Monday, November 9

Language Ambiguity

Some time ago, I came across an old discussion on the Antimoon forums in which forum goers talk about how spoken Greek resembles Spanish. The forum topic starts off with a poster saying:
As many (or few) may know, Modern-Greek and Spanish are similar in pronunciation [...].
Someone in the forum links to this music video and asks others to listen to the song so that they can hear for themselves how similar Greek sounds to Spanish. I have to admit, that song serves as a prime example of the acoustic similarity of these two languages, making you feel as if you are supposed to understand what is being said, but you are unable to.
This is an observation I had made myself for quite some time with regards to Greek and European Spanish, about how they indeed sound similar. What is of interest here is how two geographically distant languages give the aural impression of being much more closely related.

To exemplify this, I have selected an audio sample for each language, which you will find below. I reviewed about two minutes of each clip presented; coincidentally, all these clips come from the Ugly Betty adaptions in each country.

Spanish, the Spanish from Central and Northern Spain, to be specific, and Greek sound superficially similar not only because of a similar phonetic inventory, but also because of the frequent occurrence of certain phonemes in both languages. These two languages posses the same set of five vowels [a e i o u], and a similar syllable structure, with words ending generally in a vowel, usually [e] or [o], or [s].
A very important aspect that aids in this superficial similarity is that, in Greek, the quality of /s/ is pronounced in a similar fashion to the typical /s/ of Northern/Central European Spanish, a type of /s/ that the untrained ear may hear as [ʃ]. Common to both languages as well are the series of fricatives [θ], [x~χ], [ð], [ɣ], and [ʝ], among other shared phonemes (see Modern Greek Phonology on Wikipedia).
Regarding the quality of /s/ in Greek, H. Foundalis writes on his website about the Greek language, his mother tongue:
[s], as in“soap”; a voiceless alveolar fricative. Actually, if you listen carefully to native Greek speakers, it sounds a bit between [s] and [sh] (probably because there is no [sh] in Greek, so the sound is somewhat shifted in the phonological space). However, to the native English ear it sounds much closer to [sh] than to [s], whereas every native Greek speaker would swear they pronounce it exactly like the English [s], unless forced to admit the difference by looking at spectrogram.
The very same is true for the quality of /s/ in Northern and Central Spain, and Foundalis himself makes a remark about it: This is the way “s” is pronounced in Castilian Spanish (as opposed to Latin American Spanish).

Greek Northern/Central Spanish

Moving on to another pair of a Romance language with a non-Latin one, all the arguments just discussed apply to European Portuguese and Russian as well. What is described above for Spanish and Greek has been exactly my experience regarding another Ibero-Romance language when hearing Russian in a crowded, noisy place: it sounds like European Portuguese. I get this anxious feeling of wanting to understand what is being said, but I can't; and I assume that I can't understand because of the noise. I have to get close and pay attention simply to confirm that it's Russian, doing this also as an experiment, about which I'm writing here.

In these languages, we find a high occurrence of [ʃ], the schwa-like [ɐ], the peculiar vowel [ɨ], and /l/ in a velarized or pharyngealized variety, [ɫ]. Not only that, but European Portuguese also shares with Russian unique consonant clusters, in Portuguese occurring due to the high frequency of vowel suppression.

Russian European Portuguese


Jim Morrison said...

I have always thought this about Greek and Spanish. I know these two languages are unrelated apart from both being indo-european, but I wonder if there is any historical reason for them sounding similar or is it just pure coincidence?
Also very interesting to hear the Russian and European Portuguese comparison.

John Cowan said...

Another pair is Dutch and English. When I was in the Netherlands for a month, I was constantly straining to understand public announcements (which after all are often hard to understand even when they're in English) before being snapped back to reality by the fact that I had no Dutch and might as well give up.

Here of course we are dealing not only with close genetic relatives, but ones that have been swapping spit for centuries.

vp said...

When I was in Brazil, I heard many Portuguese conversation fragments that could literally have been French.

For Russian vs. European Portuguese, the different articulation of the "R" sound (alveolar trill versus uvular) is a bit of a giveaway.

Anonymous said...

To Jim Morrison: the Spanish-Greek similarity is indeed coincidental. Most of the consonants Filius Lunae listed as common to the two languages did not exist in Old Spanish and only arose after the fifteenth/sixteenth centuries, at a time when we know neither language had any significant influence on the other.

The same is true of the Russian/European Portuguese similarities: the very fact that Brazilian Portuguese shares almost none of the common Portuguese/Russian phonetic features Filius Lunae listed shows how recently these common features arose in European Portuguese: recently enough that we can exclude any possibility of Russian influencing Portuguese or vice-versa.

Another Romance/non-Romance pair of languages that sound alike is Italian/Japanese: open syllables, a five-vowel system (in unstressed syllables in Italian), consonant gemination and palatal affricates all combine to make the two languages sound very much alike (leading a friend of mine to tell me it took her a long time before she learned that chicken cacciatore is not a Japanese dish). Needless to say, here too the similarity is purely coincidental.


Filius Lunae said...

@vp: One of the Russian actresses in that scene does seem to emphasize a word with a "rolled R". But, you have to remember that that r is also heard in (European) Portuguese in closed syllables, as in estar and porto; without forgetting the tapped r ([ɾ]) as in presidente and para. In Russian, /x/ can give the impression, in the circumstances I describe on my post, of an uvular consonant like the Portuguese double r, and both sounds occur at a similar frequency in each language, respectively.

Filius Lunae said...

@Etienne: Personally, I would never mistake Japanese for Italian, or vice versa. Something about the fricatives themselves in Italian, and the consistent, predictable vowel lengthening on each word.
I can tell you, though, that I can watch the Portuguese video above and understand everything; then, watch the Russian one, and not understand a word, but still maintain that it sounds so much like Portuguese.
What makes the two pairs of languages discussed on this post sound so similar is the quality of the vowels, and the frequency of certain sounds.

Language said...

This is very funny to me, because one of my most vivid memories from my first days in grad school is of going to a New Haven coffee shop with my new roomie Paul, an Italian-American art-historian-in-training, and the two of us arguing over what language the countermen were speaking. I (who had lived in Argentina) was sure it was Spanish; Paul (who went every year to Lucca, where his family was from) was equally sure it was Italian -- though neither of us could actually make out what they were saying, which we attributed to an unfamiliar dialect. Of course it turned out to be Greek, and the two of us basically agreed "Let us never speak of this again." As a linguist-in-training, I was particularly embarrassed.

nagunak said...

Very interesting observation. Being a native Russian speaker I would never confuse Portuguese with Russian, but I admit that when sung it does sound eerily familiar. The giveaway to me is the presence of nasal sounds, which, of course disappeared from Old Russian in the early Middle Ages (and are retained only in Polish among modern Slavic languages).

Anonymous said...

I agree that Spanish and Greek sound very similar, as well as times when English and Dutch sound similar, but never Japanese and Italian.
I thought that was a fairly bizarre comparison. Interesting though

John Cowan said...

Italian-Bulgarian-Persian form a triplet of roughly similar-sounding languages.

Eusimos said...

I'm a native Greek-speaker and I know basic Spanish and I must say that the two languages sound extremely similar. In fact I was attracted to learn Spanish because it's probably the only foreign language in the world which I can pronounce just by using a native accent. I have many times while visiting foreign countries mistaken Spanish people for Greek people and vice versa. I think the Spanish of Spain has the exact same phonology as modern Greek, even sounds of non-Latin letters such as Chi and Theta are common between the two.

I really don't know why this is the case, the two countries are geographically not very far but not very close either. I know that there used to be Greek cities in Spain and that modern Greek and Latin have generally evolved in parallel, however the phonology of the Spanish language is much closer to Greek than, say, Italian, a region that has been closely associated with Greece since antiquity. So it remains an open question.

Zack Canella said...

yep, i agree with all of you. In fact Greek and spanish sound bafflingly similar.
The vocabulary that the two languages have in common is limited to two or three hundred words, but there are many more that have changed over the centuries.

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