Language guessing

Whenever I hear an unfamiliar language, I try to guess which language it is, or least which language family it belongs to. I base my guesses not just on the language itself – the sounds, intontation and any words I recognise – but also on the appearance of the people speaking it, and the way they interact with one another.

There are currently many people from Eastern Europe in Brighton, particularly from Poland and the Czech Republic. As a result, I can usually identify a language as Slavic when I hear it, but can’t always work out which Slavic language it is.

Last week I met some people who were speaking a language I hadn’t heard before among themselves, and English with me. Judging by their appearance, I guessed that the language might be Hebrew or Arabic, though it didn’t sound like either. Yesterday I discovered that it was Farsi/Persian.

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6 Responses to Language guessing

  1. TJ says:

    Just a tip to identify persian or Farsi, is that they tend to make words sometimes longer (i mean in normal quiet conversation) …
    they have a tendency to make the letter Alef (when it is used as a long vowel A) …. they tend to make it more like “OA” like in “Boat”
    for example when a persian (this is what we usually hear here) wants to say “Uzbekistan” you would hear him say something like “oozbakistoan”

    in fact, when I listen or try to read some irish gaelic, i get some feeling that it is sometimes close to the sound of farsi and sometimes to indian!

    The characteristics mentioned above not necessarily only applied for persians but also there are other indo-iranian or indo-aryan languages that can behave something like that …………… like azeri … and maybe tajik (since it is so close to persian that for long scientists classified it as a dialect not a language separate from persian).

  2. AR says:

    I know some persian speakers and for “Iran” they say “eeROAN” with falling pitch on the stressed syllable. just as TJ described.

  3. AR says:

    Guessing languages is fun, but guessing writing systems and the languages they are used for is even more fun.

    I find it easier to distinguish the subfamily than the language itself. Chinese, Scandinavian, Slavic, Indic, Semitic. Languages that are commonly heard (on TV or in personal experience) are easy to distinguish such as French, Arabic, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, German, etc.

    Being of indian descent, I can identify an Indian language when I hear one. It may be interesting to note the strong difference between the sounds and intonations of the Indo-Aryan languages and the unrelated Dravidian languages. To me, Dravidian languages have a lot of repeated syllables, long words, many retroflex sounds, and little consonant clusters (except for nasal+stop). Take the city name Thiruvananthapuram. But then again, my Bengali language probably sounds like o-sho-sho-to-sho.

  4. Sean Flanagan says:

    What you’re describing in Persian is actually a vary back low “a” vowel, which is less like the “oa” in boat (at least for an American like me) as it is a very backed equivalent of “aw” in “saw”. Sometimes, when they’re adopting a poetic affect in their speech, Persians will stretch that sound out further to a very long, rounded dipthong “aaou”, making a line from Rumi like “did Musaa yek shebaani raa be raah” into “did Musaaou yek shebaauni raau be raau”. They’ll adopt this sound sometimes when they’re being facetiously pedantic.
    Also, just want to mention, that although Azeri is full of Persian and Arabic vocabulary, it is neither Semitic nor Indo-Iranian. It’s a Turkik language.

  5. TJ says:

    Thanks for the info!
    well im not quite good with language classification much

    I would say the vowel I was talkin about is something like the irish way to say the last “A” in “FlanagAn” …. I know it when I hear it but it’s kind of hard to describe vowels for me!! 🙂

  6. adi87 says:

    persian can have an ‘s’ sound followed by a ‘t’ sound in its words. Arabic or hebrew rarely do. So persian is indo-european, like english, french, hindi, russian, etc. whereas arabic and hebrew are semitic. there’s the difference

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