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The scenario is that a person from our present time travels millions of years into the future. A catastrophic event caused the Continents to shift and reform, and wiped out near all life. Earth is entirely different now.

It has been millions of years. The language at that time has changed so much as humans had to re-evolve and they cannot understand our form of English. I am writing this scene from the perspective of the person in the future, meeting the traveler and trying to communicate with them. The traveler has a device that translates for them but it is malfunctioning. During this time that it is not working, I want to describe roughly how present day American English would sound to someone in that time period. Not with actual quotations, but with the sounds and accents that come with language. I will say the person in the future is on the continent that used to be North America, and would be a descendant of English speakers. I want them to be able to understand certain words, but the rest to be gibberish.

English is my first language so I am struggling to explain how it sounds because I have never heard it from the outside. When I hear Spanish spoken, it sounds fast paced with lots of rolling Rs and soft Ys. It flows more than English. German has usually sounded thick with lots of tongue movement and harsher in some phrases. Could anyone else explain their experience with English in this way?

It is imperative to the plot that she speaks American English.

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  • This may do better on ELU.
    – Chenmunka
    Apr 21, 2023 at 18:21
  • Most unknown languages sentences sound like one long, fast paced word. Once you learn individual words "your ear" begins to break those sentences into parts that you can understand. Not really the ear itself, but some part of your hearing.
    – JRE
    Apr 22, 2023 at 7:13
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    People I know here in Germany tell me that American English sounds like this: Rowruwrwowrvuwrwurwrwrowr.
    – JRE
    Apr 22, 2023 at 7:15

4 Answers 4

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A million years is a long time, even on evolutionary time scales

Modern humans would find our ancestors from 1 M BCE impossible to understand — because the different skull and jaw shapes would produce different phonemes

I think, as the author you need to decide how your future humans have evolved. Maybe humans evolved narrower range of hearing or different ranges of hearing. With different tongues and shapes of jaws and skull.

From the different morphology, you can select their current phonemes and make up new phonemes. From the eliminated phonemes you can identify which words your future humans wouldn’t understand and which they could

As for changes in the language and how people speak, there are a few examples of how you might handle this — The Stone God Lives by Jose Farmer and The Soldier of Tomorrow by Harlan Ellison have characters facing similar situations.

The question is not so much what English sounds like but how our perception of sound as speech are conditioned by our culture and its norms and it jargon and slang. Fortunately, for you, that plays into your hands as the author. You get to decide if you future people speak super fast or in a highly structured way. Then the POV character interprets its by their standards and expectations

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  • To put the evolution limit that people can understand, if you were to condense all 4.6 Billion years of Earth's existence to a single 24 hour day and Earth was formed at 0000, then the first single cell life forms would not be seen until 0600. The first life to live on land wouldn't arrive until 2200 (10 pm), the first dinosaurs would arrive at 2245. Mammals would be 55 minutes after them. Dinosaurs are extinct at 20 minutes to midnight, Humans would evolve at 2 minutes to midnight, and the nation of Kenya would be independent at 23:59:59 (1963). Time of writing would be 23:59:60
    – hszmv
    Apr 25, 2023 at 11:56
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American English is remarkable for its broad vowels, especially /æ/ raising, and its rhotic /r/.

English in general sounds slurred or garbled to foreigners. It contains many sibilants.

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I'll give you my point of view as a Spanish from Spain speaker with no knowledge about linguistics.First, about English and then about American English.

English generally sounds lower in pitch. The same person speaking English will use a lower pitch for speaking English and a higher pitch to speak Spanish. It sounds also more lower pitch than French and probably Italian.

In the inside, the mouth is opened different when speaking English and it sounds a little bit as if you had your mouth filled with food. Indeed, I remember playing this joke at junior school(filling our mouths with food and speaking English).

Much later, when I started to discriminate different English accents, I found American accent to be very musical as opposed to British accent, which I found quite harsh. American accent flows and the intonation is pleasant. British accent is like plenty of sounds that interrupt the flow. I know that American speakers usually find British accent sexy. After many years of listening I can understand why, but it wasn't my first impression at all.

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“Prisencolinensinainciusol”

American sounds like “Prisencolinensinainciusol” according to Adriano Celentano who recorded an Italian pop song constructed from American-sounding syllables.

from the Wiki page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisencolinensinainciusol

The song is intended to sound to its Italian audience as if it is sung in English spoken with an American accent, however the lyrics are deliberately unintelligible gibberish with the exception of the words "all right".

I'd go a step further and say "all right" (the only recognizable phrase) is more like "awwrite", which is a meaningless idiom in Americanese that simply acknowledges that something was heard, or a low-key confirmation that something was understood (uh-huh, OK, yeah-yeah).

Extrapolating: I suggest you find some of these phrases, meaningless idioms that she might say often, and make it a personal quirk catchphrase that she is saying unconsciously, and then do a reductive interpretation of the syllables in the way she would say it.

"You get me?" – Yugit mie
"And what..." – Ant Dwot
"Oh my god!" – Ommigawd

Satire

If 1,000,000 years (an awfully long time) is a hint that this is satire or comedic, you might pick an anachronistic phrase that suits the theme of this future along the lines of Aldous Huxley's satirical Model T worship in Brave New World.

Huxley combined (probably) the Catholic gesture 'sign of the cross' with Ford's Model T to suggest a society that views industrialization on the level of religion. A Model T no longer stands for progress, so that metaphor is lost today but was well-understood at the time.

Something like a meme or advertising jingle having been elevated to an idiom in her timeline.

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