Doubletalk challenge

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Malia Wollan, "How to Speak Gibberish", NYT Magazine 1/5/2018:

Strive for linguistic plausibility. In 2014, Sara Maria Forsberg was a recent high-school graduate in Finland when she posted “What Languages Sound Like to Foreigners,” a video of herself speaking gibberish versions of 15 languages and dialects. Incorporate actual phonology to make a realistic-sounding gibberish. “Expose yourself to lots of different languages,” says Forsberg, now 23, who grew up speaking Finnish, Swedish and English.

We posted Ms. Forsberg's video as "Doubletalk of the month", 3/9/2014, but apparently it was actually the doubletalk of the decade, as Wollan goes on to tell us:

Assemble your raw linguistic materials. Shortly after her YouTube video went viral — it has since been watched more than 19 million times — Lucasfilm contacted Forsberg and asked her to make up a language for one of the alien fighter groups in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The actors were Indonesian, so Forsberg studied online videos in various Austronesian languages including Bahasa Indonesia and Sundanese, a language spoken in western Java. “Listen for repeated syllables,” she says. Write them down phonetically. Note the rhythm of the language. Look at the way a speaker’s lips and tongue give shape to his or her words. You don’t need to be a linguist to get an impression of real syntactic rules, which you can borrow. It helps to love listening to the singsong quality of people talking. For Forsberg, “it’s like music.”

My first reaction to Wollan's article is surprise that the term "doubletalk" has apparently evaporated from American culture, along with the memory of classic practitioners like Sid Caesar:

My second reaction is to wonder how hard it would be to get modern machine-learning methods to hallucinate doubletalk, as a sort of audio equivalent of the character-level language models illustrated in Andrej Karpathy's “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Recurrent Neural Networks".

We might also connect all this back to the commedia dell'arte and its 20th-century spin-off  Grammelot:

Some other doubletalk-related LLOG posts:

"Gibberish by any other name", 3/11/2005
"Simlish as 21st-century grammelot?", 3/11/2005
"Unwinese", 3/14/2005
"Fo did it", 3/19/2005
"Maybe Jacques Lecoq did it", 12/8/2006
"Yaourter", 7/21/2009
"Prisencolinensinainciusol", 10/25/2009
"Pragmatics as comedy", 1/28/2010
"Yoghurt medley", 7/23/2010
"Whatly regards her speechitating?", 7/3/2011
"What English sounds like if you have Wernicke's apahasia", 10/22/2011
"How Sid Caesar learned double-talk", 2/13/2014




  1. Shimon Edelman said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 10:41 am

    As someone who is trying to reverse-engineer the brain, I am particular to this gem of non-quite-English by John Cleese:

    [(myl) Indeed — see "Pragmatics as comedy", 1/28/2010, for the same clip in a different context. I've added that to the list of doubletalkish posts.]

  2. Andrew Deacon said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 11:44 am

    To a certain generation of British people, the true exponent of Gibberish was the late Professor Stanley Unwin seen at this clip:-

    [(myl) Thanks for reminding us! I've added "Unwinese" to the list of doubletalkish posts.]

  3. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 4:31 pm

    Of course, double talk is simply the way some people talk. E.g., Casey Stengel:

  4. peter said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 5:48 pm

    Some valid speech can sound like gibberish to those outside the domain. Here is Leslie Claret (actor Kurtwood Smith) in the TV series “Patriot” (Series 1, Episode 2, minute 17):

    “Sell them on the structure. You can talk about it with confidence. Keep it simple. A little something like this, John:

    ‘Hey. Let me walk you through the Donnelly nut spacing and crack system rim-riding rip configuration. Using a field of half-C sprats, and brass-fitted nickel slits, our bracketed caps, and splay-flexed brace columns, vent dampers to dampening hatch depths of one half meter from the damper crown to the spur of plinth. How? Well, we bolster twelve husked nuts to each girdle-jerry, while flex tandems press a task apparatus of ten vertically-composited patch-hamplers. Then, pinflam-fastened pan traps at both maiden-apexes of the jim-joist.’

    A little something like that, Lakeman.”

  5. Chris C. said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 6:43 pm

    Back when I was in college and the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, my schools drama society put on a performance of Neil Simon's "Little Me", and we followed the lead of the original production, which starred Sid Caesar, in having the same actor portray all of the protagonist's serial lovers. At least two of the roles called for his talents at doubletalk, which our own actor couldn't quite grasp — and without YouTube to show him, he never did get the idea.

    One of my favorite Sid Caesar doubletalk sketches:

  6. Steve Burnap said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 8:10 pm

    There is, of course, Reggie Watts:

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    January 18, 2018 @ 10:07 pm

    I assume the term 'doubletalk' was coined by Caesar; certainly for me it brings to mind something else. Anyway we need to distinguish Unwin etc. because they're using real English words, just in a way that is incoherent and nonsensical. That's probably a bit easier than speaking 'fluently' in a language you don't know (or act as if you don't).

    k_over_hbarc at

  8. tangent said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 1:36 am

    I could not figure out Sid Caesar's fourth language until he started dropping in proper nouns. Is that just me?

  9. phspaelti said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 3:57 am

    No, Sid Caesar's Japanese is clearly inferior to the other 3. Even among the other languages, I feel there is clear difference, with the order of presentation in accordance with the quality of the impression. His impressions also get shorter that way.

  10. Bert said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 5:02 am

    A funny example for machine-learning methods hallucinating English can be found on DeepMind's blog:

  11. Michael Watts said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 5:37 am

    I agree with Andrew Usher; "double talk" is an insult referring to dishonest speech, and it would be surprising for something so negative to share a word with something more benign.

  12. KeithB said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 10:34 am

    11 Comments in and no mention of Danny Kaye? Probably the most accessible example is his demonstration of language proficiency in "The Court Jester"

  13. Blake said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

    Also, Chaplin in "The Great Dictator."

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

    There's nothing negative about "double talk," as far as I'm concerned. As I kid, I often heard a double-talk artist named Al Kelly, who originated his act in vaudeville. He guest-starred on many radio shows in the late '40s and early '50s and later on many TV shows. Kelly's double talk was very funny. It could be a put-on of the people who pretended to understand him (who often proclaimed that they agreed with him one hundred percent) and it could also be taken as a parody of high-sounding but meaningless speech. Much of Professor Irwin Corey's comedy was also double talk.
    More recently, Durwood "Mr. Doubletalk" Fincher takes a somewhat different approach. He specializes in interviewing people and his technique seems to involve nothing but parenthetical phrases, with no proper sentences at all–in fact, with very few nouns and practically no verbs whatsoever.
    The current double talk champion is probably Kevin King, who is closer to Kelly and Corey in technique.
    Here are YouTube videos of those double-talkers in action:
    Al Kelly:
    Irwin Corey:
    Durwood Fincher:
    Kevin King:

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 19, 2018 @ 6:28 pm

    Andrew Usher: The first citations in the OED are:

    1938 N.Y. Panorama (Amer. Guide Ser.) vi. 156 Of late a humorously conceived system of language corruption called double talk… has made itself felt.
    1938 N.Y. Panorama (Amer. Guide Ser.) vi. 157 Double talk is created by mixing plausible-sounding gibberish into ordinary conversation, the speaker keeping a straight face or dead pan and enunciating casually or off the cuff.

    So Sid Caesar probably didn't invent it.

    I think it's a reasonable figure of speech for dishonest speech. "Nonsense" can mean both Edward Lear and the latest foolishness from some politician.

    Personally, I'd like the portis on the portistan on the veal portis. Hm, that seems to be from 1935. Maybe I'd better alert the OED.

  16. Chas Belov said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 4:53 am

    I do love Prisencolinensinainciusol. From that post, there was the question how far back to date hip-hop. @Gene backdated it to 1968 with Pigmeat Markham's Here Come the Judge. I would have backdated it to The Last Poets, also 1968. But I might even backdate it to 1966 and Arthur Lee's song 7 and 7 Is.

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

    Isn't 'Prisen…' supposed to work both as nonsense (American) English and as nonsense Italian? That was my impression of it.

    I've noted how remarkable seems the prosodic similarity between English and Italian speech, probably closer than English/German or Italian/Spanish. I think a primary reason is that both English and Italian inherited Latin's secondary stress system, which is unique in the world as far as I know.

    Jerry Friedman:

    Thanks for the citations. It seems though that those are referring to the 'Unwin' type, not the Sid Caesar type. I repeat that I think they should be differentiated as – for the most part at least – the first uses real words, the second only sound patterns.

    I've heard it that the negative meaning of 'double talk' comes from Orwell's 'doublespeak', but that's evidently a myth.

  18. Helmuth von Sajrajt said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 4:36 pm

    Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable watching people imitate "languages"? Like watching a linguistic blackface – the aequivalent of holding the corners of one's eyes with the index fingers to get "narrow-eyes" while singing "Ching-Chang-Chong" in a high-pitched-voice? Or the "Curry is verry spicy, Sir" with arbitrary rhotacization? Bäääh.

    It's funny when done by Charlie Chaplin to ridicule a megalomanic dictator, at a time when not everybody seemed to view the Hitler-situation quite exactly that way. It's funny when done by young spanish singers in a song, without any special intention (besides landing a huge summer-hit). But grown-ups imitating an Italian person by saying "mama mia, pizza redutabile"!?
    I remember laughing about such humor the last time as a 7-year-old. (And I think it was – even then – a deeper, double-layered critique of the use of Latin in the Church, nevertheless delivered by Bud Spencer, most likely. (The "Acqua minerale! Ora pro nobis!"-dialogues)).

    For a trully funny comedy in a foreign language, which by the way really deserves the name "double talk", try Ivan Mládek's (of "Jožin z bažin"-fame) "Ich bin Ivan Mladek", where he delivers a nice, mildly entertaining stand-up routine in a modest, unsecure, very polite German, and at the same time, with the same words, a completely hilarious show for the Czech audience.

    And maybe Gerhard Polt as Pope Benedikt – completely in Italian/Latin for a highly entertained German audience (OK, I confess: I laughed again, 25 years later, as somebody just made up church-Latin on the spot, out of well-known italian phrases; )

  19. Jason said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 5:49 pm

    @Helmuth von Sajrajt

    "Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable watching people imitate "languages"? Like watching a linguistic blackface – the aequivalent of holding the corners of one's eyes with the index fingers to get "narrow-eyes" while singing "Ching-Chang-Chong" in a high-pitched-voice? Or the "Curry is verry spicy, Sir" with arbitrary rhotacization? Bäääh."

    I'm sure our SJW masters are adding it to the list of "problematic" things as we speak.

  20. Chas Belov said,

    January 21, 2018 @ 6:36 pm

    @Helmuth von Sajrajt re: "Am I the only one who feels uncomfortable watching people imitate 'languages?"

    There's the whole idea of punching up (ok) vs. punching down (not ok).

  21. DCA said,

    January 22, 2018 @ 1:48 pm

    For something like Peter's example above, search for "youtube turboencabulator"–though perhaps this is not gibberish but nonsense:
    not an imitation of English but actual English with made-up words (same distinction as noticed by Andrew Usher).

  22. phspaelti said,

    January 23, 2018 @ 4:28 am

    And here is Trevor Noah speaking Arabic:

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