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Thursday, October 21, 2010


What's your gibberish?

In the last post, I felt the need to communicate in gibberish. Describing David Lynch's Dune, this is what I said:

Characters stride from scene to scene declaiming gibberish with a sense of mythic urgency; most of what I could hear in the dialogue seemed to be cries of 'I am the fantiple wekazork!' or 'I shall teach you the ways of the nafbargese momtuggers!' or something similarly incomprehensible; having read the book many years ago I had a vague idea of what they were talking about, but the fact remained that in two hours I seemed to be watching about ten years pass in which the zimfrangers fought the mafnabbis over the crucial issue of penwalladddding, and they all took it really, really seriously, for reasons that nobody was going to explain.

Which gets me thinking on the subject of gibberish in general.

You see, quite a while ago I was chatting online and the subject of anime came up. Now, my knowledge of anime is limited to being an admirer of Hayao Miyazaki's films (which I'd recommend to anyone who hasn't seen them; I'd start with My Neighbour Totoro, because it's just lovely), so while I'm sure there's plenty of good stuff out there, I can sympathise with people whose main feeling towards it is a resounding 'Huh?'

The conversation had covered the view that it's silly to reject anime as a whole because it's so varied, and I was defending the confused. So when someone said (apropos of a different strand of the debate):

Now, if you don't like shoujo, or magical girl, or mecha shows, I'd actually mostly agree (well, shoujo's pretty wide-ranging in topic, so I'm mixed on that one). The only mecha show I've ever liked is Evangelion, and that one's only nominally mecha.

I put my oar in thus:

See, what I heard was: Now, if you don't like obdinglings, or banana spanners, or prondacious wasps, I'd agree; though the only pericrancible fupdigle I've ever liked was Sudafrint, which was only nominally fascipretal. Faced with such a complicated starting system, I sympathise with people who shy off. 'I don't like anime' may translate as 'I doubt I'll like anime enough to make it worth bending my screaming brain around all the doornobbles and supercharged nazopoots.'

The ins and outs of anime aside, what strikes me is that the gibberish in both extracts have a certain quality in common. You might say they seem to come from a common language.

And this gets me to wondering. How does it work with invented words?

A Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I've long delighted in features Calvin answering a question in his 'own words'; since he doesn't know the answer, he takes the 'own words' bit literally, and writes:

Yakka foob mog. Grug pubbawup zink wattoom gazork. Chumble spuzz.

Now, again the words seem to come from a common language. But it's not the same common language that my nonsense words do. Bill Watterson and I both speak English, but when we gibber, we sing from different countries.

Invented words are a long-established element of literature, and contribute greatly to its texture. I've blogged in the past about the issue of inventing character names, where I pointed out that in mass-market fantasy, there can be a tendency to give all the characters mellifluous names that sound, not just as if the characters in that book come from the same language group (which ain't English, despite their speaking it), but that they come from the same language group as the characters in lots of other mass-market fantasy books as well. English speakers, at least, have a fondness for certain phonemes - Ls and Rs, names ending in vowels for women, soft-sounding stuff - and tend to apply them when they want their character names and places to sound romantic. (I'd be fascinated to know if the same phenomenon applies in other languages, and if so, whether the same phonemes are popular.)

This is mostly absent-minded writing, but as I pointed out there, you can get linguistic consistency in made-up words. Michel Faber's Under the Skin, for instance, features words like 'vodsel' and 'mussanta' and a protagonist called 'Isserly': no dipthongs, lots of S-sounds. The words come from the same language; it's just a language we intuit from the few words we get.

You can go to some extremes with this - most famously, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange features 'nadsat' language: the narrator tells you the whole story in a futuristic argot that the reader has to work out from context as they go along. Alex's slang is again consistent, mostly because Burgess drew on an actual other language to create the words: he mostly took Slavic words and Anglicised them. Burgess claimed to have written the novel in three weeks, so the method may have had a time-saving origin, but there's no denying it's an effective way of making the slang sound convincing.

Under the Skin and A Clockwork Orange, though, are both serious books, and as such their neologisms need to invoke some kind of character context. Isserly comes from a harsh society an ugly surroundings: the hissing, flat-vowelled quality of her language has a stretched-thin unsentimentalism that invokes her bleak background. Alex's jovial Slavicisms mixed in with Cockney rhyming slang and regular English strike an anarchic, rootless note that jangles against his almost accidental clash with power: his cheerful disloyalty runs hard up against the rigor of the state, and it begins in language before it unfolds into plot. There are reasons, necessities even, that account for the tone of the inventions.

Making up nonsense words for comic effect, though, gives you a wide range. There's no necessity at all except to amuse someone, if only yourself.

So I'm wondering: what is it? Do certain phonemes have funny bones, as it were? Is it bathos, the lurch and stumble of inappropriate sounds pushed together? Is it an echo of other words put in a funny context? If I were a linguist, I might know.

And so I'm asking: what does your nonsense language sound like? Gibber at me, please.

Re naming:

In university, I knew a lot of people who had moved to Canada from China in their teens, and all the women chose names which were presumably attractive-sounding in Cantonese and Mandarin, but were not in English: Doris, Ethel, etc. Men mostly chose names like John.

Sabras have often commented on the Hebrew names that Diaspora Jews give their children -- they tend to choose the nice-sounding Biblical names, which are apparently the Israeli versions of Doris. (I had one teacher just up and change my name on me. Not that I love my Hebrew name, but it was odd -- she didn't do it to anyone else.)

Re funny phonemes:

Labials are funny (p/b/f/v/w/m). You use them a lot -- every one of your nonsense words has at least one. You also use simple syllables a lot -- mostly CV, maybe one CVC or CCV in a word -- and tend to have long words. Velar sounds are foreign -- (x/k/g/ng) -- one of them is funny, more of them is not-us.

I cannot think of what kind of nonsense words I use, though.
I love how language gets used in fantasy settings to differentiate people - and I particularly love it when authors have gone out of their way to make it look intentional and internally consistent. I like my nonsense to be at least somewhat sensible. *s*

Timothy Zahn did this particularly well in the Conquerors series - it got to the point where, reading along, one could get a feel for the sentence structure of the language. Since I am good at remembering words, that resulted in me comparing my own translations of sentences to what the human characters thought of the Conqueror's language - super fun.

On the other side, we have the Mando'a slang from the Clone Troopers Star Wars arc - the words are consistent, they even use modifier endings that they string together in fairly consistent ways (for instance, if 'buir gets attached to something, it's kind of a big poppa whatever-it-is) but the sentence structure is absent at best and nonsensical at worst, and it interrupts the flow of the story because I'm trying to understand it, darn it.

That said:

Naschez. Alhoum gekara shevash, kihan a veilkor ghoramikal. Kult a mechoum khaleen.

My personal gibberish tends to be guttural, with lots of short punchy words.

I find it is lots of fun to think about how creatures with nonhuman palate configurations might speak - for instance, try talking with your lips as rigid to your teeth as you can, using only your tongue and throat to form sounds. Fun!
My online handle (Kirala) comes from a language I attempted to invent at the age of 14 under the delusion that I could be another Tolkien. Of course, I didn't - it was just vocabulary. (Aside from the fact that German class made me vehemently decide against any inflections.)

I got somewhere around 200 words, I think, most of them useless in most contexts.

I did write a poem in my made-up language:

Chelter arya
Litke kiltek
Erbe erke
Zhirk e haerlek
Eryem fliert
Rilke imar
Lumen kler
P'lirdt a krepbar
Elt li thean haerketi ierayn
Tel borguln tcheneti li lier ayn.

Nowadays, I know too much about language structure to attempt to write a language. And any attempts to write gibberish usually gravitate back to either German or my dear, presumptuous Fäerilad.

(On another note? My word verification is "micidist". Where do they get these?)
My edition of glossalalia: Salthinen khorel, mereh hijri talnan. Merekhteh, holethna vaira si'eln. Dosereh.

I wonder if you could try for a pseudo-science art like phrenology in this. Have someone speak some nonsense words on the spot, then analyze their psyche by their choice of phonemes.
I wonder if the charm of gibberish comes from that impatient, pre-lingual part of our brains that just wants to communicate emotions or intentions in shorthand. It feels like a more honest and real kind of communication, since it's harder to fake emotions than constructed thoughts. I suspect it only works if the sound of the invented word accurately conveys the state of mind of the speaker to the listener, in a kind of collaborative effort. They both have to be on the same page already for the magic to work.

Or as you put it in The Gizz Principle : "The thing about a Gizz is this: it has the structure of an explanation without the content. But it hints at content - usually by echoing things that we know are real."


For some reason, your discussion triggered an association with a piece of music I vaguely remember from some time back. A bit of searching on youtube restored it to memory.

It's Deep Forest's Sweet Lullaby, which wiki tells me is built around a recording of a "Baegu lullaby from the Solomon Islands." So it's in a language that is distant enough from English that it sounds like gibberish to me. Very mellifluous gibberish though - it makes me wish I could sing along, or at least do a convincing fake.

Alas, I don't have the ear or linguistic know-how for picking out the subtleties. But hey, looks like someone's posted a version(without translation) on Metrolyrics:

"Sa ziza zecob dela dalou'a
Boralea'e borale mi komi oula
Etawuae'o ela'o coralia wu'aila
Ilei pandera zel e' tomu pere no mo mai"

Oh joy! Now I can happily babble away...

verification word: unmetano, which I'm going to render in pseudo-Baegu as "u'meta a no"
Not much to say, but:

If you haven't seen this yet, this is a very interesting song that is written in gibberish. That is, to sound like what American English sounds like to non English speakers, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ov_UksYViOc)

For me I definitely remember early attempts at writing scifi and being more concerned that my made up words sound pretty. Let's see, I remember Bayliss, Jana, Om'Set, Omri, Alora, as names and terms.

For everyday gibberish some are original and some are favorite jokes and MST3K riffs I've repurposed. Keeper of the Seven Keys of Ventoozler to mean things that are needlessly complicated for example.
Okay, Donalbain, I have a question for you, separate from this post.

On the Slacktivist blog, you have of late been extremely abusive to me. I cite


in which you called me 'staggeringly dishonest' and 'utterly pathetic', and


where you declared that I 'run the fuck away' because I declared that since you were being pointlessly rude, I didn't feel like debating with you any further and was going to killfile you.

In the light of this, why are you posting on my own blog as if nothing happened?

You have been a commenter here for quite a while now, and previous to those outbursts we always seemed to have a cordial relationship. The outbursts seemed uncharacteristically aggressive, and couched in personal insults that exceed the language of heated debate. This seems completely at odds with that supposed cordiality.

Is something going on? I'm not prepared to put up with abuse, but your behaviour is confusing me and if there is an explanation I would appreciate hearing it.
So I'm wondering: what is it? Do certain phonemes have funny bones, as it were? Is it bathos, the lurch and stumble of inappropriate sounds pushed together? Is it an echo of other words put in a funny context? If I were a linguist, I might know.

Uh-oh. I am, as it happens, a linguist. And I've taught courses in the linguistics of humor. So, er, um... However, I haven't seen anything that definitively ties sounds as such to humor. Much depends on what sounds outlandish to the ear of the speaker of a given language, along with puns, however indirect, on words in the language (in our case, English).

For example, I could imagine "Raskolnikov" as the sort of Russian name a Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett might use for humorous purposes, if Dostoevsky hadn't gotten there first, to very different effect. In fact, it's not hard to imagine an English speaking writer using the name to create a preening popinjay of a character (yes, a cliche. I'm sorry. There's a reason I don't do creative writing. Several, actually, but the inability to avoid cliches is one.) who strutted around rolling his [r]s as he announces himself as "Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov!" The alliterative R's in that case, combined with a set of unusual names, do the job for the Anglophone ear but presumably wouldn't do much for a Russian speaker, for whom the names would sound much more normal.

James Thurber's use of "pocketa queep" as the repeating sound in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is funny in part because of the last syllable. I suspect that may be due to the "ee" sound that doesn't suggest the thrum of machinery, but is iconic of smallness, and thus of Mitty's life. And perhaps because "queep" sounds like an effort to pronounce "creep" with the kind of speech impediment that turns [r] into [w]. "Creep" (in the sense of walking carefully and making oneself small while doing so) likewise suits Mitty, who is always obliged to step carefully around the forceful characters he interacts with.

Oh dear. I'm not helping much, am I? I wish I could swoop in with a reference: "Ah, but of course! This was all settled by Spode and Fink-Nottle, 2004. The sounds [b], [f] and [w] are funny, along with the vowel "uh" as in "mud." The consonant [n] however always conveys the utmost seriousness." But no. As far as I know, Spode and Fink-Nottle have yet to publish on the subject, and I haven't found anyone else who's got the goods on the subject, either.
So I was reading an article in the local paper, about the difficulties the promoter is having in attracting sponsors for a Grand-Prix race through the center of the city (and why anyone thought that was a good idea, I couldn't tell you). And he said, It's the Indy Grand Prix, after all, it's not the Bifflespit Grand Prix!


As for songs in one language turning into mellifluous gibberish in another, my favorite example would be the Irish "macaronic" (I love that term) song known as Siuil A ruin. Doubtless you're familiar with the chorus, which goes:

Siúil, siúil, siúil a rúin
Siúil go socair agus siúil go ciúin
Siúil go doras agus éalaigh liom
Is go dté tú mo mhúirnín slán.

Which the ever-helpful Wikipedia translates as:
Go, go, go my love
Go quietly and peacefully
Go to the door and flee with me
And may you go safely my dear.

After a few years in America, it had turned into:

Shule, shule, shule-a-roo,
Shule-a-rak-shak, shule-a-ba-ba-coo
When I saw my sally babby beal
come bibble in the boo shy lory.

Or even:

Shule shule, shule aroon
Shule the agaragar, shule the coon
Shule shule shule aroon
I don't think that anyone should tie me oh

My favourite author of gibberish is probably Lewis Carol, especially Jabberwocky, which I can still recite from memory.

I suspect that one's gibberish will depend hugely on where one grew up. German gibberish sounds are probably similar to, but different from, English ones, and both of them are probably very far off from Mandarin.

Actually, I know that's true. I remember watching...The Great Dictator, I think it was. Some Charlie Chaplin movie or other, anyways, and listening to the commentary heard the commentators note that Mr. Chaplin had an excellent skill at speaking gibberish that sounded like it came from a certain country. You could just go up to him, name a language, and he'd rant on for minutes in something that sounded very, very similar to that language, but that was utterly meaningless. If you actually try this yourself it's very, very difficult. You have to wrap your mind around all these different phonemes and stresses and rhythms while also inventing new words on the fly.

Anywho, my (Central Canadian) gibberish is something like the following:
Flarg melingle doopli menasus fremdilak epsik niramlate mistrenbul videtoc miretun
"I'd be fascinated to know if the same phenomenon applies in other languages, and if so, whether the same phonemes are popular."

I'd say absolutely yes, and absolutely not, but I don't have much knowledge to back that up, just the fact that when you look at actual non-gibberish words and names in different language you do have different phonemes and codes.
The most obvious example to me is how the vowel "a" is really feminine in Latin languages, especially at the end of a word and this isn't true or less so in some other languages like Russian or Japanese (how can Sacha, Nikita or Akira be male names ?). On the other hand, the "ko" ending is very feminine in Japanese while in Europe it would be the marker of an Italian male.

As far as your gibberish goes it looks to me like a mix of Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss. I wonder how influenced we are when making gibberish by other sources of gibberish (which may be foreign languages as you pointed out with "A Clockwork Orange"; I'm certainly enamored with Welsh and I hate seeing "qu" in fantasy language, it just screams of French, therefore prosaic, to me).

Word verification : giolsain, the name of a Gaelic-based gibberish language if I ever heard one.
Jobolbarst wozzolplobber hobbinrib, comopter okosolomorst chobbinhober. Yoposter fluzz. Gamorst galorst habobber wopopter yoforfenfofter, jomopter barst. Chamiptle jalicty. Qoloborst holomopter agginflast? Jazzerdifleminshnop! Owost owozzle oweminchep, dermidiflam! Boloster holomorst, ologotromminvorptle, ologochomminbobptle, yogginisnox; hologochovvinvorst, jobbidiyoppinplest. Pologogobbinfneft. Jormin golopter, dellibiblast.
Wow. Sniffoy, please accept the Prize of Mintiple Pafgrangery.
You need to include some short words if you're going to look convincing. Look at that sentence, for example: only three of the twelve words have more than one syllable, and the longest is ten letters.

A lot of the examples here make heavy use of j and k, which (think Scrabble scores) aren't so common in English. Digraphs also seem to be a good indicator that the language is more real.

Also, there seems to be confusion between gibberish, Jobolbarst wozzolplobber hobbinrib flavour, and gibberish, prondacious pericrancible fupdigle flavour.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is do mith tituckla thath phonitouwr sita; hu ekeyha ve.

And how hard it is to type randomly without ones fingers falling into familiar patterns...

Julie paradox

[verification: spoimp]
You need to include some short words if you're going to look convincing. Look at that sentence, for example: only three of the twelve words have more than one syllable, and the longest is ten letters.

Hah, yes, I'm aware it does terribly at imitating any sort of actual language. But that is more or less what it sounds like when I speak nonsense... I suppose in a real language the words run together when you speak them, and the big multisyllabic blocks above would actually break down as multiple words. But since there are no real words underlying it in this case, introducing such breaks would be entirely artificial here.
*wants a banana spanner*

*would use it to open every banana in the world*
Fah! Nonnet gabba tra heh, nyon? illset sim bo trabba gimnet fo sa-sa shoy! Meener obvala quin shuot sabhaman. Min-myei?

Verification: dinefi, which fits just fine with the rest of this.
It occurs to me that an excellent example of professional gibberish is Lorem Ipsum, a fake "language" invented to have roughly the same occurrence of vowels, consonants, long and short words as English, while still being utterly meaningless. The idea being that if you're creating, say, the layout for a newsletter you want to see how text in it will look, without being distracted by what's actually printed there, so you put in: "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipsicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua...."
That appears to just be the standard "lorem ipsum" passage... what's this about someone turning into a general gibberish "language"?
Spanwise imbruption herries thane repropests. Ing screed, ing harple, mey plein tarragent. Cosicle ing parraps, haspeen groshe.

I can speak fluent gibberish, but can't write it at all; I suppose it's because the words evaporate as soon as I utter them. I can remember-while-typing only a few that have become family words: versnepta, frangle or maybe splink (it's a kind of musical flourish I once heard in choir practice).

I was, long ago, working on a fantasy about random groups of immigrants transported to an empty but fecund Earth -- principally from groups who got steamrollered by The Mighty Anglo-Saxons or America The Beautiful Rah Rah. So, yeah, there was the potential for many and beautiful patoises which I didn't know enough to put together.

But I was proud of some English loan words and the way they mutated down the imaginary generations: cashew eventually became caju, "succulent," and avocado became abacata, "luxurious, extravagant, prodigal."

Come to think of it, those are both loan words in English, too.

Oh, and: word verification is dagiwa, which sounds like it ought to mean something in, oh, Dogon, perhaps.
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