An Italian, a German, a Spaniard and a Frenchman were sitting in a… but it’s not a joke! Well, almost, since we are talking about languages (or better, accents): the Italian, the German, the Spaniard and the Frenchman are meeting up in a bar in San Francisco and they are interacting in English.
Let’s start by saying that the most important thing when living abroad is to speak correctly, despite any pronunciation mistakes. Just leave linguistic acrobatics, puns and Shakespeare sonnets to the academia – to survive in a foreign country, you only need a basic but rock-solid grammar and a healthy sense of adventure.
But for the fussy ones, those who speak the Queen’s English better than Her Majesty and point the finger at their fellow countrymen, here is a list with unmistakable traits to spot Italians, Germans, Spaniards and French people at their very first syllable.
Shall we start with Italy? Thanks to their unique style, Italians abroad are very easy to spot: with designer clothes from head to toe and sunglasses even on the subway, they significantly raise the pitch of their voice when talking on the phone. The tiniest doubt disappears when they pronounce the magic words: “Good morning!”
- Italians have a serious problem with the h: to them, this linguistic accessory has the mere decorative function of differentiating a verb from a preposition, at least in Italian… but not in English, where you need to pronounce it by all means! Consequently, if you hear a bunch of Italians say they are angry, don’t be scared, they are probably just hungry!
- There’s another sound that causes distress to Italians, merely because it doesn’t exist in their language: we are talking about the notorious –th digraph! Words like the and this will inevitably sound like de and dis.
- Shall we talk about the r? Italians adore pronouncing consonants (that’s why they have so many double consonants) and they find themselves in deep trouble when it comes to reproducing that soft and adorable British sound in words like car (/kɑː/).
- Due to their deep love for consonants, Italians will also pronounce words ending in -ing (such as gerunds) to the very last letter.
Love for consonants brings Italians and Germans together, with the only difference that Germans are very precise and have a name for everything, even to classify their pronunciation mistakes:
- Auslautverhärtung (final fortition) is a fairly common mispronunciation. Germans tend to pronounce and emphasise the last consonants of a word, thus provoking a consonantal change from a “weak” sound to a “strong” one. For example, dog becomes dok.
- Yet, the most common mistake is always the tricky -th sound: Germans even replace it with an s, a mystery of phonetics!
- There’s another consonant that Germans cannot grasp: w is pronounced v, that’s why the word wine becomes vine!
So, even Germans abroad can be spotted by their accent… and by the evergreen combo of “white socks and sandals”!
In our story, together with the Italian and the German, there is also a Spaniard. At first, it may be a little difficult to recognise a German accent, but Spaniards abroad (like their Italian counterparts) are so obvious! Here are some unequivocal identification marks:
- There’s no s without e! Spaniards simply can’t help it and they don’t even realise when they compulsively add an e before every word that begins with an s! For this reason, words like school, star, brainstorming, street, special become e-school, e-star, brain-e-storming, e-street, e-special and so on.
- Aspiration matters! The typical j sound identifies Spaniards not only when they speak Spanish, but also when they express themselves in English! Words like hello, house, hot will sound more or less like this: jello, jouse, jot, with the j of jamón, to be clear.
- Another weak point is definitely the g-sound! Spanish people are not familiar with it, as it’s very uncommon in their language, and it really gives them a hard time! You will notice that immediately when your Spanish friends talk about their manager: /ˈmænɪjə/ instead of /ˈmænɪdʒə/.
Between the Italian and the Spaniard, only the French can threaten the supremacy for the most recognisable accent! The French are proud enough of their culture when they are in France, let alone when they travel abroad! Distinctive features? Here are some:
- Word stress is always on the last syllable (like in French), even if there are no specific signs or accents! Finally becomes finallee and eventually becomes eventuallee
- The infamous –th group is a sore spot even for the French: they pronounce it like a sort of impure Instead of this, they say fis.
- When it comes to speaking English with French people, you always wonder whether your are interacting in English or you suddenly understand French: it’s not only because of their accent… they will always try to sneak some French words into the conversation, that’s for sure!
We tried to collect the most common slip-ups, but pronunciation mistakes and different accents can vary a lot within a language! Tune up your ears with our quiz Guess my Accent, but don’t be mislead by the first levels of the game, the best comes next! How many of these mistakes do you recognise in yourself? Have we forgotten some striking ones? Share them in a comment!