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Words & Stuff: Stuff and Nonsense by Jed Hartman

‘‘And so, little by little, a little later, these critics set to work to make nonsense out of the sense of what we were doing. And they succeeded.’’

—Ken Nordine, ‘‘Flibberty Jib,’’ from Word Jazz

 

Nonsense is a vast field; one could spend a lifetime studying it, and never really understand it.

So in this column, I’m focusing specifically on one aspect of nonsense: nonsense words.

Perhaps such words could more precisely be called ‘‘gibberish,’’ or even more precisely ‘‘non-lexical vocables.’’ These kinds of words are widespread; even looking only at modern English, they’re common in (for example) everything from nursery rhymes (‘‘Hey, diddle diddle’’) to Shakespeare (‘‘Hey, nonny nonny’’). Sometimes they’ve been used to replace off-color terms; sometimes to substitute vocals for instrumental parts in a song; sometimes as onomatopoeia; sometimes to evoke fantastical places and creatures; sometimes for no particular reason at all.

The poet best known for his use of nonsense words is probably Edward Lear, who wrote a great many of what are generally known as nonsense poems. Some of those didn’t rely on nonsense words, but many did, featuring such characters as the Pobble who has no toes, the Dong with the luminous nose, and the Jumblies. Of course, fantastical creatures with fantastical names are arguably a feature of works of fantasy rather than of nonsense, and various of Lear’s words (such as ‘‘runcible spoon’’) acquired real-world meanings and came into general usage; still, plenty of his words were nonsense at the time.

A friend and I once poked fun at Lear for his neologizing habits:

When rhyming, Mr. Edward Lear Used nonsense words to make quite clear The fact that he had no idear Of how to end a quime. —from ‘‘Why I Hate Poetry,’’ by Jed Hartman and Jonathan Wald

Lewis Carroll, another great Victorian practitioner of nonsense, did similar things: creating fantastical creatures (such as the Jabberwock) and nonsense terms (mimsy, frumious). Some of those terms he explained in the text; others he explained in letters; others, as far as I know, he never explained at all, and readers ever since have been left to determine their meanings, if any, from context.

Of course, any word in a language you don’t know (including made-up fantasy languages) may sound like nonsense, especially if you don’t know any related languages.

J. R. R. Tolkien, for example, invented a great many words, and put some existing ones to new uses. But he was a linguist (well, philologist, anyway) before he was a fantasist, and his made-up words are in the context of entire made-up languages; they have meanings. Is the same true of Carroll? Hard to say; he certainly wasn’t as rigorous in his language construction as Tolkien, but at least some of his words did have intended meanings, just not meanings that readers were likely to know without help.

And there are some words that initially appear to be nonsense, but on closer inspection turn out to be distorted versions of known words, from Carroll’s portmanteau words, to the lyrics of ‘‘Mairzy Doats,’’ to the mysterious time-altered phrases in Riddley Walker (such as ‘‘Puter Leat’’ for the computer elite).

But let’s set aside the realm of nonsense words that are intended to mean something in particular, and continue looking at those that truly aren’t.

Of course, nonsense words can be used by speakers of any language. There’s even semi-classical nonsense: the traditional lorem ipsum text is intended to look like quasi-Latin, and includes some bits of actual Latin. (And of course there’s the old phrase ‘‘it’s all Greek to me.’’)

In early 20th-century Western Europe, the big name in nonsense was the art movement known as Dada. On at least one occasion, for example, Dadaists attempted to bring Dada into their lives by ‘‘defamiliarizing their own speech through nonsense words in an attempt to reveal the more instinctual or unconscious drives that helped produce their lives.’’ (Quote is from The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, by Matthew Biro, p. 58) (And yes, big academic words can also sound like nonsense.)

Tristan Tzara, one of the leaders of the Dadaists, was especially prone to nonsense. Tzara’s poetry sometimes engaged in a kind of glossolalia-like effect that attempted to evoke the sounds of other languages, as least as perceived by French speakers. Some of his words may have been pure nonsense; some others may have been intended as actual Swahili terms, or perhaps just words patched together from vaguely Swahili-esque sounds. (As discussed in Dada and Beyond, vol. 2: Dada and Its Legacies, ch 16: ‘‘The Importance of Talking Nonsense: Tzara, Ideology, and Dada in the 21st Century,’’ by Stephen Forcer.)

This idea of imitating and evoking sounds of other languages has been used in a variety of other contexts as well. For example, in 1972, Italian singer Adriano Celentano wrote a song called ‘‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’’ that was intended to sound the way English sounds to non-English speakers. Celentano noted, ‘‘I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything.’’ There’s a video of the song available online; it’s well worth watching. The words hover right at the edge of comprehensibility, much like the words of many songs that are actually in English.

Music seems to be the most prominent place where nonsense words occur. The most interesting-to-me form of nonsense vocables that I hadn’t heard of before researching for this column is Canntaireachd, a method of describing bagpipe music using vocal sounds. Among other things, it uses a particular set of syllables—rather like the ‘‘do, re, mi’’ of solfege—to indicate particular notes.

According to Wikipedia, non-lexical vocables appear prominently in Blackfoot music, Pygmy music, indigenous Maldives music, and some forms of religious Jewish music, among other traditions.

The Saami musical forms known as joiking sometimes employ non-lexical vocables; as I understand it, some of them appear in the joik-derived song titled ‘‘Vuelie,’’ written by a Saami composer, that’s sung during the opening sequence of Disney’s _Frozen_. That’s not new to Disney musical films, of course; half a dozen other songs from such movies have also employed nonsense words, from ‘‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’’ to ‘‘Chim Chim Cher-ee.’’

Speaking of kids’ movies, the soundtrack to the movie _Coraline_ is full of lovely songs with lyrics that are hard to understand. Various people online claim that the songs are in French—even one person who claims to be fluent in French says that—but an interview with Henry Selick makes clear that it is in fact a nonsense language, apparently created by Bruno Coulais.

The Icelandic band Sigur Rós does something similar: some of their songs are in a nonsense language called Vonlenska, also known as Hopelandic. Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins was also known for making up words for lyrics: for example, ‘‘Blue Bell Knoll’’ sounds sort of like it might be in English, but Fraser wasn’t singing recognizable words.

And of course, we have a variety of other kinds of nonsense words and sounds in English songs, from beatboxing to doo-wop to scat singing. If you’ve never encountered Cab Calloway singing ‘‘Minnie the Moocher,’’ it’s worth a listen.

Which brings us back around full circle to the quote I started out with. Ken Nordine’s ‘‘Flibberty Jib’’ is about a lot of things, but among other things, it’s about the ways that music, and live performance even of seeming nonsense words, can bring people together into an experience that makes a kind of emotional sense even if the words are themselves non-lexical.

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Jed Hartman is a technical writer and former Strange Horizons fiction editor whose extracurricular interests include logodaedaly, interdigitation, sesquipedalia, and lapsus linguae. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories, Clean Sheets, Fishnet, Flytrap, Strange Horizons, and Wet. For more about him (or to read his blog), see his website: www.kith.org/logos.