Buttery Italian? Rapid? Lyrical? What Spanish sounds to foreigners, and why.

I once asked someone what Spanish sounded to them, and the response I got was that it sounded ‘ghetto.’ I found out later that she comes from a reactionary faction that is intolerant of immigration to the United States. Especially Mexicans. If I had known this before, I definitely wound’t have asked her. But deep down, as a Spanish-speaker, and huge admirer of the language, I know the language doesn’t sound ghetto. I decided to get a deeper insight about what Spanish sounded like. I learned Spanish as a first language, so its really hard for me to describe the physical description of the language. I’ll start off by explaining the first two responses that I thought were hysterical. Of course, most of these responses were a response to different situations in which people had heard Spanish.

I asked a good friend who is from The Philippines and speaks Tagalog as her mother language. Keep in mind that Spanish is relatively alive in The Philippines. She said Spanish sounds ‘common’ or a language that is well-grounded in communicating practical information. An interesting response given that early Spanish is essentially an offshoot from a  common language; the language of commoners that was called Vulgar Latin, that oftentimes was crude and highly metaphorical. The Spanish word for horse caballo, was in Old Spanish, caballvs. The V was pronounced like an English schwa in words like “Uh-oh” or “up”. But that what commoners said. The ruling class of the Roman Empire didn’t refer to a horse by caballvus, but intstead–equus, which is where the word equestrian comes from, a horse riding sport. Caballvs, according to Jean Benoît-Nadeau and Julie Barlow in The Story of Spanish, was the commoner’s way of joking about the animal the nobility mainly utilized; it meant something like “Beast of burden.” But the modern standard word for horse that was once “vulgar” prevailed. Caballvs -> Caballo. Another example is leg. The nobility referred to leg as crus, while commoners called it perna (ham), but leg is now widely understood as pierna.   

I then decided to ask another good friend who was a Portuguese-speaker. I know I was bound to get an interesting response. After all, linguists have found that Portuguese and Spanish have a lexical correspondence of  9 out 10; both tongues are almost identical.  According to this Lusitanian (Portuguese-speaker), Spanish sounds like “kids’ talk.” She added that children–before going through formal education–are born speaking Spanish. The Spanish pronoun for she is ella. It is pronounced ‘eya’. And that’s what Brazilian kids babble until their first teachers “clean up” the Spanish and break the bad news that the Portuguese pronunciation of ‘eya’ is ‘ela’. Jean Benoît and Julie go further and explain that the only historical difference between Spanish and Portuguese–aside from being different languages–is that Spain was conquered by Muslims, Visigoths, Greeks, Celts, and Phoenicians, but all those nations reached present day Portugal only after. These same authors describes Spanish as a “buttery Italian.”

Another major theme I found across asking several others is that rapidness of Spanish. In Lingo Lingo Lingo Lingo Lingo Around Europe in Sixty Languages, Gaston Dorren describes that a conversation in Spanish is similar to hearing a shoot out of machine guns. The Spanish fire more syallables per second than its sorrounding languages; 7.82 syallables per second, compared to 6.17 in English and 5.97 in German. This gives Spanish its percussive sound. But in the great scheme of things, Latin langauges sound more “rapa-da-tat-uh-tat”, whereas English to Spanish-speakers resembles something like “Trarshk-tark-shrark-druhk-rark.”

Gaston adds that the Atlantic Ocean and the distance between the Americas and Spain does create something of a language barrier. Just like Americans sometimes have some difficulty understanding British Cockney, a conversation between Spaniards and Latin Americans can be stressful. Both Spanish’s are mutually intelligible, but it well known in the hispanosphere that Latin Americans speak at a much slower space than their European counterparts.

But that’s just basic phonology of Spanish works. It is a language that synchronizes syllables, meaning that the duration of syllables remain fixes regardless of accent. Perhaps, that’s why English-speakers describe Spanish as being more upbeat and jovial than language. Not to mention that the first two most utilized phonemes (basic sound unit in language) in Spanish are ‘a’ and ‘e’, whereas English they are ‘s’ and ‘t’.

Here is a list of other responses from individuals I asked what Spanish sounded to them. Of course, the people I asked know no Spanish, or were learning it as a second language:

“Jovial and joking-sounding”

“Fast and beautiful.”

“If it isn’t from Spain, it sounds ghetto.”

“Musical.”

“Salsa.”

“Mysterious.”

“Sloppy Italian.”

“Good.”

“So awesome! I love the sound so much!”

“Utilizes the front of mouth more than English. It’s Italian, but with noticeably different inflection patterns.”

“Quick and choppy.”

“More exciting than French, but less exciting Italian.”

“Lyrical.”

“Sounds like ‘car’mel.’”

“Expressed accuratley. Words sound accurate to what is being said. The word for skull in Spanish calavera looks and sounds like a skull.”  

“The Mexican dialect sounds very nasally while the Iberian dialect [from Spain] sounds like a watered-down Italian.”

2 thoughts on “Buttery Italian? Rapid? Lyrical? What Spanish sounds to foreigners, and why.

  1. Pablo Abarca says:

    It’s interesting how young children learning Portuguese sound more similar to Spanish. I wonder if it has something to do with the first words the child is actually capable of speaking or if has something to do with false cognate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Atticus Agustin says:

      Rumor has it that well educated Portuguese-speakers can easily understand Spanish, whereas well educated Spanish-speakers struggle with Portuguese.

      I think it has to do mainly with the phoneme clusters a child can easily pronounce. I think a gliding ‘eya’ is more easier for a child to produce, than a ‘ela.’ Imagine a Japanese child trying to grasp such word. The phoneme ‘L’ is alien to Japanese. The same goes for non-speakers of Czech who wrestle with the “Ř”; it is considered one of the hardest phoneme of all earth’s languages.

      Like

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