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I've come here in the hope that there may be some genius amongst you who could have a fair crack at identifying a potential country of origin through speech pattern.

On the Movies&TV stack, we're trying to narrow down the origin of the mysterious 'Tommy Wiseau', a cult trash movie director who is notoriously evasive about his personal history, but is absolutely captivating to watch.

According to a recently published journal/biography, we're aware that despite claiming to be from New Orleans and speaking French he is actually more likely to be from a former Soviet Bloc country, but nothing else is known.

Is there a way of identifying what language he spoke by analyzing the syntax and grammatical construction of his sentences? Could accent (as bizarre as it is) be any indicator?

We know this is a long shot, but at this point any clue either way is useful...

Some resources: The Room Soundboard, and IMDB page has many of the quotes.

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    Anything with a link to The Room in it gets an automatic +1 from me. – RegDwight Jan 6 '14 at 16:41
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    ... that being said, this kind of detective work might be better suited for Linguistics.SE, as knowing just English, or even English accents, won't suffice. – RegDwight Jan 6 '14 at 16:43
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    I didn't realize we had a liguini-sts.SE (joke!) on the site, could you possibly migrate?! – John Smith Optional Jan 6 '14 at 16:55
  • Are we going to end up with answer about the Forgotten Birdman of Europe? – Meat Trademark Jan 6 '14 at 17:19
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about identifying a foreign speaker of English. – JSBձոգչ Jan 6 '14 at 19:41
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There can be syntactic clues (for example, people whose native language is Slavonic (other than Bulgarian/Macedonian) have no definite or indefinite articles, and often underuse them in English; but this may or may not be noticeable, depending on the person and the quality and length of their learning English. And of course those are not the only languages without articles.

I don't notice any specific syntactic patterns in this clip: I find his English pretty idiomatic American English.

However, I do notice a phonetic pattern from time to time: syllable-final consonants are sometimes omitted (for example "Do[n't]" at 1:41 and "insi[d]e" at 1:47). This is a habit I associate with Chinese and - probably more relevantly - Spanish speakers.

On that basis (only) I would make a very tentative suggestion of a Spanish speaker.

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  • Thanks for the answer! we know he is from a former Soviet Bloc country, spending some time in France. Perhaps some transcripts from the book might provide more evidence to indicate his accent? – John Smith Optional Jan 7 '14 at 11:45
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I have no idea about the specific person that you mentioned, or how to go about identifying his country of origin. My answer addresses the general aspect of it.

Yes, there are linguists/computational linguists who are working to create software to identify aspects of the author, be it country of origin, or even personal identity. Speech is definitely an aspect that many are working on (example). There are many others who are focusing on the errors of non-native writers (example). The field, in general, is called stylometry or computational stylistics. If you want to try out some such software, stylo and JGAAP are good apps to start with.

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Noam Chomsky hypothesized about a Universal Grammar, in which part of being human includes having a genetic structure that assumes a certain ordering of Subject, Verb, and Object. Subject precedes Object in the vast majority (around 95%) of languages.

Alien artificial constructs (like Yoda-speak or Klingon) deliberately invert the Subject and Object to increase their alien feel.

I heard Chomsky lecture at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) in the early '90s. He asserted that if a Martian linguist came to Earth, he would declare that there were a single language (with many dialects).

Sadly, this means that only rarely would one be able to distinguish a language of origin based on syntax and grammar.

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  • dang it. I was hoping for a lifeline somewhere.... Thanks for the Answer. Don't suppose there's anyway to rule out his accent, either? – John Smith Optional Jan 6 '14 at 18:22
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    I'm sorry, but this answer is nonsense. Even if you accept UG (which many do not) it has no bearing on the question. I generally agree with your conclusion, but it in no way depends on UG. – Colin Fine Jan 7 '14 at 0:07
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    I agree with @ColinFine - UG isn't intended as a means of glossing over the vast amount of syntactic variation - hence parameters in principles & parameters. Of course we can distinguish languages based on their syntax - we're not Martians, we're linguists. – P Elliott Jan 7 '14 at 12:38
  • Did any of you actually listen to the clips of the director's quotes or read the IMDB quotes before downvoting? They are standard SVO English (admittedly with a hard-to-identify accent). My point is that the syntax does not buy the listener a distinctive clue, as it is the same as the vast majority of other languages. – rajah9 Jan 7 '14 at 14:41
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    @Rajah9, I've already said that I agree with your conclusion, but that doesn't mean that a (controversial, and very abstract) theory has anything to do with the question. As I said in my answer, there are sometimes syntactic clues to a speaker's original language, but often none, and I couldn't detect any in the clip. This is because of the demonstrable facts that 1) languages differ in their syntax; 2) some speakers carry over syntactic habits into other languages where they are not grammatical or not idiomatic; 3) some speakers don't. No appeal to an airy-fairy theory is required. – Colin Fine Jan 7 '14 at 16:07

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