 10:06 PM
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)
Hmmm...I looked it up and phoneme was defined as "The smallest phonetic unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinction in meaning". The Westernized spellings use a vowel and consonant for each of the sounds, but when Japanese characters are used, it is a single character representing the entire sound, and cannot be broken up into smaller parts: ra, ri, ru, re, ro, for example, are basic sounds and cannot be broken up into their constituent "consonant" and "vowel" sounds, because the concepts of consonant and vowel, or "spelling", for that matter, do not exist in the language. At least that is my understanding.

They don't just add a 'u''; they transform the final syllable into katakana, using one of the syllables of their language. It might be a 'u' sound or an 'o' sound or whatever the sound of the syllable they are using. English words are sounded out phonetically using their own syllablic language, in a similar way to which we would say Spanish, French, or German words using our own English pronunciation of the letters.

Obviously, I meant they can't hear it because they're not used to it. What did you think I meant, that they have a genetic inability to hear consonants? Ha, ha! Do you think I'm an idiot?
Your understanding agrees with mine. I don't know if that means anything....
Old 05-15-2010, 10:23 PM
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Originally Posted by Noel Prosequi View Post
On the English vowel thing, I remember trying to teach some Chinese neighbours to hear the difference among Mary, merry and marry. No matter how much I tried, they couldn't hear the difference at all.
If you really do pronounce those three differently then you're doing something wrong.
Old 05-15-2010, 10:39 PM
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Originally Posted by Chakra Nadmara View Post
If you really do pronounce those three differently then you're doing something wrong.
Nonsense. "Marry" and "merry", at least, are definitely distinct from one another in my dialect (Louisiana native, long-term Texas resident), though the distinction is somewhat subtle. The middle of "marry" sounds like "air", and the middle of "merry" sounds like "err", if that helps. If not, the best I can describe it is as a slight drop in pitch between the "a" and the "r" in "marry" that is not present in "merry".

"Mary" is a little trickier to distinguish, because it sort of falls in between the other two, but it the difference is usually noticeable.
Old 05-15-2010, 11:15 PM
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All three are the same in my dialect. And 'air' sounds exactly like 'err'. So that doesn't help. What would help is links to sound files.
Old 05-15-2010, 11:42 PM
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Originally Posted by asian_riff View Post
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Hmmm...I looked it up and phoneme was defined as "The smallest phonetic unit in a language that is capable of conveying a distinction in meaning".
That definition is just about the same as the one given in The Handbook of the International Phonetic Association (Here I actually quote Wikipedia quoting that text...) According to them, a phoneme is

Quote:
the smallest segmental unit of sound employed to form meaningful contrasts between utterances.
Both of these definitions imply that, in Japanese, sounds like "ka" and "sa" are not phonemes. For the difference between the "k" in "ka" and the "s" in "sa" is enough to convey a "distinction in meaning," or a "meaningful contrast between utterances." The phonemes, then, are the "k" and the "s". (If they were not phonemes, then Japanese speakers would not make a distinction between, for example, the utterance "kono" and the utterance "sono". But those are two different words in Japanese. Finding pairs of words like this is called finding "minimal pairs" and it's one of the ways phonemes are identified.)
Old 05-16-2010, 12:15 AM
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Originally Posted by Balance View Post
Nonsense. "Marry" and "merry", at least, are definitely distinct from one another in my dialect (Louisiana native, long-term Texas resident), though the distinction is somewhat subtle. The middle of "marry" sounds like "air", and the middle of "merry" sounds like "err", if that helps. If not, the best I can describe it is as a slight drop in pitch between the "a" and the "r" in "marry" that is not present in "merry".

"Mary" is a little trickier to distinguish, because it sort of falls in between the other two, but it the difference is usually noticeable.
I pronounce "marry" and "merry" somewhat differently, as you note, but "Mary" and "marry" are the same when I say them.
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