March 11, 2005

Gibberish by any other name

David Donnell sent in a link to an item in the Dover-Sherborn Press concerning the "magical sounding gibberish language called Trammeled that originated in Europe centuries ago":

Alexander, King of Jesters, will perform his unusual comedy at Kraft Hall in Dover Church Sunday, March 20, 3 p.m. [...] This offbeat performance includes Renaissance water spitting, the nose flute serenade, jingle bell juggling, twisted sticks of the forest, balancing stunts high above the audience and other unusual routines inspired by the tradition of the fool.

Alexander enjoys surprising his audience with a rapid fire of visual gags. In one routine, he observes them through a darting eyeball in his mouth shortly before he crams three flutes into his mouth. Without missing a beat, he plays a sweet tune in staggered rhythms on all three at once.

During the act, Alexander speaks a magical sounding gibberish language called Trammeled that originated in Europe centuries ago. In those times, nearly every village had its own dialect, sometimes even a completely different language. Trammeled helped traveling jesters and minstrels cut through language barriers that presented themselves every few miles. It serves Alexander today, since he often performs abroad.

David was intrigued:

I don't know what kind of lingo "Trammeled" is, but it sure sounds magical... On one hand it's "gibberish", on the other it's useful "abroad" and helps "cut through language barriers"!

I Googled it quickly, but didn't see any refs to a language by that name.

Me either. But checking for "Alexander, King of Jesters" turned up this study guide from the Alaska Junior Theater, in Fairbanks, which mentions "the jester gibberish language 'Grammelot'". Alexander's Alaska hand-out says that

Many jesters and fools spoke a gibberish language called Grammelot that was first described over 500 years ago. It consisted of funny sounds along with a few real words from different languages. Although Grammelot could not say everything quite as clearly as a real language, it could express general ideas and it engaged people's imaginations. It also turned out to be very practical because:

1. Villages were remote centuries ago. They were separated by dark woods. The terrible roads made it was hard to leave town, and without TV or radio, the peasants of one village may never hear the accent of the people in the next town. As a result, even neighboring villages might not understand each other. Every town spoke a little differently, and so each town had their own dialect. Sometimes they spoke very differently, and had their very own language. Not surprisingly, there were far more languages then than there are today.

2. Free speech was not a right centuries ago In the days before mass media, it was the traveling perform-ers who gave peasants much of their news of the outside world. If anyone said something that angered the king or queen, he or she could easily be thrown in jail. The censors watched performers very closely. The censors were the people hired by the king or queen to make sure that nothing was said that could upset them or the royal court. If the jesters spoke Grammelot, the censors were less likely to give them a hard time, since nobody knew exactly what they were saying.

The "study guide" also provides a glossary for "Alexander's version of Grammelot":

co yo yo - curly or twisted. It is also used in slang to mean 'wow' since jesters prefer things that are twisted and bent.
hodio tonada - an exclamation of surprise like “woah, check it out!”
Waga dee bwa - I am
Waga da bala - He is
Kafuggo! - darn it!
bo-whoo - (low voice) the big one
wuh hoo - the medium one
eee oo - (pronounced in a high voice) the little one
bweesta - fish
galeggwi - up
jiffa - middle
peet - down
Basnop ka dipple yadda yadda - rather than try to fix the problem, just validate my feelings
Kafuggo! Snippa blop! - But I'm just trying to help!


Well, Grammelot is apparently for real:

Il Grammelot è una forma di teatro inventata dai comici della Commedia dell’Arte del 1400 ed è organizzata in chiave onomatopeica, ossia il riuscire a far arrivare concetti attraverso suoni che non sono parole stabilite, convenzionali.
Questi giullari usano intruglio di dialetti e parole inventate che rendono immediata e molto colorita la recitazione, nella quale predomina anche una gestualità ed una mimica molto accentuate.

Dall’insieme di queste componenti viene fuori un tipo di teatro estremamente espressivo, iperbolico, esilarante, viscerale, diretto e quindi comprensibile un po’ dappertutto e ad ogni tipo di pubblico.

Un modo di recitare in cui il linguaggio usato perde di significato letterale, per diventare suono, vibrazione, musicalità che comunica emozioni e suggestioni.

Grammelot is a form of theater invented by the comic actors of the Commedia dell'Arte of 1400, and is organized in an onomatopoeic mode, that is, it manages to evoke concepts by means of sounds that are not established or conventional words. These jokers use a mixture (?) of dialect and invented words that make for a vivid and very colorful performance, in which exaggerated gesture and mimicry are also very prominent.

From the combination of these components there emerges a type of theater that is extremely expressive, hyperbolic, hilarious, visceral, direct and therefore somewhat comprehensible everywhere and to every type of audience.

A way of speaking in which the language that is used loses its literal meaning, in order to become sound, pulsation, musicality that communicates emotions and suggestions. [apologies for my translation -- I read Italian by triangulation from Latin and French...]

There are some quicktime videos with transcripts on the same site.

The word grammelot is not in the OED -- which is a surprise -- nor in the other dictionaries that I checked. Apparently this word has never caught on in the history of the English language. For example, it doesn't occur in the LION database. Perhaps there is some other word that's used instead.

Anyhow, the one remaining mystery is how grammelot got morphed into trammeled over at the Dover-Sherborn Press. A clue is provided by the fact that the very same wording recurs in other announcements for Alexander, King of Jesters:

During the act, Alexander speaks a magical sounding gibberish language called Trammeled that originated in Europe centuries ago. In those times, nearly every village had its own dialect, sometimes even a completely different language. Trammeled helped traveling jesters and minstrels cut through language barriers that presented themselves every few miles. It serves Alexander today, since he often performs abroad. (from the Dover-Sherborn Press)

During the act, Alexander speaks a magical-sounding gibberish language called Grammelot that originated in Europe centuries ago. In those times nearly every village had its own dialect, sometimes even a completely different language. Grammelot helped traveling jesters and minstrels cut through language barriers that presented themselves every few miles. It serves Alexander today since he often performs abroad. (from the Wilbraham Public Library News)

As you can see, these passages are identical except for some differences in punctuation and the Grammelot -> Trammeled substitution. I think we can assume that this was a scribal error in a chain mediated by speech. Perhaps the reporter called in the story, reading Alexander's press materials, to someone who typed it up from the tape. Or perhaps the reporter used an automatic speech-to-text dictation system, which of course did not have grammelot in its lexicon, and then didn't proofread carefully enough. My money is on ASR.

Please notice that I resisted the temptation to make the audio track of a Grammelot monologue into a language identification quiz. (I do have another quiz queued up, contributed some time ago by Stefano Taschini, which I have neglectfully failed to post...)

[Update: several people have written in to point out that Microsoft Word's spelling checker corrects "Grammelot" to "Trammeled", and is therefore the most probable culprit in this case.]

[Update 3/12/2005: Ray Girvan has turned up some more accurate information on the origins of (recent versions of) Grammelot:

The modern popularisation seems to have sprung from Dario Fo's one-man touring show, "Mistero Buffo", Various references imply that while Grammelot existed generically, he has reinvented it in a personal form tailored for modern relevance. The Times review of "Mistero Buffo" (Saturday, Apr 30, 1983) mentions that his three grammelot sketches, though based on mediaeval texts, were performed in separate Italian, French and American grammelots.

Dario Fo biography:
"'grammelot', a language derived from the mixture of modern phonemes and dead dialects from Italy's Po valley area".

Fo's own Nobel speech:
"Ruzzante, the true father of the Commedia dell'Arte, also constructed a language of his own, a language of and for the theatre, based on a variety of tongues: the dialects of the Po Valley, expressions in Latin, Spanish, even German, all mixed with onomatopoeic sounds of his own invention. It is from him, from Beolco Ruzzante, that I've learned to free myself from conventional literary writing and to express myself with words that you can chew, with unusual sounds, with various techniques of rhythm and breathing, even with the rambling nonsense-speech of the grammelot".
The Italian Cultural Institute, in association with BellaLuna Productions Presents a one-day workshop with Mario Pirovano, Italian protégé of Nobel Prize-winning Playwright Dario Fo.: Part 2 ... Grammelot re-invented by Dario Fo and its present-day relevance.
His one-man tour de force, "Mistero Buffo" ("Comic Mystery"), written in 1969, finally had its United States premiere at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea in 1986. It has its stylistic roots in the strolling players and minstrels of the Middle Ages. But it was also a timely satirical blast at religion and politics, delivered in Grammelot, a kind of double-speak masquerading as a language, wholly invented by Fo himself.

Apparently "Ruzzante" (real name Angelo Beolco) wrote in Paduan dialect. Whether the bits of German and so on that Fo remarks on were part of the rural speech of the period, or Beolco's introductions, is not clear to me.

Ray adds:

Although similar languages have precedents - eg Lingua Franca, Polari - it wouldn't surprise me if Fo had coined the term "Grammelot".

Reinventing macaronic language seems to be a particular fascination for modern Italian authors (this recalls Umberto Eco - Salvatore in "The Name of the Rose" and the peasant hero of "Baudolino" use similar languages).

Ray also points out this article entitled "The Modern Macaronic", by Albert Sbragia, dealing especially with Carlo Emilio Gadda. An interesting quote:

The Renaissance macaronic in its purest form is a northern Italian creation with its precedents in medieval burlesque, goliardic verse and sacred parodies, and with extra-Italian continuators and resonances in various European countries and in Rabelais. Its origins lie in the late fifteenth-century Benedictine athenaeum of Padua and specifically in the linguistic experimentalism of Tifi Odasi, whose poem Macaronea defines the genre. Its fame was assured in the first half of the following century by Odasi's Mantuan pupil and emulator Teofilo Folengo (pseudonym Merlin Cocai). Folengo's Baldus (four editions: 1517, 1521, 1534-35, and posthumously in 1552) is a mock-epic poem of giants and farfetched chivalric adventures including the discovery of the mouth of the Nile and a final descent into Hell. Baldus is the genre's acknowledged masterpiece, and it enjoyed a notable popularity in the 1500s with over a dozen editions and reprintings. It was not without influence on Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, in which it is cited more than once. Such was the perceived connection that the first French translation of Folengo's works in 1606 bore the title Histoire maccaronique de Merlin Coccaie, prototype de Rablais.

The original macaronic is characterised linguistically by its vocabulary of Italian, dialect, and Latin words within a substantially Latin morphological, syntactic, and prosodic form. The hybridisation is typically trilingual in the northern Italian macaronic poets involving Latin, Italian (Tuscan), and Po Valley dialects. Not the natural or ingenuous product of a native plurilingualism, the Italian macaronic is a sophisticated caricatural artifice, a linguistic parody which exploits the situation of polyglossia experienced by the cultural elite. The demise of the original macaronic is due precisely to the success of the Italian humanists in their philological recuperation of classical Latin which had made possible the complexity of macaronic verse in the first place. Latin as a literary language was frozen in a normative a chronological straitjacket as an eminently noble but irremeably ancient language. As a result, Tuscan Italian was finally able to assert itself fully as the contemporary national language of letters, and it underwent much of the same normative and chronological classicising restrictions as had Latin. From a state of triglossia the linguistic and literary evolution the Italian peninsula would evolve more clearly as a case of fragmented diglossia, with numerous epicentres of dialect in tension with written and literary Italian.


[Update -- more on grammelot here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 11, 2005 04:26 AM