The hills are alive with the sound of English

english_flagHave you ever wondered what English sounds like? I do. Sometimes when I’m sitting on a train or a bus hearing English around me I try to “blur” my ears so that I can imagine what it sounds like to be hearing the language as a foreigner. It’s similar to the way sometimes I blur my vision when looking an artwork and then refocus. It can help sometimes to see the composition in a new light. But with sound, it doesn’t completely work, because it is near impossible to separate meaning from the sounds. You can close your mouth, your eyes, nostrils, and avoid touch, but you can’t avoid direct sound. Likewise, you can’t avoid meaning. You can in fact saturate a single word with meaning until it is just a sound, but to do that with a whole language is an almighty task. So how can us English speakers hear our own language without understanding it? It’s difficult, but there are ways.

I’m interested in the sound of English because first of all I’m a writer and I love words. I’m also an English teacher, and I have a passion for music and therefore the melody of language. I’ve studied linguistics and a bit of Italian, Dutch, and Czech. I even wrote a short story about a Scotsman who develops a sudden case of xenoglossia. What is xenoglossia you might ask? It is the phenemona of a person forgetting their own native tongue and adopting a completely different language that they before had no understanding of. There are reported cases of people having a remarkable new fluency in another language after severe accidents involving an impact to the head. It makes you wonder about the possibilities of the brain. It seems these people have somehow subconsciously absorbed the foreign language, and in their head it has laid dormant until the accident has reset their balance of their subconscious abilities. When I hear romance languages such as French or Spanish I have an idea of the people and the culture based on the sounds of the language. I have an image based on sound. To me, these languages sound beautiful, just like music, and it makes me wonder what English sounds like. Is it just as beautiful? I think of it as a mongrel language, a mix of many influences – then does it sound more German, or French, or Latin? More and more it is absorbing other versions of itself like an out of control amoeba, and the sound of English is changing. What does it really sound like? I wish I could develop a sudden case of xenoglossia to see for myself.

Of course the sound of a language is to some extent up to personal taste. I’ve heard a lot of people comment on how ugly the Dutch language is, but personally, I think Dutch is beautiful. I actually like the guttural “ggggghhghghghhhhhrgrggggg”. Dutch is relevant to English because of it’s close similarity. Yet even closer is Frisian (spoken in Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands). It is the closest language to English (think of them as twin sisters) and in general, people who speak Frisian can understand more of a text in Old English on sight than modern native English speakers. Old English is what our language used to sound like before it became the monstrous lingua franca that it is today. English sounds closer to Frisian than any other language, so to get an idea of the sound of English it is a good place to start. To me that’s not a bad thing, but considering the amount people who baulk at the Dutch guttural “gggh”, and the fact that Frisian is directly in between English and it’s cousin Dutch, this may mean that non-English speakers think our language is not inherently beautiful.

Seeing as the chances of developing xenoglossia are (thankfully) quite slim, it is necessary to find another way to hear English as a foreigner. I stumbled across a video recently on YouTube that originally aired on Italian television, and it gives an example of what American English sounds like to a foreigner who can’t speak the language. The lyrics are complete gibberish designed to replicated the sound of the language. The weird thing is that the brain naturally tries to make sense of nonsense and so at times I feel convinced that I can hear actual sentences in the video. I think everyone has had a time in their life when they got the lyrics to a famous song hilariously wrong. I recall the song “Blue” many years ago – the chorus is so indecipherable that everyone that heard it had their own personal mistaken interpretation of the lyrics. In fact, the chorus is not really words but sounds “da ba dee da ba di”. Other songs that are open to lyrical interpretation are Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, and Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friends. Interestingly, in 1965 the FBI began an investigation into the song Louie Louie amid allegations of the lyrics being obscene and after two years reported that the lyrics were “unintelligible at any speed”. In a short story I wrote titled “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (which was coincidentally a recent blog post) the main character has the interesting quirk of getting the lyrics of songs very wrong, and I used the song Louis Louis in the soundtrack I created for it. I love these songs, but I have to admit the lyrics are mostly gibberish when sung. It gives you an idea of what (drunk) English sounds like, but not what fluent English sounds like. At least with this Italian video, although it is gibberish, you can feel free to hear whatever you like in the lyrics and no one will blame you. The song is actually really catchy, and the choreography is impressive. But do Italians really dance like that?

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