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To help create descriptive differences in the way my characters talk I am looking for a list of how each language sounds.

For example the German language has lots of clusters of consonants, and could be described as harsh.

I understand that many of the descriptions of how a language sounds are subjective, however German objectively sounds different to Chinese, and it is these differences I want to describe.

I was hoping there was something I could use to give me a starting point, as the only other option I can think of is to start listening to recordings of people speaking in various language and begin to build my own set of observations on how they sound. However this will end up being entirely my opinion, and I was hoping to get something a bit more universally accepted.

Although I have only mentioned German and Chinese here, I am looking at a very wide range of languages.

  • PS. Apologies to anyone who took offense to me describing German as harsh, I couldnt think of a better word at the time. Suggestions for alternatives are welcome. – Jimmery Mar 22 '16 at 16:11
  • Are you asking what people would sound like if they were native speakers of another language, but they are speaking English with an accent, or do you mean someone is listening to a language that they don't understand? – DoWhileNot Mar 22 '16 at 16:39
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    @Jimmery No, it's accurate. Have you ever seen the SCHMETTERLING!! video? youtube.com/watch?v=-_xUIDRxdmc – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Mar 22 '16 at 18:06
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    @DoWhileNot I mean the general sound of the language. This is something easier to pick up on when you dont know the language I guess. / LaurenIpsum No, I'd not seen that before, that was hilarious thank you! – Jimmery Mar 22 '16 at 18:27
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As a writer of fiction, you are not a linguist. You do not need to describe language in an objective way, in fact that would even hinder your purpose of telling a powerful story.

Character description in narrative fiction is not scientific. It has the purpose of telling us something about either the character or the person describing him or her.

Let's look at an example:

"Julia, come to the blackboard," Mr. Bergmann said in his Nazi officer voice.

We can imagine that the German teacher, Bergmann, not only sounds like a movie character, but is also very strict and would love to resort to corporal punishment if he could get away with it. Or we can imagine that Julia is an emo teen who finds all figures of authority equally evil, and just projects her own self-pity onto the really very nice native German teacher's accent.

In my example, it is totally irrelevent wether or not there is such a thing as a "Nazi officer voice", the only thing that counts is that there is such a cultural sterotype and that you can make use of it.

Here is another example, using not accent but sound of voice:

"Oh, honey," Linda purred.

Obviously, if Linda actually purred her words like a cat, she wouldn't sound sexy but creepy, but there is this convention of using animal sound descriptors (bleat, roar, etc.) or general sound descriptors (rumble, grate, etc.) as short hand for certain emotions or traits. Again, depending on the context of the example, the purring would tell us something about Linda (she wants to seduce someone or is pleased) or the person perceiving and describing her (who might be mistaken and misinterpret Linda's intention or state of emotion).

But we don't have to use existing stereotypes or universally agreed upon descriptions, we can make up our own:

John spoke with the slow accuracy of a blinking cursor.

In this case we describe the speed and rhythm of someone's speech to describe a mindnumbingly pedantic, self-alienated nerd – or some observer's prejudices.

I hope these examples make it clear to you, that /jə doʊnt hæv tu juz ˌsaɪənˈtɪfɪk ˌɑbdʒɛkˈtɪvᵻdi/ in narrative fiction and that in fact scientific objectivity would make your narration as flat and uninspiring as that blinking cursor.


A note on "harsh" German:

How a foreign language will sound to a person will depend on that person's mother tongue and his or her mastery of the foreign language.

To a person speaking English, maybe German sounds harsh. To a person speaking an African click language, it will probably sound different. The point of reference is important, so there certainly is no universally correct way of describing any language.

And if you learn a language, become more familiar with it, and eventually make it your own, the initial outside perception of that language fades and you will find yourself unable to characterize that language. Foreign languages are most strikingly dissimilar, if you don't understand them and only hear them as meaningless sound. If you know them, the meaning overlays the characteristics. I'm a native German speaker and have read, spoken and written English for about thirty years now. The two languages no longer sound different to me, or no more than my two hands differ from each other: they are not the same, and they cannot do the same, but they are the same and do the same – if that makes sense to you.

  • don't forget that a good third of english is german based, so the harshness of German is mellowed by old french and latin, but it is still dominated by Germanic and Nordic sounds. – Reed Mar 29 '16 at 19:44
  • sorry, for being rude/political incorrect about Germanophiles... otherwise i agree that the sound of the native language souldn't matter much from a writter's perspective except maybe in propagating supid racist accent jokes like chinese people going to the dentist at tooth-hurty, needing a fuck at dinner and a shit on their bed. – Reed Mar 29 '16 at 19:54
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I think doing your own research and making your own observations is perfectly legitimate.

You can also get a bunch of friends over and have everyone listen to the same video/audio recordings and take notes, and then discuss afterwards. This will allow you to note similarities (e.g., does everyone think German is harsh, or just me?) and also hear how other people word their observations (one says "harsh," one says "lots of fricatives," one says "why does he always sound angry?") so you have a range of verbiage to draw on.

  • Unfortunately I don't think my friends would be into doing anything like this. Perhaps I need new friends? ;-) – Jimmery Mar 22 '16 at 18:28

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