Raymond’s subjective, biased, unfair, and completely wrong characterization of the sounds of several East Asian (and one Southeast Asian) languages


Hokkien: This is the language I learned first, so to me it sounds perfectly normal and is in fact how languages should sound. I find it odd that people describe it as one of the more difficult languages to learn. I mean, sure it has a large tone repertoire (eight theoretical, though only seven in practice) and extensive tone sandhi, but that's what makes it beautiful and smooth. And what's so hard about having unvoiced aspirated consonants, unvoiced unaspirated consonants, and voiced consonants?

Mandarin: Mandarin is the German of East Asian languages: It is harsh and unforgiving. There are only four formal tones (though there are technically more if you include all the different types of neutral tones), and it really likes the s- and sh-sounds. (The sounds z, c, s, j, q, x, zh, ch, and sh, as denoted by Pinyin, all correspond to some variation of s and sh.) To me, Mandarin sounds like dictionaraoke: Syllables strung together with no attempt to make them flow into each other smoothly. (Though as I started to learn the language, the tones stopped bothering me quite so much.)

Mandarin with Beijing accent: Beijing accent is Mandarin as spoken by Scooby-Doo. More precisely, pronounce your consonants with your tongue pulled back in R position, and touching the roof of your mouth. For example, instead of saying "chair", you say "chrair". They are also known for a phenomenon known as Erhua ("R-ization") which appends the "R" sound to many words for no apparent reason.

The funny thing is that people in Beijing think that the R sound is so awesome that words sound empty without it, so they stick it everywhere they can. On the other hand, everybody else thinks the R sound is ugly and try to avoid it as much as possible.

Phenomenon English word Pronunciaton
Beijing Non-Beijing
Omitting the R sound Flower 花兒
huā+R

huā
Substituting a synonym Where 哪兒
nǎ+R
哪裡
nǎli

Of course, people outside Beijing look at the table the other way:

Phenomenon English word Pronunciaton
Non-Beijing Beijing
Inserting a useless R sound Flower
huā
花兒
huā+R
Substituting a synonym that uses the R sound Where 哪裡
nǎli
哪兒
nǎ+R

Since Beijing is the capital of China, the Beijing accent is the official pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese, even though most people think it's ugly. (Imagine if all schools taught German in Berlin accent!)

Japanese: Japanese is the Spanish of East Asian languages: It is spoken on fast-forward. One person described the sound of Japanese spoken by a group of schoolgirls as resembling a flock of chirping birds, a poetic description I wholeheartedly endorse.

Korean: Korea sounds like a flat version of Japanese, with relatively little pitch variation. Basically, if I think something is Japanese, but then listen more closely and realize that it isn't, then it's probably Korean.

Cantonese: The tones of colloquial Cantonese initially bugged me even more than Mandarin. Cantonese also has seven theoretical tones (or more, if you count clipped tones separately), although one of the tones is dying out, and most books don't bother teaching it any more. As I continue to learn Cantonese, the tones don't bother me quite so much.

But what continues to bug me is that, particularly when spoken by women, phrases often end with a final syllable (which usually rhymes with "aah") that is held for a long time, at middle level or high level tone. Here are links to one phrase end (timecode 16s) and another (timecode 28s) and two in a row (timecode 52s). These "sentence final particles" usually carry no formal meaning but rather serve to convey attitude and emotion. For example, they can turn a direct order into a polite request or turn an accusatory question into a curious one. I'm not good with these particles, so my speech tends to come across as brusque.

Vietnamese: Vietnamese is the language Gilbert Gottfried would have invented, if he were asked to invent an Asian language. Okay, formal Vietnamese isn't so bad, although the tones sound awkward to me. But more conversational Vietnamese sounds more nasal.

I may end up creating an international incident here, heck I may already have created one, but I'm curious what languages sound like to people from neighboring areas. (For example, the Swedes complain, "The Danes would be much easier to understand if they took the potato out of their mouth.") Or go ahead and make fun of American English. Share your thoughts in the comments.

Comments (37)
  1. Rick C says:

    "They are also known for a phenomenon known as Erhua ("R-ization") which appends the "R" sound to many words for no apparent reason."

    So it's the opposite of a Bostonian accent.

  2. Rick C says:

    That first Korean video sounds stilted to me–or more accurately, it sounds like typical Star Trek/scifi alien speak.  If you listen to those shows, you realize that made up languages don't generally have sandhi (if I'm using that term correctly) so it usually sounds like people are saying one word at a time, with micro-pauses between each word.  You especially notice it with Klingon, but you see it a lot.  You can usually tell when a movie's gone the extra mile to have designed a made-up alien language that flows the way a native speaker of any given real language would speak it.

    (If that's not clear, imagine the parody of the way Captain Kirk speaks, with pauses between each couple of words.)

  3. Mashmagar says:

    ""They are also known for a phenomenon known as Erhua ("R-ization") which appends the "R" sound to many words for no apparent reason."

    So it's the opposite of a Bostonian accent."

    I'm always thrown by New Englanders (including Boston) adding the missing R to other words, such as idea => idear. I hear it as iDeer. Perhaps it's an apple product…

  4. Ben says:

    Your description of Beijing accent is how Australians describe rhotic accents like American.

  5. Ben says:

    "Mandarin as spoken by Scooby-Doo". Can't. Stop. Laughing.

  6. Azarien says:

    @John C: perhaps because Portuguese and Polish are both rich in s/sh/ch sounds and their variations. Which, of course, sounds perfectly normal and natural to me (I'm Polish). On the other hand, Czech language sounds ridiculously funny to us. Like child speak.

  7. buntklicker.de says:

    In all fairness, the standard form of German as heard on national public television is pretty close to how people speak in Berlin, because we Berliners tend to not use dialect as much as people from, for example, Munich or Frankfurt would. :-)

    [I was referring more to the Berlin accent rather than dialect. For example, "kein" is pronounced like "keen" in Berlin. -Raymond]
  8. Joshua Ganes says:

    As an English-speaking western Canadian, I find it a little crazy that I can barely understand some English-speaking eastern Canadians. Hey Newfoundlanders, what's up with your accent?

  9. anyfoo says:

    @buntklicker.de: people in Munich tend to speak about as much dialect as people in Berlin, if not less. There's only a little Bavarian here and there, and I'm curious whether you couldn't spend days in Munich without hearing a single person really speaking Bavarian.

    I think that most people who grew up in Munich will inevitably use some Bavarian expression at least once in a while, but that's typically just little colloquialisms embedded in a stream that mostly consists of "Hochdeutsch", which is the official and entirely undialected German.

  10. Ondra says:

    @Azarien: Heh, Slovak sounds like child speak to us Czechs. To continue the trend of oversimplified language descriptions, Slovak is Czech with háčeks sprinkled everywhere (≈ everything is unnecessarily palatalized).

  11. jeff says:

    "I'm always thrown by New Englanders (including Boston) adding the missing R to other words, such as idea => idear. I hear it as iDeer. Perhaps it's an apple product…"

    It's the Conservation of Final 'R's Rule. e.g., "In China they eat lobster" renders as "In Chiner they eat lobstah". The final r's are preserved. (China is a town in Maine, btw).

  12. Lee C. says:

    Could it be possible that New Englanders are using some kind of "half-R" sound in both places? Like this: "In China(r/2) they eat lobste(r/2)."

    We then interpret the half-R as a full R in the places we don't expect to hear an R at all, and as the absence of an R in the places we expect to hear a full R. Is that possible?

  13. RP7 says:

    I don't know about in New England, but here in England, non-rhotic accents (which is most English accents except for the southwest) exhibit these characteristics: (a) the "r" is usually reintroduced if adding it will avoid two vowels coming together, so while "lobster" is pronounced the same as "lobstuh", "the lobster is" will tend to have the "r" pronounced because it's easier to say that way; (b) an "r" is sometimes added in similar circumstances where it doesn't exist in the spelling, so "the comma is" pronounced quickly might become "the commer is".  The latter feature is stigmatised to some extent, but most of the time, very few people even notice it.

    For me as a Brit, the key characteristics of American speech are: (1) the pronunciation of the "r"s, (2) the conversation of short "o" into a sound equivalent to "ah", so that "father" has the same vowel as "bother", and (3) the transformation of intervocalic "t" into "d", so that "better" and "bedder" sound identical.

    In America many speeches use identical words for "Mary", "merry" and "marry" – three separate distinct vowels in England – so American vowels tend to sound lazy.  

  14. RP7 says:

    Sorry, that should say: …speakers use identical vowels…

  15. Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson says:

    In addition to your swedes-about-danes example I'd add the following thought that I as a Swede hold:

    Norwegian sounds so widdly cute that it gets hard to take them seriously.

    [I hadn't thought about it that way, but you're right! -Raymond]
  16. Jim says:

    For the Korean sounds more like Mongolian than Japanese. Espercially the way North Korean people speak.

  17. Nick says:

    This may be a silly question, but do you find keeping things straight between multiple Asian languages much more difficult than say, between German and English? Or is learning a language more or less the same for you regardless of the similarities (or lack thereof) between others you know?

    @RP7

    As a American in the mountain-west with the classical American accent (that is, it's what you hear in popular movies and TV), the "blurred" "t" sounds drive me nuts.  My pet peeve is "Internet" which is usually pronounced like "Innernet", but it seems to affect a lot of words where making the "t" sound requires the briefest of pauses.

    I don't know what the proper name is for it, but I enjoy what I'll call the "popular" British accent (like that of the Top Gear guys).  It seems to have a softer feel which isn't at all unpleasant.

    [I don't know why, but I don't get Asian languages confused like I do European ones. -Raymond]
  18. pmbAustin says:

    Having grown up in between them, with friends & relatives in each place… I find Wisconsin vs. Boston accents to be fascinating.  As described before, Boston folk drop R's almost everywhere, except where they add them unnecessarily (like "idear").  While Wisconsin folk tend to over-emphasize their "r" sounds to a comical degree.  The movie "Fargo" was not exaggerating.  Instead of "Pahk the Cah" (in Boston), it's "pARk the cARR".  And then they add "Oh yah" to everything, which is completely devoid of 'r' sounds.  Maybe we have conservation of 'r' operating here too in a different way… to make up for the over-emphasis of "r" sounds elsewhere (especially the "AR" combination), they pepper the language with tiny meaningless and unnecessary phrases utterly devoid of "r" sounds.

    I dunno, it's just funny.  Of course, I grew up in Ohio where people insist on sticking an "R" into the word "wash" -> "Warsh your clothes!", but never really say things like "idear".  It's a weird mélange.

  19. Anon says:

    Raymond: I just watched a very relevant skit by Russell Peters you may find entertaining. movies.netflix.com/…/70225030

  20. Miff says:

    German to be seems to be an experiment in seeing how many syllables can fit in the average sentence.

    French, on the other hand, is an experiment in seeing how many syllables can be slurred together.

  21. John C says:

    When I first heard (European) Portuguese being spoken, I thought it sounded like Russian (lots of "k" sounds :-). Until, that is, a Russian colleague informed me that it sounded *nothing* like Russion, and more like Polish :-)

  22. Mike C says:

    Here's a song in Italian gibberish that's written to sound like how English sounds to an Italian speaker.  It's called "Prisencolinensinainciusol" http://www.youtube.com/watch

    [Here's English gibberish from a native English-speaker. I remember an interview where he explained that he had to carefully memorize the entire speech, because it turns out that it's hard to ad-lib gibberish. -Raymond]
  23. Mike C says:

    Ignore the last YouTube link by me, the subtitles were added by a third party later with a best guess of what he's saying, and they take away from the experience.  This version is without the subtitles:  http://www.youtube.com/watch

  24. Gabe says:

    pmbAustin: Did you grow up in rural Ohio? I grew up in Cleveland, and have never heard anybody from there (or Cincy, or Columbus) say "warsh". In fact, I always assumed that Ohioans had regular Midwest accents (the kind you hear on TV).

    It wasn't until I was in high school that I learned there are people who pronounce the state "Uh-HI-uh".

  25. John says:

    I think Raymond broke dictionaraoke. This is why I'd never rely on cloud services such as Dropbox…

  26. Drak says:

    Cantonese: so that's why in the marketplace in Hong Kong you (used to?) hear lots of '-aah' sounds. The louder the better of course! Hiyaaaaah!

  27. Liquorice says:

    I live in Hong Kong and I speak Cantonese with Hong Kong accent. I would say that the function of the final syllable depends on the context.

    For example compare the following: (I am marking the pronunciation in my own way to make it easier to imagine the pronunciation)

    坐 (ch-o 5): 坐->sit, so the whole sentence is "sit", usage is similar to English, like when a boss orders his underling to ask

    請坐 (ch-ing 2 ch-o 5): 請->please, so the whole sentence is "please sit", usage is similar to English

    坐丫 (ch-o 5 ah 1): 丫->meaningless syllable, 丫 makes the tone become casual, when combined with order, it usually turns the order to an invitation

    坐啦 (ch-o 5 lah 1): 啦->meaningless syllable, 啦 makes the tone become casual, when combined with order, it usually turns the order to a suggestion

    And consider the following, which the same syllables have another function:

    好 (hao 2): 好->good/ok, usage is similar to English when agreeing with a suggestion

    好丫 (hao 2 ah 1): 丫->meaningless syllable, 丫 makes the tone become casual, in some cases it implies a higher degree of "agree"

    好啦 (hao 2 lah 1): 啦->meaningless syllable, 啦 makes the tone become casual, in some cases it implies that one has to agree with no other choices

    I must also emphasize that the usage of these final syllables varies with different people and regions. That's why you use them with friends but not with strangers. It is OK if you do not use these syllables, you can use other means to present your politeness, like using 請 (ch-ing 2, meaning "please" in an order, or "may I ask that" in 請問)

  28. Daev says:

    Oh man, Raymond, you have to explore the Essentialist Language List, put together by academic linguists after a particularly drunken evening of Chinese food (the official post-conference dinner of Linguistics).  If you know the languages in question you will find it highly amusing — or just amusing that anyone even knows those languages.

    home.ccil.org/…/essential.html

    * "Nunatsiavummiutut is essentially Inuktitut as spoken by someone without a uvula"

    * "Tamil is Welsh spoken by a Sri Lankan auctioneer underwater"

    * "Old Church Slavonic is essentially the language that comes out when the basses sing a low C."

  29. Frank says:

    Liquorice – I've never given it much thought about the "final syllable" until now even though I've been speaking Cantonese my whole life :) Well written comment!

  30. Liquorice says:

    My typo, should be "like when a boss orders his underling to *sit*", in my previous comment

    >Frank

    I had never thought about the "final syllable" so much until I read Raymond's article XD

  31. cheong00 says:

    To learn the pronounciation of Cantonese (not how to speak, just how to correctly say each word), the authoritative guide is "粵語拼音方案" which appears as appendix in most Chinese dictionary sold in Hong Kong (Or at least the "新雅" version that I used)

    And to complement Liquorice's post, when "坐啦" is said in unfriendly tone, it can mean "You're blocking my way" or "I think you're dumb and can't think of how you should behave here" depending on context. In fact there's lots of short sentence that can carry different meaning on the same tone depending on context.

  32. Liquorice says:

    I used my own way to mark the pronunciation instead of using any standard method because I was sooooooooooo lazy to get my dictionary. Thanks for mentioning that.

    And for short sentences like "坐啦", when they are spoken in an unfriendly tone, usually they come along with dirty language which I don't want to type.

    [To my beginner ear, "坐啦" can carry with it a sense of impatience. Like "Stop wasting time and sit down already." -Raymond]
  33. Rick says:

    How english sounds for Italians who don't speak it "Prisencolinensinainciusol" m.youtube.com/watch

    On a personal note, I sometimes try to imagine how dutch must sound in foreign ears.

  34. On-topic example for Korean (rap): Visual Studio Song

    http://www.youtube.com/watch

  35. Rick: I know English and German, and Dutch sounds to me if you'd mix the two languages and speak it with a unique accent :). But I like it actually.

    The weirdest accent I know: Cockney rhyming slang en.wikipedia.org/…/Cockney_rhyming_slang

    I cannot believe my _minces_!

    My _plates_ hurt. (after this Saturday's half marathon)

    BTW, I think Asian languages sound cool. If I had a 5 year vacation (after a 5 year vacation where I'd learn various programming languages and technologies) I'd learn Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese. Note that I would learn Spanish and Hindi too. I have to admit that when my Vietnamese roommate tried to teach 7 different Vietnamese tones, I had trouble to produce more than 5.

    And as a matter of fact my mother tongue is Hungarian, which is one of the most unique and coolest languages. One of my favorite features is that we not only not assign any genders to the nouns, but we don't even have separate he/she/it. In Latin and Germanic languages you have to learn that the 'chair' is male, the 'flower' is female and etc. Furthermore, you have to adjust *everything* to *everything*, depending on the gender you speak with, adjust verbs, it's just so much overhead information to think about. In Hungarian, you don't have to bother with the whole gender shebang. 99% of the time you don't care if a dog is male or female. And if the dog delivered puppies, it's obvious that she is a female. If you want to, you can explicitly refer to the gender in various ways.

    Another proof for coolness: you can speak correct Hungarian only using the vowel 'e', this is called Esperente en.wiktionary.org/…/eszperente (named from Esperanto language en.wiktionary.org/…/Esperanto). But that is only a language game, like expressing something only with words containing only one of the vowel's (a á e é i í o ó ö ő u ú ü ű), while you still preserve correctness. The accents look like a downside, but it's not, once you read something, you can be 100% sure how to pronounce it, it's straight forward.

  36. JeffGer says:

    Faroese == Drunken Icelandic

    My native language is American English but I've been studying Icelandic for a year and a half.  On a whim I decided to listen to a radio station in the Faroe Islands to hear their language.  My first impression was that I should be understanding what I'm hearing but it was just out of reach in the same way if someone has had way too much to drink while I'm listening to my own American English.

    The Danes invaded the Faroe Islands and suppressed the natives from speaking the same Old Norse that became what Icelanders speak today.  Faroese is indeed a unique sounding language.

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