Monday, November 19, 2012

Predicting if someone is Brazilian by how they speak English

One of my minor hobbies is trying to guess where people were born based on small details about them.

A fun way of doing this is with language. When people speak English (or any other language), they often subconsciously import assumptions about pronouncing words from their original tongue. Certain sounds will get pronounced in ways that sound slightly odd to a native English speaker, but are often correlated among people who grew up speaking a particular tongue, or from a particular region. The great OKH informed me that the study of this area is called 'phonotactics', so you might call me an amateur phonotactician

The latest one I cam across is a diagnostic for Brazilians. Like all linguistic tics, it's not universal, but it's reasonably predictive - it's neither necessary nor sufficient, but it's closer to being sufficient than it is to being necessary . It's the following:

Past tense verbs (e.g. words that end in 'ed'), they will sometimes pronounce the 'ed' as a hard sound.

So, for instance, the word 'combined', they'll sometimes pronounce as 'combine-ed', with the last sound being pronounced as in the start of 'education'.

I noticed this first in two Brazilians that I know, and confirmed it out of sample this weekend with another guy - he had dark brown hair and pale-ish skin with an accent that I couldn't easily place when I heard him giving a talk. He did the hard 'ed' sound in a talk, so I googled him and sure enough he was from Brazil.

The previous one (which I noted in the comments here, but which deserves its own post) is the following:

A strong diagnostic for Turkish people speaking English is that words that end in a hard 'r' they sometimes combine the 'r' with a 'zh' afterwards (think as in Dr Zhivago, or 'Jean-Claude' in the French pronunciation). So the word 'cover', they'll pronounce almost like 'coverj', if that makes sense. They won't do it all the time, so you often have to listen for a while before they'll do it. It's not uniquely Turkish - I've also come across it in one or two Eastern European groups, although I forget which. But it's a pretty strong predictor.

I've confirmed this across a few people, but I'll report to you soon an out of sample test - I heard my tailor say it the other day when I took in a suit to get adjusted. I'm going to ask him when I return, and we'll see if I'm right.

[Update]: Confirmed - he is indeed Turkish.

Correlations, baby. Though you throw them out with a pitchfork, yet they return.

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