Prosody and LID: the answer

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Yesterday I gave a brief "melodized" audio clip, and invited readers to guess the language. I'm happy to report that Bob Ladd and Sarah E. nailed it — the passage was  indeed in French, from an RFI news report. Here's the original.


  1. Benjamin Massot said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    What?? French??

    As a native speaker of French, I must admit I'm bluffed! By no way it sounded French to me.

    But I suggest an excuse: in my opinion, news reports really have a special prosody, almost ungrammatical in colloquial French. It would sound very odd to apply this prosody to an utterance that has many typically non-standard grammatical characteristics, and even to a quite standard utterance outside the context of news reports.

  2. Lane said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 10:52 am

    Yeah, I'd agree that news broadcast prosody may be unique in lots of languages. Think about how easy it would be to parody talking about, say, your breakfast in newscaster English.

    (I was betting on Japanese, for what it's worth.)

  3. Claire said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

    Wow I never would have thought French either, and I live here, and listen/watch the TV news a lot, too!

    But I agree with the post above: this doesn't sound at all like a 'normal' person speaking French. The amount of up and down shifts in pitch is particuarly strange compared to everyday speech…

  4. dr pepper said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

    I've often wondered if it would be possible to determine the native language of someone suffering from severe aphasia, say as the result of a stroke, by their intonation and the phonemes they produce.

  5. marie-lucie said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 5:11 pm

    But there are documented cases of people who appeared to have suddenly developed a foreign accent after a stroke.

  6. Ray Girvan said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

    The whole area of what languages sound like to non-native speakers is interesting. The melodized clip fits my internal stereotype that French essentially sounds like "Haw deehaw haw deehaw deehaw haw". Way back I remember reading that to Korean speakers, English sounds like "Shalla shalla shalla".

  7. Stu Black said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

    When this clip was posted yesterday, I was reminded of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in which Poe raised (and gave his own answer to) the question of how one might interpret a foreign prosody.

    In the story, a gruff voice is heard at the time that a gruesome murder is committed, but no one can agree upon its language or what it said. A brief excerpt: "The Frenchman supposes it the voice of a Spaniard, and 'might have distinguished some words had he been acquainted with the Spanish.' The Dutchman maintains it to have been that of a Frenchman; but we find it stated that 'not understanding French this witness was examined through an interpreter.' … A second Frenchman differs, moreover, with the first, and is positive that the voice was that of an Italian; but, not being cognizant of that tongue, is, like the Spaniard, 'convinced by the intonation.'"

    (Ultimately, it transpires that the murders were committed by an orangutan, which was not able to make cries in any human language but whose voice, heard by witnesses some distance from it, sounded almost human.)

    Yesterday, I was afraid that Poe had quite missed the mark and that it would be easy to guess the language of an utterance from only its prosody. Now, it seems he may have been more on the ball. It would be interesting to know whether many of those who wrote in guesses suggested languages with which they were not intimately familiar.

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 12:31 am

    OK, I admit I had an unfair advantage, because I not only speak French but have spent an entire career studying the melody of language. And I'm willing to grant that there may be specially stylised ways of reading news that would sound out of place in talking about your breakfast. But I think everyone's reactions (including many of the comments on the original post) reinforce a point I've made before, which is that the overall auditory impression a language makes is often about a lot more than "prosody". (For example, the people who said Portuguese sounds Slavic are probably reacting to all the SH sounds and to the consonant clusters that come about because European Portuguese elides so many vowels.)

  9. Sarah E. said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

    @ Bob Ladd – What prominent features did you notice?

    I've only studied French in high school years back, so what tipped me was the sharp skips to high pitches (those at "vingt-sept" and "scrutant"(?) for example).

    My experience with language rhythm is pretty limited. Where I was teaching English to Japanese-native speakers at a conversation school, some of the criteria for fluency were "listening", "intonation", and "smoothness". (Though I never quite exactly figured out what the last one meant, I believed it to be the patterns of stress a NSE would have.) I drilled the students of each class in stress patterns.

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