Language recognition

This is not about recognizing what was said. It's about recognizing what language was spoken.

HS reports that a woman was raped in Helsinki, and the perpetrators were speaking either Russian or Romanian.

I'm rather suspicious of this detection of language. Of course, first of all, there is the point that reports of abductions and rapes aren't always entirely to be trusted (sometimes they are made up); secondly, there is the point that yes, women do have a right to do anything and not get raped. Women should be able to go in the middle of a night to a strange van, driven by completely unknown men speaking an unknown language, and not get raped - but still, why on earth should a woman take risks like that? I don't get it. But here my attention mainly goes to the claim that the language was Russian or Romanian. How does she know?

I claim to be rather good at languages; I find it easy - more easy than most people I know - to pick up elementaries of a language that is new to me, and understand bits and make myself understood. But as I haven't traveled in Eastern Europe, I don't stand a chance in recognizing Central and East European Slavic languages apart from each other, and telling which is which. Polish or Chech or Croatian, Slovakian or Slovenian or Serbian or Sorbian, Bulgarian or Macedonian. To me, they all resemble Russian a little bit; I do realize they're not actually Russian, but if someone speaks Ukrainian or Belarusian, I can't tell those apart from dialects of Russian, nor from Polish. From written language I can deduct more, starting from the alphabet used: Cyrillic or Latin, and how prolific it is with consonants - the Polish are poor and cannot afford vowels.

I can pick which one is Hungarian, because that is entirely different. I know a number of Hungarians and have heard them speak, and when I go to a public space like a railway station in Budapest, although I don't understand a word of what is being said around, the tone and note of speech is somehow familiar - the relationship of this Fenno-Ugric language to Finnish is somehow evident to me.

But we should realize that Romanian does not belong to the group of Slavic languages, either. It is a Romanic language and resembles French or Italian much more than Russian.

So how come the woman can say that the language spoken by rapists was Russian or Romanian? She (or the police) may of course think of Romanians because there has been so much talk about Romanian beggars and thieves in Finland, and Russians are always good suspects for anything bad here, but I'm afraid the guilt was passed far too easily. If she says Russian or Romanian, the linguistical distance between these two is fairly big and most of Europe lies in between. The men could have been speaking some other Slavic or Romanic language - like those listed above, or Romansh spoken in Switzerland, or Romani (Gypsy). Or they could have been speaking Albanian, which is also an Indo-European language (as most European languages are, except Fenno-Ugric languages and Basque). Or, who knows, Greek, as the saying in English goes that "this is all Greek to me". (When applying the same proverb, Finns refer to Hebrew).

Perhaps the only safe statement she could have made would have been that the men spoke "an European language that was strange to me", and the part about European is probably a bit uncertain, since it might just as well have been e.g. Turkish or Kurdish. Not very appropriate to pinpoint Russians or Romanians only.

Naturally, the responsibility for this is more with the newspaper and the police than the poor woman, who was probably shocked. If things happened like it was reported, she was violated, and that was wrong. But still, the linguistic method to point out who did it doesn't really work out so easily, and mostly seems to reflect currently popular prejudices.

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