What English sounds like if you have Wernicke's aphasia

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Half a million people watched this on YouTube over the past couple of weeks:

Gawker headlined this as "What English Sounds Like to People Who Don't Speak It" (10/18/2011).

If you've ever wanted to know what English sounds like when you don't speak it, here's a short film from Australian director Brian Fairbairn that might help you get an idea. Think of it as the dramatic version of Italian singer Adriano Celentano's classic English-sounding gibberish song "Prisencolinensinainciusol."

But whether you should think of it that way depends on whether you want to distinguish among kinds of nonsense. And  we here at Language Log are committed to taxonomies of nonsense that are as elaborate as possible.

Celentano's Prisencolinensinainciusol is entirely nonsense, but built out of fake-Elvis phonetics. Brian Fairbairn's Skwerl includes real English function words and common content words, with otherwise contentless content that is tossed off in a way that makes it hard to remember:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

A: Did you __?
B:  Yeah, I __. I __ today.
A:  Oh, the __ man with an __?

This in turn is different from Jabberwocky, where the content words are a purposefully memorable series of re-purposed archaisms, morphological blends, and phonetic symbolism; or Unwinese, where there is a certain amount of morpholexical invention, but the crucial disconnect seems to be semantic and pragmatic (though in the regions where the words are all made up, Unwinese can be fairly close to Skwerl). There's Dario Fo's Grammelot and its relatives, mythical and otherwise. And these are all different from the mode of doubletalk where content is replaced by a description of its rhetorical goals ("Pragmatics as comedy", 1/28/2010).

Skwerl is more like the SNL take-off "British Movie", except that it doesn't depend on the idea of inter-dialect incomprehension. Really, Skwerl is less like "what English sounds like when you don't speak it", and more like "What English probably sounds like if you're suffering from Wernicke's aphasia".



30 Comments

  1. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 6:00 am

    Not a linguistics expert, but my gut reaction is that this is a fairly good attempt to recreate the experience of listening to a scene in a language which you understand *partially*. The words they leave intact are the sorts of words which even somebody with a relatively low level of English would probably understand, with the "nonsense" parts being the less common or more complicated words that give everything its context.

    I think the OP is right that this video doesn't recreate the experience of hearing a conversation in a language with which you're totally unfamiliar, but I think it recreates quite well the experience of listening to a language which you don't understand well enough to follow a conversation in it.

    I suppose there's a small linguistic point to be made here about the use of the verb "to speak" in the sense of "to speak a language". I don't speak French or Spanish, but I studied them to GCSE and can can recognize some basic words, so French and Spanish sound a lot like this video to me. I also don't speak Farsi, but there I don't know any vocabulary or have any idea of grammar either, so I can't get any sense of what people are saying at all.

  2. Licia said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 7:35 am

    It reminded me of Vonlenska or Hopelandic, the “language” used by Icelandic band Sigur Rós (e.g. in several songs from their album Takk…).

    It also made me think of some satirical videos that went viral in Italy a few months ago. They all had fake English lyrics that made fun of some Italian scandals. In all instances, well-known English or American music videos were dubbed and subtitled by keeping only “basic English” words that any Italian would understand, and all the rest was replaced with Italian words or phrases, often very colloquial ones, that were given English endings or pronunciations – what in Italian might be called inglese maccheronico, like nasconded for “hid” or “hidden” (from nascondere).

    The videos are hilarious, but I doubt anyone who is not a near-native Italian speaker and is not up-to-date with Italian politics would get all the jokes.

    Here are two examples from last June. They both refer to the Italian referendums which Berlusconi had encouraged Italians to boycott by going to the seaside for the weekend:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5s8tBGbi_iE is based on Madonna’s Vogue, changed into Vote to encourage Italians to go and vote in the upcoming referendums; a couple of examples: strike the nano is a reference to Berlusconi, often likened to a dwarf, culo mosciow to his flaccid (moscio) backside.

    http://tv.repubblica.it/copertina/sora-cesira-mamma-mia-the-referendum/70796?video=&ref=HREC1-4 is based on Abba’s Fernando, changed into Referendum and it’s about the government reflecting on what went wrong.

    Is there a name in English to describe this type of play on words? I don’t think it is an example of buffalaxing, nor is it soramimi, because the modified lyrics still contain parts of the original English text and the rest is meant to sound English (well, at least to Italian ears!).

  3. David Donnell said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    Dan H: Since you know the Persian word Farsi, you're selling yourself short on your vocabulary in the language!

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    To me, the utterances in Skwerl don't sound much different from a lot of things I hear. I'm not deaf or cogntively-impaired, but I very frequently hear bizarre garbage if someone speaks to me without a 'handshake' cue: for instance, if Clare's talking to the cats while feeding them, and switches to talking to me.

    Clare: "Wait for it, greedy pig! Charlie! That's not your bowl! There's a good girl. You seethe a few of the newful megadeath Paltrow?"
    Me: "What was that about Gwyneth Paltrow?"
    Clare: "I said: did you see the review of the new film with Gwyneth Paltrow?"

    I think it must be some relative of "cocktail party effect"; you 'tune out' when speech isn't directed at you, and it takes a moment to tune back in when you realise it is.

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    One thing that shown by this clip and by Prisencolinbolerbonalawhatsis is how is the huge impact of prosody on how we understand speech.

    I'd also add that the part of Skwerl's effectiveness is due to the bad (perhaps deliberately bad) miking. There's a lot of room sound, so that even if the characters were really speaking English, it probably wouldn't be all that easy to make out what they were saying.

    [(myl) Indeed. Bad miking plus added music.]

  6. Emily said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    @Ray Girvan: I perceived it the same way! The impression is of a conversation that would be fully comprehensible if you were just listening a little closer, or (something Neal alluded to) if the acoustics of the room were just a little better.

  7. Russell said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    @Neal: Along those lines, I've found that my understanding of my non-native languages is far more susceptible to disruption by ambient noise.

  8. LDavidH said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

    I also agree with Ray Girvan and Emily. But then, I'm an EFL speaker, which makes it just that little bit harder to follow an unclear conversation – as Russell also points out.

  9. ShadowFox said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    There is a closely parallel short film The Dove, which is a parody on The Seventh Seal, done in fake Swedish. I don't seem to be able to find it on YouTube.

  10. kuri said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

    As a fluent Japanese speaker, I find something similar happens when I unexpectedly hear people speaking Korean. The rhythm and sounds of the languages are similar enough that I unconsciously expect to understand what I'm hearing, and I experience a moment of confusion before I realize, "Oh, that's Korean, not Japanese."

  11. Lurra said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 1:55 pm

    @kuri: I know exactly what you mean. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who hears it that way.

    Anyhow, very interesting film. I like how the situation is implied, but it's lacking just the right context to be able to explain it to another.

  12. Steve B said,

    October 22, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    The game "Civlization Revolution" uses fake language for all of the civilization leaders. Lincoln and Elizabeth speak fake English, Caesar speaks fake Latin, Catherine speaks fake Russian and so forth. It's fun how recognizable the languages are given that it's all utter gibberish.

    (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHNlwkJRWOE)

  13. maidhc said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 12:32 am

    ShadowFox: There is a closely parallel short film The Dove, which is a parody on The Seventh Seal, done in fake Swedish.

    "The Dove" was hilarious. I haven't seen it for years. Part of the humor was because it was also subtitled.

    So when the lesbian character offers someone a cigar, the subtitle read "Have a cigar?" but she actually said "phallicen-symbolska?"

  14. Eli Anne said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 5:15 am

    I sometimes try do deliberately listen in to conversations in Norwegian (my first language) while letting background noise interfere just enough so that I can't make out the meaning. It gives me an impression of what the language really *sounds like*, without meaning getting in the way. I find it fascinating. It's especially easy to do on a crowded subway train :)

  15. V said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    Here's Bulgarian comedian Kamen Donev doing gibberish versions of several languages, switching randomly between them mid-speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnJtKkrRu84

  16. Linda Marshall said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 9:03 am

    Bill Bryson has a very funny passage on this, in his "Neither Here nor There" book, about Dutch sounding "like nothing so much as a peculiar version of English".

  17. David Bloom said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 4:11 pm

    ShadowFox: There is a closely parallel short film The Dove, which is a parody on The Seventh Seal, done in fake Swedish.

    It is not you-tubed, but on Google video: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3803584387889303730. It's still pretty funny.

  18. Joyce Melton said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    I used to be fluent enough in Vietnamese to get this effect when listening to a conversation between native speakers in that language. Alas, now only Spanish has this mind-warping dimension for me.

    A more distant effect is listening to Portuguese or Italian which sometimes sound as if they ought to be comprehensible, but aren't quite.

    I know just enough French and not quite enough Swedish to sometimes identify which misheard word in a conversation is the topic, a related but different effect.

    Still more distant is Cantonese, which has some of the prosody and tonal qualities of Vietnamese with an occasional abrupt half-comprehended word.

    It's not just a spectrum of misunderstanding, it's a landscape with distant mountains and unexpected bogs.

  19. blahedo said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 9:35 pm

    My cousin's daughter picked up English prosody before she had very much vocabulary, so when she was around two, she would hold "conversations" with us that sounded very much like this video, with the effect that you'd lean in closer and feel like you could understand what she was saying if only you tried a bit harder.

  20. Alex G. said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 1:33 am

    The soundtrack to the video game NieR has songs in fake "future" versions of 8 (!) different languages, one song translated into four real languages (!), and at least one track in a completely made-up language.

    It's great music, the fake language work is way more "linguistic" than, for example, Sigur Ros's, and the soundtrack outshines the game in my opinion.

    http://www.originalsoundversion.com/deep-into-nier-interview-with-vocalist-and-lyricist-emi-evans/

    Here's "Grandma", in fake French:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUzBQbajbvQ

  21. michael farris said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 1:57 am

    In the same general area, I've noticed that when someone starts speaking a a non-English language I know (but not one that I expected to hear in that context) my language processing ability gets short circuited for a few seconds. Also if I'm not sure if it's a language I know or not.

    Recently in Spain while checking out of a hotel I started to use Spanish and after a turn or two the receptionist switched to Polish (she was Polish herself) and my brain did the equivalent of a blue screen of death for a moment. I understood and didn't at the same time.

  22. J. Anthony Carter said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 5:45 am

    That was so well done!
    I speak fluent Spanish with a smattering of German, Japanese and Navajo and while I focused my "earsight" on what the couple was saying I could only make out the occasional word. It seemed that the harder I focused the more the words seemed to slip off into the aether like they were hitting some kind of force field. I heard the noise but the content, context and any practical handles I could bring to bear to intellectualize what was said, were utterly useless. Even given the framework of body language, intonation and inflection in which to place the words being used, I was a next to total loss. I can't tell you how much of a challenge that was and how much I enjoyed it!
    Truthfully. There have been times I wished I could speak like that fluently and even have a conspirator with whom to bounce it off of in a crowded room! :-D

  23. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 24, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

    They're not just using normal function words, they're using normal bound morphemes and they're recognizably repeating echoing each other's words correctly. ("…for the Mangalong nation." "Chohsing's a Mangalong?" "Mangalong my shit! Ha!") The best match I know of for this type of nonsense is The Gostak, although without the heavy use of (normal) derivational morphology in the text adventure version. (Note that they mention days of the week that end in "-day" while being otherwise unrecognizable other than that they repeat them.)

  24. Bob Violence said,

    October 26, 2011 @ 9:11 am

    Bill Bryson has a very funny passage on this, in his "Neither Here nor There" book, about Dutch sounding "like nothing so much as a peculiar version of English".

    A friend of mine had a theory that Dutch is a private joke on a national scale and they're all really native English-speakers.

  25. Short fake English film “Skwerl” on YouTube goes viral, inspires debate said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    [...] The film, titled Skwerl, is in a sort of fake English described by Gawker as "What English Sounds Like to People Who Don’t Speak It" and by Language Log as "What English Sounds Like to People Who Have Wernicke’s Aphasia." [...]

  26. codeman38 said,

    October 27, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

    I just realized, after re-watching this, that this is pretty much a perfect simulation of way too many conversations sound like to me when there's a lot of background noise, as a result of having auditory processing disorder. I pick up random morphemes here and there, but the rest is as good as gibberish.

    (And yes, of course conversations in movies and TV shows count in this— I watch almost everything with subtitles these days, because that's the only way I can get half the dialogue with the levels of ambient noise that audio engineers mix in.)

  27. Richard said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 7:59 am

    This was kind of like hearing people speak Dutch when I visited the Netherlands.

  28. P. Orbis Proszynski said,

    October 28, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    There is a wonderful sample of Nonsense Danish on YouTube — http://youtu.be/s-mOy8VUEBk — with the added twist of the protagonists explaining their own difficulties with understanding the "meaningless guttural noise" their language has become in (Danish-accented) English, with Norwegian subtitles. Pee-in-my-pants funny. Or pee-in-your-pants funny, I should say. (I don't trust that llama).

  29. [links] Link salad says Happy Birthday to the Child | jlake.com said,

    November 29, 2011 @ 4:27 am

    [...] What English sounds like if you have Wernicke's aphasia — This is very strange to watch and listen to. [...]

  30. Moi said,

    November 24, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    What, nobody's going to mention either Eddie Izzard's "French" routine or the great fake-language skits from Your Show of Shows?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1sQkEfAdfY

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HR6Xli5vU4A#

    That's what this clip sounds like to me — the intonations sound familiar and I can pick up some "meaning" from body language and reactions, but not exactly like a language I don't understand. I think a better example might've been very exaggerated accents — what New Yorkers sound like to Southerners, or vice versa.

    — Actually I just realized what this reminds me of but exactly, and it's listening to opera. I usually know the story and music well enough I can sort of follow along, but I need a libretto to make sense of it.

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