The swazzle: a simple device for voice modulation

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Until two days ago, I had never heard of this word — even though I knew about Punch and Judy shows.

From Wikipedia:

A swazzle is a device made of two strips of metal bound around a cotton tape reed. The device is used to produce the distinctive harsh, rasping voice of Punch and is held in the mouth by the Professor (performer) in a Punch and Judy show.

Swazzle can also be pronounced or spelled Schwazzle or swatchel.

I like the fact that the performer is called "Professor"!

Here are three recordings of Punch talking via the swazzle:  one, two, three.

I can understand the first one, but can't make much of the latter two.

The description of the swazzle on World Wide Words:  Investigating the English language across the globe is so fascinating that I quote it entire:

In the traditional Punch-and-Judy show, Mr Punch speaks with a high squeaky, rasping voice, interspersed with ear-splitting cries when he perpetrates some piece of devilry or is thwarted. The showman makes these noises by means of a device in his mouth, these days usually called a swazzle.

This has taken various forms but in essence is a small pair of bowed plates with tape across the middle. The Punch-and-Judy man holds it near the back of his mouth and blows through it, much as a clarinet player does with the reeds in his instrument. It takes a lot of practice to make recognisable words and to swap between Punch’s swazzled rasp and the unswazzled voices of the other characters.

Swazzle is a modified form of the older swatchel; this might be a variant of swatch but is more probably from German schwätzeln, taken in turn from schwatzen, to chatter or tattle. One reason that experts think this is the source is that the very earliest example, dated 1854, spells the word schwassle. In the latter part of that century, the swatchel-cove was the Punch-and-Judy man or his assistant who did the supporting patter and who interpreted Punch’s less intelligible squawks, and the swatchel-box was the booth in which the Punchman stood.

Incidentally, there are some risks attached to using the swazzle: tradition requires that the performer shall swallow it at least twice before he can call himself a Punch-and-Judy man.

For additional information, see "The Punch Call, Swazzle or Swatchel".

N.B.: "Swatchel" is completely unrelated to "Swatch", the trendy Swiss wristwatch.

Keith Rawlings, who has been studying the history of the shadow play and similar types of puppet performances worldwide for decades, sent me the following notes:

I read that swazzles (or like voice modifiers) are used in Asian performances, but often in a limited way. In Karagoz it was used as a sound effect or instrument. Here’s a quote from a website: “When the play begins, the göstermelik* vanishes to the shrill sound of a whistle called 'narake’”. Metin And mentions this too in his book on Karagoz. From descriptions the narake seems to be a sort of swazzle. In tholpakoothu, a similar item is used also in a limited way; not for voices, but I believe for sound effects.

[*VHM:  inanimate object — e.g., a house or a tree {the Tree of Life} — without any direct connection to the shadow play, but shown at the beginning to establish a kind of background setting]

I quote from your Painting and Performance: “In China, from at least the eleventh century, performers who worked articulated puppets made them speak in a shrill, nasal voice.” In a footnote to this on page 211, you mention “In the T’ang-yin pi-shih [Parallel cases from under the pear tree] there is a particular legal case that cites Shen Kua (1030-1094), Meng-hsi pi-t’an [Dream pool essays] fascicle 13, for this information about the whining, nasal quality of puppets.” I suspect these were swazzles being used, or at least they show an influence of the swazzle device. If so, it’s very early evidence of a swazzle device in puppetry, much earlier than in Europe.

However, in India, in their kathputli shows in Rajasthan, a swazzle is used exclusively for all the puppets’ voices. But here, the words are not articulated, and the puppeteers imitate the cadence of speaking voices, but no actual words are spoken.

I think in China in modern performances they use the swazzle at times, but this needs more research.

I was amazed that Keith had read my monograph so carefully and could make sense of that obscure reference and footnote.

What makes Keith's discoveries all the more fascinating to me is that they help to explain the electronic manipulation of the voice to which I referred in "Royal language" (9/29/15).  Vocal modulation, whether electronic or mechanical, serves to enhance the other-worldly effect of the characters in the performance being transported to the here and now before the audience.  A similar transformative quality is imparted by careful attention to the optical phenomena surrounding the performance.

On the one hand, the intent of the performance is create an atmosphere that is separate from the audience who are seated or standing outside the booth in which the puppets and puppeteer are housed.  The manipulation of the voice by means of the swazzle is a key element in establishing that atmosphere.  On the other hand, it would obviously not do to lose the audience altogether in the ethereal ambiance of the presentation.  To ensure that the onlookers are able to follow the drama, there is often an assistant standing outside the booth who joins the puppets in patter and may invite the audience to participate as well.

The show is performed by a single puppeteer inside the booth, known since Victorian times as a "professor" or "punchman", and assisted sometimes by a "bottler", who corrals the audience outside the booth, introduces the performance and collects the money ("the bottle"). The bottler might also play accompanying music or sound effects on a drum or guitar and engage in back chat with the puppets, sometimes repeating the same or the copied lines that may have been difficult for the audience to understand.

[emphasis added]


To sum up, the Punch and Judy show  — like all puppet plays and shadow plays — is a combination of otherworldliness and immediacy.  The swazzle and other techniques for voice modulation are essential components of enhancing the ethereality of the play.  Yet, in the Punch and Judy show, the bottler served as an active translator of the not fully intelligible proceedings onstage for the audience in front of the dividing line between the two realms:  the mundane and the spiritual.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 2:42 pm

    From a German friend:

    Schwatzln (shwazzln) is as in "der schwatzlt vor sich hin"
    somone who mutters (softly) to himself. I've also heard it applied
    when referring to inattentive school girls who chatter on endlesly
    instead of listening to the teachers, as well as someone who talks

  2. GH said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 2:52 pm

    I think the second Punch clip is "Oh, what a pity!" while the third one is something like "Don't hit [or eat?] the baby over the [something]."

  3. Adrian said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 3:14 pm

    I think the third one is "Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside, I do like to be beside the sea. Wheeeee!" this performance by Professor Glyn Edwards lends some credence to it.

  4. Lee said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 3:50 pm

    Very interesting.

    A google image search turned up some devices that look similar to the in-mouth turkey callers sometimes used by hunters (though at least modern ones of those have soft reeds).

    Also, I'm wondering if the uninterpretable voice of the teacher in the Peanuts animations (A Charlie Brown Christmas, etc.) is drawing on this tradition from puppetry or is just a coincidence. Google did not immediately confirm a connection, so I'm figuring it's just a coincidence.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 3:57 pm


    Thank you so much for turning up that Punch and Judy performance by Professor Glyn Edwards. That really was a PROFESSOR doing a professional job with the voices!


    You got the "baby" part! That's the one word I was pretty sure about.

  6. Jen said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

    The second clip is just 'Oh, what a pity!', isn't it?

    And the third is 'Oh I do like to be beside the seaside', although I admit it doesn't sound much like it if you don't know the tune!

  7. Phil Ramsden said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    I think the third one's actually "Oh I do like to be beside the seaside". The second one's definitely "Oh, what a pity".

  8. Phil Ramsden said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 5:47 pm

    In full: "Oh I do like to be beside the seaside
    Oh I do like to be beside the sea!
    Wee hee hee hee hee."

    (Quality entertainment.)

  9. Stephen Hart said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

    Something similar used to come in cereal boxes, or at least available in ads way in the back of magazines. I think I was more a U-shaped piece of plastic with a thin membrane filling the middle of the U.

  10. Heidi in S.C. said,

    October 11, 2015 @ 7:30 pm

    For those interested in Punch and Judy, but especially those interested in language, I'd highly recommend Russell Hoban's brilliant book "Riddley Walker." I'm not sure if it uses "swazzle," but it may. The language throughout is extraordinary.

  11. Rubrick said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 1:54 am

    Since no one has hazarded a guess on the first clip yet, I'll proffer "That's the way to do it!"

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 6:12 am



  13. Graeme said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 6:22 am

    Victor – fascinating. Is this the ancestor of Donald Duck's amazing vocalisation?

    If anyone has a Guignol (French) clip of a swazzled voice I'd love to hear it.

    Stephen – is this the device? These have been resurfacing lately at the 'Ekka' in Brisbane Australia (a big city version of a county fair)

  14. Timothy said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 7:52 am

    Love it.

  15. Matt McIrvin said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

    @Lee: I always figured the trombone voices for the adults in Peanuts cartoons were just an attempt to translate the comics source material, in which the children got talk balloons but the adults didn't at all; you were getting one side of a conversation, like Bob Newhart's telephone routines.

    And now that I think about it, Schulz probably wrote the comic strips that way at least in part to compress the narrative into the tiny space he had to work with on the page. The adults' straight lines weren't the funny bits, so they were omitted and left to the imagination. Unlike the case of the Punch and Judy show, those aren't the characters you're primarily interested in.

  16. Stephen Hart said,

    October 12, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

    Graeme said "Stephen – is this the device? These have been resurfacing lately at the 'Ekka' in Brisbane Australia (a big city version of a county fair)"

    Yes. I believe they were billed as useful for ventriloquism.

  17. Simon said,

    October 13, 2015 @ 6:26 am

    Nice piece.

    One minor point: clarinets have a single reed (and sound musical). It is the oboe with the double reed and a duck like call (à la Peter and the Wolf).

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