In English, why does a Portuguese accent sound Slavic?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by killerbee256, May 13, 2014.

  1. killerbee256 Senior Member

    American English
    I've noticed that folks from Portugal and some from Brasil tend to sound as if they have a Slavic accent when they speak English, you don't see this with speakers of closely related Spanish. So what influences from Portuguese cause this?
  2. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    Lorraine in France
    English (US Northeast)
    It's the general sound structure of the language... In both Portuguese and Russian there is a strong tonic accent with stressed vowel sounds having open and closed quality and the vowels in other syllables are quite reduced into different types of schwas, /ə/ and /ɐ/, or else even clipped off. In addition there are many soft consonants that are the same in both languages: for example, ʃ ʧ ʒ ɕ z v. Palatalized consonants are noticeably quite frequent. Actually the two languages are remarkably similar in sound. It's not surprising that speakers might have similar accents in English.

    The sounds of Spanish are quite different: 5 mid-closed vowels with the same quality in each syllable. It's a syllable timed language with no syllable reduction giving it a staccato rhythm. Palatalized consonants are completely absent but weakened approximants like β ð ɣ abound. Spanish actually mirrors modern Greek quite well, but sounds totally different than Portuguese.
  3. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    Sorry, there are no closed vowels in Russian, the distinction is between reduced and not reduced vowels, as well as vowels with a yod before (йотированные гласные) and none.
  4. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    Lorraine in France
    English (US Northeast)
    According to this vowel chart there is a plethora a vowel sounds in Russian, usually allophones, opening and closing, strengthening or reducing depending on their phonetic environment. This seems close to the panorama of sounds found in the vowel chart for Lisbon Portuguese. Nasalization is obviously only applicable to Portuguese.
  5. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    This vowel chart is partially incorrect: there's no sound like a closed /e/ in Russian, as well as no closed /o/,only the open version, with a particular colouring), but nothing even coming close to closed e & o that you have in German or Standard Italian. And try to explain to a Russian what's the difference between closed & open vowels when he/she has never heard them before.
  6. Egmont Senior Member

    Massachusetts, U.S.
    English - U.S.
    Whenever I hear someone speaking in a language that sounds like Russian, but I don't understand any of it, I assume it's Portuguese. So far, that's always been true. (In my part of southeastern Massachusetts, one hears a lot more Portuguese than Russian.) Until now I didn't know there was a reason for that!

    That said, I don't detect a Slavic sound when Portuguese speakers speak English, but that may be because I'm so used to Portuguese accents in English that I don't notice them any more.
  7. Gavril Senior Member

    English, USA
    When I lived in California, I'd often hear Russian and Brazilian Portuguese spoken in public, and I'd have to listen for a minute before I could tell which language I was hearing. Some telltale signs for making the distinction would be the Russian vowel y (ы), and the greater diversity of palatalized sounds in Russian (e.g., Russian has t' and ʧ whereas Portuguese has only ʧ).
  8. ahvalj Senior Member

    A major difference of Russian is the absence of dropping the unstressed vowels (at least in a minimally careful speech), so the European Portuguese may be regarded as representing a remote (and probably even not inevitable) future of the Russian vowel system. Also, the similarity with Portuguese (and Portuguese accent) is true for some other languages that have no proper vowel reduction, like Lithuanian and Ukrainian, so the reasons may lay deeper: something related to the overal speaking habits (falling intonation, preferred position of tongue, lips etc.).
  9. ahvalj Senior Member

    Actually, the question was not about Portuguese and Russian, but about their accents in English, so the explanations involving palatalizations etc. don't work as English has nothing of it. I think, indeed, it is caused by the overall functioning of the articulatory apparatus, which is somewhat parallel in the former two (though Portuguese in their turn speak Russian with a very strong accent and I will be able to recognize a Russian (in the broad sense) accent in, I suppose, any language).
  10. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    Lorraine in France
    English (US Northeast)
    To my ear in Continental Portuguese unaccented e is often retracted closer to yeri: derreter, also at least to my ear the final syllable -te which is clipped off in Lisbonese sounds like t': O leite quente.

    Good point. It's true that learning Portuguese you have to learn the falling cadence and the physically stressing of an important word in the sentence.

    I remember a Brazilian girl I went on holiday with stressing words wrongly in English which made her sound Russian (to me). For example, "I didn't goaah there yeahst'rdy." "My sahn's by the swamm'n pull."

    Perhaps the Portuguese in Massachusetts have been in the area for so long they no longer have an accent. I've met a couple of people from the area and it just sounded to me like they had the local accent.
    Last edited: May 14, 2014
  11. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    From what I've read, even here in this forum, it's not just English speakers who feel that Portuguese sounds like Russian (and that their foreign accents in English concomitantly sound alike). Here's a previous thread about this perception more in general. :)
    When I try to abstract from the fact that I'm a native speaker (not easy), I do find a number of similarities between the sonority of Russian and European Portuguese. More surprising to me is to see that many people even mistake Brazilian Portuguese for Russian!
  12. ahvalj Senior Member

    Yet I think Russians don't swallow the unstressed vowels. At all. I recall Kerry recently pronouncing Putin as Putn, which is unimaginable in Russian, where this i is short but fully syllabic (hence the Brazilian associations: cidade pronounced in Russian sounds sidadi and not s'dad'). I always get surprised how chopped English is when seeing the English poetry and realizing that much of the unstressed vowels actually don't make syllables.
  13. Nino83 Senior Member

    When a Portuguese or a Brazilian speaks Italian (in Italy there are a lot of Portuguese speakers, for example Brazilian football player and commentator José Altafini, Portuguese football players like Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Brazilian guitarist and singer Toquinho) it's easily recognizable due to nasal vowels, intervocalic [z], lack of double consonants and affricates (belo, ja, jocare/jogare, jte, with [ʒ] instead of [ʤ], nasionale, beleza, with [s] and [z] instead of [ʦ] ) while Russians and Ukrainians have them (they would pronounce [ʨ] instead of [ʤ] and [ʦ] in nazionale). Brazilians, with their soft pronunciation ([ʒ], [s] and [ʁ]/) sound like Frenchmen speaking with Italian vowels), totally different from Russians.
    Probably it's due to the fact that English lacks double consonants, intervocalic [ʦ] and that there are a lot of final /s/, pronounced [ʃ], so it's difficult to distinguish these two accents.
    Last edited: May 14, 2014
  14. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Actually Russian vowels do sometimes sound nasalized, and (some) Russians nasalize English vowels where native English speakers don't.
  15. ahvalj Senior Member

    How do you find the Lithuanian accent in English, could you tell it from Russian (and hence Portuguese)? E. g. the Lithuanian foreign minister in this clip: <...>
    Last edited by a moderator: May 16, 2014
  16. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    Lorraine in France
    English (US Northeast)
    Very different sounding. Staccato rhythm, strong rolled r, vowels not reduced, clear, also sing sounding intonation, up and down all the time.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 16, 2014
  17. ahvalj Senior Member

    Thanks. Interesting. I would say Lithuanian is the only non-East Slavic accent in English I wouldn't be able to tell from the Russian one.
    And then the Russian foreign minister? <...>
    Last edited by a moderator: May 16, 2014
  18. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    Lorraine in France
    English (US Northeast)
    Yes, that's the Russian-Portuguese sounding accent. The tonic vowels are over-stressed, lengthened, sometimes diphthonged even: oardered, bieldings, inveastigation, maust, aemnisty, genieva, haeppen, deliever..

    But his English is much better and the accent is not as strong.
  19. ahvalj Senior Member

    It is interesting that we pay attention to different things. All the moments that I perceive as crucial for the Russian accent I can discern in the Lithuanian clip, whereas what you have noticed in both cases my brain either doesn't register at all or considers much less important ,-)
  20. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    Lorraine in France
    English (US Northeast)
    Yes, I guess I pay attention to what distracts me when I'm listening to them. I do not know what a Romanian accent sounds like in English but the accent the Lithuanian has is close to what actors put on when they try to imitate Count Dracula in horror films. I heard in my mind when listening to him: I WAANNta two DRRREENKa yuhr BLAAHdah. My apologies to the minister. :eek: In general Russians (or Portuguese) don't have such extreme rising and falling intonation patterns

    The vowel lengthening is what sticks out in Lavrov's speech.
    What do you think sounds typically Russian?

    What do you hear?
  21. ahvalj Senior Member

    If I only could formulate this ,-(
    Anyway, comparisons like this are important to isolate what people consider characteristic features of a certain accent. We all pay attention to different things and comparing similar yet distinct accents can help to calibrate the perception. Alas, the youtube links get censored here…
  22. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    Lorraine in France
    English (US Northeast)
    Youtube links are censored here, of course, but you can give hints how to find them, like "Lavrov English interview about Ukraine in Russia Today"
  23. ahvalj Senior Member

    OK, I will try to find several characteristic clips the following days — if anybody is ready to locate them this way ,-)
    Thanks for your comments so far.
  24. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    Lorraine in France
    English (US Northeast)
    Your're probably right. Speaking of crucial differences that stick out and impede comprehension, I would never have guessed these, especially stressing the double consonants and distinguishing [ʤ] from [ʦ]would be so paramount to an Italian
  25. Sepia Senior Member

    High German/Danish
    I don't think Portuguese nor Portuguese accents in any way sound like any Slavic accent or language. Least of all Russian.

    Just because they have a couple of sounds in common one doesn't sound like the other. It is like mistaking the sound of tractor for that of racing car just because both of them are loud.
    Last edited: May 16, 2014
  26. Nino83 Senior Member

    I agree, but in this forum a lot of people find them similar.
  27. ahvalj Senior Member

    Indeed, the similarity of some basic moments in the Russian and Portuguese pronunciations (not just accents in English) is a common place: I have read this observation even from Russians who had visited Portugal. That not everybody finds it true once again proves that we all pay attention to different aspects of the speech.
  28. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    A characteristic sound of both Portuguese and Russian (and other Slavic languages?) is the velarised or dark /l/. The sound tends to crop up when both speak English in positions where it does not occur in English and since it is associated with Russian rather than Portuguese, Portuguese speakers may be assumed to be Russian. The dark /l/ is also heard in a typical Galician accent, so Galicians may also be mistaken for Russians when speaking English.

    The assertion that Portuguese sounds like Russian is often made so there is probably something in it, though I have never heard anyone assert that Russian sounds like Portuguese! I am inclined to think that any similarity is no more than superficial, but that could be because I learned Russian at school. When I visited Portugal I never for a moment considered Portuguese sounded like Russian.
  29. ahvalj Senior Member

    It can't be other since there were never ever any contacts between these two languages. I would add that for me the greatest similarity between both lies in some moments of the intonation pattern: these languages appear much more similar when one actually doesn't hear the separate sounds.
  30. Nino83 Senior Member

    Yes but a Portuguese velarizes /l/ only in syllable coda (not at the beginning of the word or in intervocalic position), as in English, while a Brazilian doesn't velarize it.
  31. rusita preciosa

    rusita preciosa Modus forendi

    USA (Φιλαδέλφεια)
    Russian (Moscow)
    OK, I'm Russian and while I can't speak for Europen Portuguese, I used to work with Brazilians a lot (mostly Cariocas) and I can tell you that if they spoke in the next room and I did not hear what is said, I would be hard pressed to tell whether Russian or Br.Portuguese is spoken.

    On the other hand, once I had an introductory teleconference with a group of Brazilians (all in English), at the end they asked me whether I was Brazilian: they picked up on my Russian accent and it sounded close enough for them (at least on the phone).

    I think that in addition to similar sounds, the overall tonality and melody of the two languages are similar (there are not linguistic terms, my own impression).
  32. ahvalj Senior Member

    For those who understand Russian, exactly the same observation concerning the European Portuguese by a famous Russian blogger Artemiy Lebedev:
    «Надо сказать, что на расстоянии португальская речь интонационно совершенно не отличается от русской. Идешь по городу, стоят наши, говорят. Подходишь — а они по-португальски» (
  33. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    Lorraine in France
    English (US Northeast)
    I've studied both Portuguese and Russian, well much more Portuguese than Russian. There is also an Italian dialect. I don't know which one, a lot of people around here speak it, that has similar sounds.
    I was struck by the similarity between Portuguese and Russian from the start, and accent training helped me improve both. I never thought of the velar l, but it is true they exist in both languages.
  34. Nino83 Senior Member

    If we look at it at this level, when I hear a Serbian speaking English (e.g. Novak Djokovic, Ana Ivanovic) I found their accent to be very close to the Italian one (same vowels, same consonants, all consonants are pronounced very clearly etc.), but this is due to the fact that we have, almost, the same inventory of vowel and consonants (and it's due to the fact that almost all Slavic languages, with some exception, e.g. Russian, have only 5 vowels).
    On the other hand, I'd never say that Italian and Serbian languages are very similar (as I'd never say that Portuguese and, especially Brazilian Portuguese, is similar to Russian).

Share This Page