October 20, 2004

Language quiz

A reader sent in this mp3 as a quiz. If you know what language it is, congratulate yourself and go on with your day.

If not, then you might try to follow Roman Jakobson's (perhaps apocryphal) advice. As I heard the story, he was giving a lecture at Columbia on Eastern European folk epics. He decided to lecture in Bulgarian -- one of the couple of dozen languages that he spoke fluent Russian in. One of the audience members raised a hand and protested, in English, that most of the audience did not know Bulgarian. Jakobson's response, also in English: "You are linguist, no? So listen, and try to understand."

Even if you're not a card-carrying linguist, you might give it a try. In fact, in this case, you might be able to do better than just listening and trying to understand. You could transcribe the passage -- in IPA or in some more rough-and-ready orthography -- and identify the traits that you could use to figure out where this language comes from, given a map of what features are where in the relevant language family.

It's an interesting experience to try to transcribe a language you don't know, though the feeling is different, depending on your degree of familiarity with what you're hearing. It's one kind of challenge where the language is close enough to one you know well that you can understand most of it with careful listening and a bit of thought. For me that might be Glaswegian or Jamaican English -- or the language of this quiz, where I could get about 4/5 of the words. In that case, the main issue is to try to figure out the systematic sound patterns and function-word or other morphological substitutions that relate what you're hearing to what you know.

It's a different kind of experience to try to transcribe recorded speech in a completely unfamiliar language. One approach is to work with a native speaker who can repeat the fluent passages for you slowly, breaking them down into pieces and telling you what they mean. Another approach is just to do your best to write down what you hear, listening for repeated patterns and trying to make some structural sense of the whole thing.

If you're looking for a computer program to help you listen carefully and repeatedly to selected portions, and make time-aligned transcriptions or other notations, take a look at audacity, praat, transcriber and wavesurfer.

I'll identify the language and its source tomorrow.

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 20, 2004 05:57 AM