The comments on my recent post, "Making linguistics relevant (for sports blogs)" meandered into a discussion of linguistic example sentences that display morphosyntactic patterning devoid of semantic content. The most famous example is of course Noam Chomsky's Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, though many have argued that it's quite possible to assign meaning to the sentence, given the right context (see Wikipedia for more).
But what about sentences that use pure nonsense in place of "open-class" or "lexical" morphemes, joined together by inflectional morphemes and function words? This characterizes nonsense verse of the "Jabberwocky" variety ('Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe). One commenter recalled a classic of the genre, The ventious crapests pounted raditally, which was introduced by the cognitive scientist Colin Cherry in his 1957 book, On Human Communication: A Review, Survey, and a Criticism.
Here's the relevant passage (pieced together from snippet view on Google Books):
It is essentially experience with our own language that ensures this identification of "parts of speech"; familiarity with common types of sentences and with the ways in which different semantic categories are built into them. Indeed, so deeply engrained is our knowledge of such conventional forms and of word affixes that we have no difficulty in analyzing "nonsense" sentences of simple types:
The ventious crapests pounted raditally.
(adjective) (noun) (verb) (adverb)
We can readily translate this into French:
Les crapêts ventieux pontaient raditallement.
but we cannot carry over these parts of speech, or the sentence structure, to more remote languages any more than we can translate each word into a word. Thus, this nonsense sentence could not be put into, say, a Chinese dialect!
Our ability to process nonsensical content words, when given a proper morphosyntactic framework, would be further explored by Jean Berko Gleason in her 1958 article, "The Child's Learning of English Morphology" (Word 14:150-77). Gleason created the "Wug test" to investigate how children learn to deploy inflectional morphemes, such as the plural marker in There are two wugs. Since the publication of the article, Gleason's cute little wugs have traveled far and wide (get your T-shirts here). And as Mark Liberman once observed (quoting Wason and Reich), "No wug is too dax to be zonged."
Cherry's translation of his nonsense sentence into French has inspired other cross-linguistic renderings. (I'll leave it to Sinologists to determine the validity of his claim that Chinese languages are too "remote" for such translatability.) In German, for instance, there's Die wenten Krapetten ponteten radital, as given by Helmut Seiffert in his 1968 book Information über die Information. (There's some discussion here, in German, of how the sentence would be translated into Italian.)
All of this is reminiscent of the numerous translations of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" that have been concocted over the years. Keith Lim has collected 58 of them in 29 different languages — including everything from Choctaw to Klingon. (So much for nonsense not carrying over to "remote" languages.) Most translations don't simply reproduce the nonsensical content words but instead try to find translation-equivalents that evoke similar connotations in the target language, mutatis mutandis. Douglas Hofstadter wrote about the complexity of these poetic efforts in Gödel, Escher, Bach, considering the French version "Le Jaseroque" (Il brilgue: les tôves lubricilleux / Se gyrent en vrillant dans le guave…):
Thus, in the brain of a native speaker of English, slithy probably activates such symbols as slimy, slither, slippery, lithe, and sly, to varying extents. Does lubricilleux do the corresponding thing in the brain of a Frenchman? What indeed would be "the corresponding thing"? Would it be to activate symbols which are the ordinary translations of those words? What if there is no word, real or fabricated, which will accomplish that? Or what if a word does exist, but it is very intellectual-sounding and Latinate (lubricilleux), rather than earthy and Anglo-Saxon (slithy)? Perhaps huilasse would be better than lubricilleux? Or does the Latin origin of the word lubricilleux not make itself felt to a speaker of French in the way that it would if it were an English word (lubricilious, perhaps)?
Now I'm curious how this cromulent scene from "The Simpsons" gets dubbed or subtitled in other countries.
[Update: See comments below on the even more venerable example sentence, The gostak distims the doshes.]