The Funky Phenomenon of Fake English

It’s like music to your ears (but ten times more frustrating).

If you don’t enjoy feeling like your mind’s playing tricks on you, you’ll want to stay far away from fake English.

When you hear a foreign language spoken, it can be easy to tell it’s not your own. Native speakers of English may find that the guttural r in French takes them by surprise or they may be struck by the tonal nature of Chinese. But what does English sound like if you don’t actually speak it?

Trying to imitate foreign languages has long been a form of cheap entertainment — and one that can land you in hot water if you make generalizations that turn into mocking and insensitive stereotypes. English speakers worldwide may be guilty of sing-song mimicry of and poking fun at other languages, but they’re not immune from being teased and taunted themselves.

So arose the phenomenon of fake English. Language enthusiasts, teachers, and pranksters around the world have for years tried to capture how English falls upon their ears from their non-English perspectives. The results can be amusing, confusing and brain-bamboozling.

Do Mine Ears Deceive Me?

For the ultimate mind meddling experience, look no further than the short film Skwerl. This 40-million-times-viewed video was written and recorded entirely in fake English.

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It tells the story of a couple eating dinner — a no-frills, easy-to-follow narrative in theory. But listening to it and reading the script can be, for the native English speaker, a trip and a half; where your brain hears English and tries to parse and decipher words and expressions, there are actually few real ones to latch on to. It’s four minutes of claptrap that some viewers claim made them feel like they were having a stroke.

Musicians have tried, too, to capture the nuances and essence of English sound structure in their songs, with kooky results. Just listen to the 1972 Italian hit “Prisencolinensinainciusol” (a mouthful even for a native English speaker). It’s a number written and performed by Adriano Celentano, a singer with an affinity for all things linguistically American.

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He composed the jaunty (and surprisingly catchy) jam to call out the challenges to open communication in the world, and the song has an odd way of doing just that. The lyrics are utterly nonsensical — Celentano mostly improvised them over a beat — but they highlight just how many barriers there are to speaking with others all over the planet. Though it saw a muted response at first, the song rose to critical acclaim, eventually hitting number 1 on the Italian, French, German and Belgian charts. Talk about an international fake English fandom.

If you’re familiar with EA’s The Sims franchise, you’ve certainly heard another goofy rendition on spoken English. The game’s characters speak Simlish, which sounds a whole lot like English — or perhaps some other Germanic languages — mixed with a healthy portion of gobbledygook.

Whatever it is, it’s mostly hilariously unintelligible nonsense, but a few distinctly English words and sounds stand out. In Simlish, a woofum is a dog, a minicule a cat. A toddler enjoying his food would say yucky yucky, and you’d hear Turkey nurbler? from one Sim asking another if he feels better. Simlish might all be made up, but this weird fake English has become something of a sensation. Compiled online dictionaries list out common words and phrases for aspiring Simlish speakers, and famous musicians like Katy Perry and Natasha Bedingfield have even recorded songs in Simlish.

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Fake It Til You Make It

So how does one become “fluent” in fake English? To imitate any language, it takes understanding, for one, that language’s phonology — the unique set of sounds in the repertoire of any given tongue. Of course, you could do a statistical analysis to see which letters or sounds follow each other most frequently and cook up pseudo-English words like flarbity, blorking and pidgement.

But mimicking a foreign language doesn’t have to be so mathematical. For non-English speakers, the sounds they recognize as distinctly English can be much more intuitive. Depending on the phonetic framework of a speaker’s native language, the individual sounds that stand out might be glaringly obvious because they sound so foreign. In French, this might be that back-of-the-throat r, in German the umlauted ü or the phlegmy ch in Bach.

For English, many non-native speakers contend that it’s the “flat” North American sound heard in bat, cab, and apple. Some argue it’s the r found in roar or rhubarb. Or could it be the schwa (say schwat?), arguably the most common vowel sound in English? (It’s that funky upside-down e, the “uh” found at the beginning and end of America or in the British pronunciation of r-final words like thunder.) These sounds are largely absent from some languages altogether, but they are, for many, characteristic of the most spoken variations of English across the world.

The imitation of individual sounds alone, yes, can help in approximating English. But you’ll find that a sprinkling of English-specific morphemes—the smallest meaningful chunks of words—can help anyone talk more like a true (or fake, rather) Anglophone. For example, when English speakers want to describe the quality of some descriptor, they might add -ness, like in craziness or happiness. Affixing -tion to a word turns verbs into nouns; you can get creation, conflation and celebration. You’ll find suffixes like -ing, -ed and -ity scattered throughout English, too. Knowing which word units appear most frequently in any language is a surefire way to legitimize your gibberish and spice up your fake speech.

When done respectfully, speaking a fake variant of English or any other language can be a hoot. But it takes more than just perfecting the phonology and mastering the morphemes to know how to talk with—and not just tease—actual native speakers. Because who wants to have a fake conversation?

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