Monday, November 16, 2009

On gibberish

Laugh if you want, but this is something I've actually wondered about.

Pretty much all English-speaking Americans know how to make gibberish in other languages--not to be understood, but simply to indicate to the other person that we're pretending to speak a specific foreign language rather than, say, undergoing some neurological or religious experience. For example, here's how Americans do:

Swedish gibberish [think: the Muppets' Swedish chef]: "Ufda-buffda, hunga-bjorna."

Japanese gibberish [growl brand names in a deep Toshiro Mufune voice]: "Oh-SA! Toyota! Mitsubishi!"

Italian gibberish [simply standard English with "-a" added at the end of most words, while gently shaking your hand, thumb touching index and middle fingertips, in front of your face]: "I'm-a goin' home-a now."

French gibberish [actual words unnecessary; just purse your lips and make rapid-fire sounds from your soft palate while holding your cigarette from underneath].

And so on. I could have included Chinese gibberish, Spanish gibberish, and German gibberish, which most Americans know how to produce and all Americans recognize. We've learned it from Jerry Lewis movies, Peter Sellers movies, John Belushi skits, "I Love Lucy" reruns, and the like.*

Whether that's somehow offensive is a question another time. (Although, if you're impatient, I can tell you now that the answer is no. It's a human impulse to render everything around us onomotopoetically--even things which by their nature shouldn't have sounds at all. Otherwise, cats all over the world would simply say "meow." But I digress.)

My question has always been, what do speakers of other languages do about English? What does their American gibberish sound like?

Now we know:

It's kind of startling at first, but I can't deny there's linguistic justice to it. No wonder they look at some of us so oddly when we order from the menu.

*And that's not even counting authentic frontier gibberish.

(h/t to Ali via FB)

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