YouTube: behind the music!

by Colby Cosh

Those of us who are pretty severely colour-blind are familiar with a certain kind of conversation that takes place when a normally-sighted person discovers our affliction; after a brief quiz, the moment always arrives when the normal finds himself trying to ask “So what do things look like to you?” and (quickly or slowly) realizes that it is impossible to share pure perceptions by means of natural language.

Because I’ve had that chat so often, I’ve always been interested in the similar question of how English “sounds” to a non-native speaker. The closest the native speaker can come to appreciating this is by means of certain rare occasions in which a non-native speaker talks gibberish designed to sound like English. I once saw an interview with the late Raúl Juliá in which he recalled playing cowboys-’n'-Indians with friends as a child in Puerto Rico. They had devoured countless untranslated, unsubtitled cheap Westerns, and he lapsed instantly into several seconds of a delightful, drawling, totally improvised fake English—a fantastic collision between the spirits of John Wayne and Russell Hoban’s Kleinzeit.

Last year this 1972 clip from Italy’s RAI television surfaced on the net and went viral in the anglophone world; it features four minutes of nonsense-English, more carefully constructed than Juliá’s, set to a groove by the singer-comic Adriano Celentano.

Even if you’ve seen the original “Prisencolinensinainciusol”, you probably haven’t watched the even weirder 2005 video in which Italian TV host Paolo Bonolis confronts Will Smith with the lyrics and is mock-horrified to discover that they are not, in fact, fine English balladry of the first water.




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YouTube: behind the music!

  1. (1) Celentano is trying to emulate American English. Does that count?
    (2) Am I correct in guessing that the classroom parts of the vid look no different to you than the dancing-near-a-mirror parts?

  2. Actually, it does sound a bit like Bob Dylan, too.

    I memorized Jabberwocky when I was fairly young, and have always been kind of impressed with it, though the nonsense words there may be English-inflected in the same way this seems to be Italian-inflected.

  3. Very cool to see that video. The problem: listening to a language that you don't speak isn't just about not knowing what the words mean. The most 'bizarre' feature of foreign languages isn't that the vocabulary is mysterious- it's that the phonology is quite alien.

    For instance, take a text in the Dutch language (or German, or anything semi-closely related to English that is written with the Latin alphabet) and read it aloud. Make no attempt whatsoever to mimic an accent of any kind.

    Now you've heard a language composed from the same phonemes as English, but you won't know what the words mean.

    But the reason Chinese, or Arabic, or any other language has a distinct 'flavour' to it, is that it's built out of a different group of sounds. I don't think it's possible to get a sense of what English sounds like to an Italian- except maybe by analogy. I'd bet that English sounds harsh and flat to an Italian or French person. Like German sounds to us.

  4. Every now and then, usually when fatigued, this "thing" happens to me where English sounds like jibberish to me, even though it's my first language. (Sometimes French, too, but that's more understandable.)

    First few times were scary, now I wish I could make them last longer, without having a stroke.

  5. Interestingly, the nonsense looks vaguely Italian to me. Which shouldn't really be a surprise.

  6. I always like watching European hockey players pickin' up hockey talk. I just saw a clip of Daniel Alfredsson – he's got it down, Mats Sundin was good, while Sergei Samsonov's North American English was perfect.

  7. It's great!
    The Roberto Quenedi character by Argentine comedian Peter Caposotto does something similar, also on youtube, well worth watching.

  8. Don't you mean the deconstructed English of Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, rather than the punning but hardly fake English spoken/written by his Kleinzeit?

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