What does English actually sound like?

By | 22:25 Leave a Comment
I'm going to begin with a confession of sorts: I am not a linguist.

I'm in the very lucky position that my native language is one that - nowadays - is popularised as a global from of communication. Of course, it wasn't always so. Back in history, the primary Eurocentric language of learning was Latin. By having a relatively common language that spread throughout Europe and even beyond, it allowed people of many different cultures and native languages to share ideas through a simple unified form of communication. As a 'dead' language, Latin was quite firmly set and widely understood. English, for the time being, seems to have taken Latin's place and it is thought that around 750 million people are thought to speak English as a foreign language. 

I've studied some languages at school and have unsuccessfully attempted to learn French, Spanish and even a little Japanese. The issue I had was one that is, I believe, shared by a lot of my native English speakers: without the necessity of using multiple languages in my everyday life the skills very quickly slip away. It's still my hope to learn (and retain) a foreign language in my future but, for the time-being, the prevalence of English as a language brings a rather curious question to mind: what does English actually sound like?

As an English speaker I always hear the languages of different countries as easily discernible accents. Within the English language itself there are also countless variations of accent: from South African to North-American to Welsh to Northern-English to West-Country English to 'R.P' English and more. But the form of how a language sounds is more than just accent. Wouldn't it be fascinating to take a step away from our comprehension of or own language and hear how we sound to other people?
As ever, Youtube answers our call with this brilliant little drama, 'Skwerl':

Using what can only be described as the language from the Sims (or Simlish) we can get an idea of the tone of how American-English sounds without the comprehension of the words.
(Also, as in my case, you can gradually drive yourself insane as you ask whether the guy actually once said 'Elton John' or whether you just imagined it.)

The Finnish Youtuber Sara took this to the next level, also comparing North-American and London-English alongside other languages like Finnish, East-Asian, French 'Not Russian but sort-of Slavish', Estonian and more.

Beauty seems to be in the ear of the beholder: for some British-English is 'fast' and 'aggressive', but for others it seems to 'flow' and have a certain music about it, which gives it a song-like appeal. For some, we don't seem to open our moths enough, making us sound like 'chickens', but for others English seems to sound 'refined'. Really, in the end, it depends on where you're from, what cultural assumptions link in with the language, and what you prefer.

Of course, English has never been a static language, and has evolved over time.
Even if we discount the way that slang and changing cultural trends affect the language today it has undergone some major changes.

As a lot of English's widespread use today is due to conquest, it is rather ironic that it's birth was the result of the country being invaded by outside forces too. Originally the inhabitants of England spoke a form of Celtic but as the country was invaded by the Germanic tribes in the 5th century ad, many native speakers were pushed West and North into what is now Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
Nowadays some of these languages still survive as the Goidelic and Brythonic branches of the Celtic language. For example, Manx is a Goidelic form of language that is still learnt on the Isle of Man, although the last truly native speaker -Brian Stowell - died in 1974. Welsh, perhaps the most well known Celtic language, belonged to the Brythonic branch and is still in common use today.

The invading tribes all had quite common languages, and these developed into the British 'Old English' which occupied the island between 450-1100ad. J.R.R Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and his love of the Mercian language (best known in Beowulf) influenced him heavily. You can see the influence of old English in the language and writing of the Elves. Nowadays, Old English is exceedingly difficult to comprehend to native modern-English speakers, but we still carry on many of the words that grew from it, such as 'water'.

Following on from Old English was Middle English which, again, was heavily influenced by another devastating invasion as William the Conqueror claimed England in 1066. French became the language of the royal court and so was very closley tied with class and power. Anyone aspiring to favour with the ruling classes would need to learn French and English was associated with the lower classes. Between 1100 and 1500 ad Middle English developed and, as English returned to some dominance in the 14th century, we can see it in its most well known from through the works of Chaucer.

"This parish clerk, this joly Absolon
Hath in his herte swich a love-longinge,
That of no wyf ne took he noon offringe;
For curteisye, he seyde, he wolde noon

As you can see (and as no doubt many a student has suffered through), the language was still one that is quite different to modern English as it is spoken today.

During the end of the Middle English phase 'The Great Vowel Shift' began, where there was a sudden and distinct change in pronunciation. For example the word 'Mice' changes from the pronunciation of mees into the high-i that we know today. As writing (and later printing) in these days was largely phonetic, this caused a great difference in the way the language was recorded. It is thought that this was due to a change in prestige and the desire to reinforce a new classism of language. As French was losing its prestiege a new English form of linguistic prestige was needed to easily display one's status. Alongside this, migrations from the Midlands put people into contact with Londoners this desire for a new verbal social status perhaps helped create this significant movement in pronunciation.

Early Modern English was the language of the sources that I studied in uni and, if you look closely at them, they are quite easy for a modern English speaker to understand. The greatest challenge was to get used to the font in the early printed works (and it's habit for using Ys for 'th' sounds and Us,Vs and Ws interchangeably). Once you have that conquered I found a handy (and somewhat ridiculous) way to 'cheat' your way into comprehension. Basically read aloud....and read it in a bad cornish or west-country accent. Yes, you will look like a berk, but things will be much easier to read.

The printing revolution gradually standardised spelling and grammar and, because London was the place that contained the most printing houses, the English language slotted in to fit with this London-based language form. In 1604 the first English dictionary was published and the whole process was made scholarly and formal.

 By the 1800s English's form was largely fixed and formed a solid base for the whole flurry of  new words that came with the Industrial Revolution. As Britain's power grew alongside the technological innovations, it was the island's turn to become the invading linguistic force and the language spread quickly with the British Empire. Now the empire has faded away and America has become one of the great cultural powers of the world. the influence of the language is following suit and evolving English into even more forms into the future.

So, in short, English is a pretty fascinating language from either perspective: as a native or as a non-native speaker.
What is your experience with it? Have you seen the language evolve audibly over time? 
Are you a non-native speaker and, if so, what does English sound like to you?
Have you had to suffer through any 'Ye Olde English' languages?

To finish things off, I leave you with Lily Allen's 'Smile' in Simlish, because you need Sim music videos in your life :)


-The Metro: How English sounds to foreign ears
-The British Council Statistics of English Language Users
-Why Speaking English Can Make You Poor When You Retire (BBC)
-Huffington Post
-Internet slang added to the Dictionary
-History of the English Language
-Celtic language by digital medievalist.net
-Tolkien and Old English
-The Great Vowel Shift
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