In 1972, Italian songwriter Adriano Celentano wrote a song called Prisencolinensinainciusol (yeah, weird name!) that was supposed to sound like English while being complete gibberish except for the words ‘all right!’. Celentano wanted to explore communication barriers and make fun of the fact that most Italian people that loved American and British rock ’n roll could not - for the most part - understand any of the words being sung.
The song is very catchy and - since Celentano is an extraordinary singer - sounds very convincing, so much that if you aren’t paying attention it could easily pass as just another seventies-esque pop song on the radio - even to native ears. To achieve this feat, the Italian singer-songwriter clearly studied very closely the sounds and phonetic structure of American English.
According to Celentano, the song’s gibberish English is heavily inspired by Bob Dylan and other popular American singers of the time. And to this day, is one of the best examples of language mimicry, and a hit song at that too. Many linguists and phonetics experts have called attention to how this song correctly emphasizes some aspects of American English, like a certain nasalness and an abundance of mumbling, stretched sounds.
The strange allure of words we cannot understand
No one is born already knowing a language, but ineluctably we are all born into language, completely surrounded and immersed in it - be it one or many. And at first, phonetics is all we got. Baby talk can be a great way to understand how a certain language can sound when it’s still not fully understood, and word formation in these early stages of life can even hint at the distinct characteristics of a certain language.
English is full or slurred, elongated sounds, difficult R’s and S’s, but there isn’t a single answer as to how it can sound to foreigners. And this is because most learners or non-speakers will consciously or unconsciously compare any new sounds to their mother tongue, which is perceived as a sort of blank slate or starting point.
But our brains do a lot of work behind the scenes, and being constantly exposed to a different language to our own helps build pattern maps of new sounds and meanings. This is how we learn new languages, and it is deeply connected to the evolutionary history of humanity.
Do foreigners find English harsh or sweet to the ear?
While this is a difficult question to answer with a definite answer, we can say that most people find English interesting and sort of musical, even when it can still feel garbled and full of irregularities. Take the pronunciation of the letter R, for example. Many students find this one of the hardest letters to master in English, since most other languages tend to pronounce it differently. In French, the letter R is pronounced gutturally, in the throat, while in Spanish it is pronounced at the front of the mouth, almost touching the teeth with your tongue.
But the answer to our question about how the language sounds overall for non-speakers varies a lot, since it has a lot to do with how the culture within - and around - the language is perceived by foreigners. And this is because languages don’t exist in a vacuum, they are spoken by people who imprint them with their particular ideas and traditions.
Modern English has become the lingua franca of the contemporary world. Everything, from politics to business is conducted in English, using the language as a common ground for mutual understanding. So, while many young people in the world do not hesitate to say that they find English cool and alluring, and wish to learn it, this isn’t due to anything special about the language itself but to the fact that knowing it can not only be very helpful to their lives and careers, but it also serves as a sort of key to the rest of the world - even non-English speaking countries.
And if something has to be said about English, it is that it very diligently borrows words from all over the world, so many learners from German, French, or Spanish speaking countries find they already understand a good part of its vast vocabulary.
If you wish to learn more about the history of modern languages, grammar, untranslatable words, and other language-related topics, make sure to check out our other articles! We love to explore interesting topics in-depth, but don’t worry - you don’t need to be an expert linguist to enjoy them!