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.