March 19, 2005

Fo did it

Alexander, King of Jesters, seems to be wrong when he says that "Many jesters and fools spoke a gibberish language called Grammelot that was first described over 500 years ago." Similarly, Gianni Ferrario seems to be wrong when he says that "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." At least they're wrong to imply that the term Grammelot dates from the 15th or 16th century. (See this earlier post for references and links). In fact, the term was apparently invented by Dario Fo, perhaps in connection with his 1969 play Mistero Buffo.

The confusion seems to have arisen because of Fo's references to the 16th-century playwright Angelo Beolco. In Fo's Nobel acceptance speech, he gave credit to "Ruzzante Beolco, my greatest master along with Molière", called him "until Shakespeare, doubtless the greatest playwright of renaissance Europe", and referred to the inspiration of Ruzzante's linguistic inventiveness:

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.

Stefano Taschini told me by email that his dictionary "suggests that Grammelot might result from the composition of the French words grammairemêler, and argot, but its etymology stays uncertain." Stefano checked the "Encyclopedie Larousse, without finding any matches (trying all possible accent combinations). Despite being a french-looking and french-sounding word (I always heard it pronounced as [gram'lo]), apparently it isn't."

My own searches for grammelot in the BNF's Gallica archive and the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française (both 8th edition and 9th edition) likewise produced nothing. In addition, the word grammelot isn't in large English dictionaries such as the OED and Webster's 3rd International, nor is it in the LION ("Literature Online") database. The ARTFL project's Opera del Vocabolario Italiano search form and the Ricerca page of the Tesoro della Lingua Italiana delle Origini also return "Nothing found matching specified search term(s)" and "Nessun elemento trovato" for various types of searches for grammelot. If such a word had really been in use since the 15th and 16th centuries to describe the language of the Commedia Dell'Arte, or even Ruzzante's language in particular, this absence would be very surprising. It seems much more likely that the term was invented in the 1960s by Dario Fo and Franca Rame to describe their own linguistic experiments.

This leaves the question of whether the language of Ruzzante's plays was simply a representation of the local vernacular, or rather (as Fo says) a theatrical invention. Stefano isn't sure:

As for Ruzzante's language, I really cannot say. My unsubstantiated feeling is that it looks too much like a parody of Po plane dialects to be really one of them, and I'm rather inclined to consider it more an invention à la Fo than a faithful representation of the vernacular spoken in the countryside around Padua. At some point in La Moscheta, Ruzzante dresses up as a foreigner, and speaks in a mocked-up Italian (rather funny, actually). There, the language is obviously invented, but probably reflecting the efforts of his farmers to speak "properly".

Stefano (one of those special people whose email has footnotes) points out that a book and video tape of Fo's Mistero Buffo is available here, and that the texts of two of Ruzzante's plays are on line here.

Continuing on the trail of grammelot, the only return for this term from the MLA bibliography is Erith Jaffe-Berg, "Forays into Grammelot: The Language of Nonsense", Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (JDTC) 2001 Spring; 15 (2): 3-15, which is not available on line. The fact that there are no other references seems to be further evidence that this is a new term, not an old one. However, Ray Girvan sent a reference to a paper by Adrienne Ward ("'Imaginary Imperialism': Goldoni Stages China in 18th Century Italy". Theatre Journal 54.2 (2002) 203-221) which is available through Project Muse, and which uses the term grammelot as if it were a traditional name for (certain kinds of) theatrical double-talk.

Ward's paper is about a scene of "pretend Chinese" ("finti cinesi") in Carlo Goldoni's comic opera L'isola disabitata (1757). In footnote 36, Ward writes:

The deployment of a variety of languages and dialects (existing or imaginary) was relatively common practice on the Italian stage in Goldoni's time, hailing back to a classic bit in the commedia dell'arte tradition. A key feature of the commedia's poetics of improvisation involved virtuoso linguistic performances, in which characters would spew forth exaggerated and comical but authentic-sounding streams of foreign language, sometimes switching deftly between diverse tongues. Grammelot is the term used to describe this early practice of replicating the Other's language, which then became particularly suited to eighteenth-century exotic theatre. In Dario Fo and Popular Performance (Ottawa: Legas, 1998), Antonio Scuderi defines grammelot as ". . . a fake language which consists of nonsensical sounds that imitate the inflection and cadence of real speech," 8. He also notes that "The insertion of a limited number of key words that are identifiable to the audience conveys a sense of semantic value and thus a sense of real speech to the otherwise nonsensical sounds," Dario Fo: Stage, Text and Tradition (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), 58. The scene of the "finti cinesi" clearly exhibits these traits of grammelot, and shows Goldoni's continued reliance on certain aspects of commedia dell'arte performance. For more on the history of grammelot and its manifestations in twentieth-century theatre, see the aforementioned works by Scuderi, as well as Dario Fo, Tricks of the Trade, trans. Joseph Farrell (New York: Routledge, 1991). [emphasis added]

So either Ward and Scuderi have misread Fo, or this word has someone survived for half a millenium in the theatrical demimonde, without leaving any detectable traces in the literary and linguistic history of Italy, France and England.

[Update 12/10/2006 -- I was wrong to suggest that Antonio Scuderi might have misread Fo. In Scuderi's discussion of the subject, which I had read only in Ward's quotations, he makes it clear that he does not know the origin of the term, and he does not claim either that it is an old word or that it is a new one. Ward's discussion, which I had read in full, certainly implies that the term dates back to the early days of the commedia dell'arte tradition. However, Scuderi's only role here was to provide the definition that she used.]

Just for fun, here's Goldoni's passage of fake Chinese:

Valdimonte: Karamenitzkatà.
Garamone: (a due) Macaccorebeccà.
  Ti menaccà — paraticà,
  Baracca papagà.
  (verso degli altri mostrano che queste parole siano complimenti
Giacinta: (Sentite!) (a Carolina e Panico)
Carolina: (Che han detto?) (a Panico)
Panico: (Chi diavolo il sa?) (piano a Carolina)
Carolina: Panciri nascattà.
Giacinta: (a due) Penaci caraccà.
  Timpana là, timpanaccà.
  (corrispondono con simili complimenti)
Panico: Scarbocci mascabà.
  Chichirichi caccaraccà,
  Quaiotta squaquarà.

and the "translation" given in Ward's paper:

Valdimonte and Timbuktù-cuckoo.
Garamone: (together)    Chung-feng-shui-to-you.
  I bust-a-you-butt—watcha-you-gut,
  Tung-hu yu-a-foo.
  (they indicate to the others that these words are Chinese
Giacinta: (Listen!) (to Carolina and Panico)
Carolina: (What did they say?) (to Panico)
Panico: (Who the hell knows?) (softly to Carolina)
Carolina and Belly nakka-pu.
Giacinta: (together) Bing-ho sooka-doo.
  Bong-a-drum-one, Bong-a-drum-two.
  (they correspond with similar compliments)
Panico: Scribble-dibble bally-hoo.
  Willy-nilly cock-a-doodle-doo,
  Ming-ho yu-go poo-poo-poo.

about which she writes

My English translation of this portion of the scene of the "finti cinesi" can only hope to approximate both the sense and the nonsense of the Italian wordplay. The Italian version makes great use of the occlusive phoneme /k/ and truncated syllables at the end of lines, most likely to imitate the clipped sound of Chinese speech. I have tried to imitate this in an English parody as closely (and creatively) as possible. The repeated use of the syllable "ka" in the Italian contributes to the scatological tone of the exchange, sharply reminiscent of standard commedia dell'arte sketches. Other verbal constructions from which meaning can be extracted include threats ("Ti menaccà—paraticà"), and more overt scurrilous phrasing, such as "Chichirichi caccaraccà, / Quaiotta squaquarà," where "squaquarà" evokes the colloquial expression for diarrhea, "la squaquerella."

[Update 12/7/2006 -- Antonio Scuderi writes:

The other day, in a moment of egoistic self-indulgence, investigating books and articles where my work has been cited, I came across my name on your blog, Language Log, in an installment entitled "Fo Did It" (2005). Apparently without opening a book, the author concludes that the Italian Nobel Playwright, Dario Fo, invented the term grammelot, which refers to an aural performance technique. He quotes a long passage by someone else who quotes me, and then concludes, "So either Ward and Scuderi have misread Fo, or this word has someone (sic) survived for half a millennium in the theatrical demimonde, without leaving detectable traces in the literary and linguistic history of Italy, France and England" (2005:3).

Okay, it's just a blog, no responsible peer reviewing required, etc. But still... If the author had cracked open the two books of mine that are mentioned, he would have found that I cite where the term is listed in a major Italian dictionary (Zingarelli 1995:797), and a survey of attempts to trace the origins of the word. In my essay, "Updating Antiquity," in Dario Fo: Stage, Text and Tradition, I explain that according to John Rudlin (Commedia dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook, 1994:59-60), Fo most likely learned the technique from Jacques Lecoq, who "definitely" learned it from Jean Dasté, who had used it with the Copias troupe, which had called it grummelot. I explain that the etymology is uncertain and provide several hypotheses. None suggest that Fo invented the term, and in fact, Fo himself makes it clear that it did not originate with him: "termine di origine francese, coniato dai comici dell'Arte e maccheronizzato dai veneti che dicevano 'gramelotto'."

Wrestling with this enigmatic term in a scholarly endeavor was not easy. In any instance, of course, it is disappointing to see the results of such research bandied about in an off-hand irresponsible manner. In the present case, the invention of Fo inventing the term has reached Wikipedia by way of Language Log, so that myth is not just lost in a blog, but, alas, presented in a forum that some will trust.

I'm grateful for the additional information. However, the word grammelot (under whatever spelling) still seems to be a modern invention, contrary to the implication of some prominent contemporary users. Although Fo says that the term is "di origine francese", it is apparently not attested in any French dictionaries or other historical sources that I have been able to find. Specifically, the 8th edition of the Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française has neither grammelot nor grummelot nor grammelotto. Likewise, Gallica tells us that "aucun document ne répond à la requête".

And neither grammelotto nor relevant similar word appears to occur in the Opera del Vocabolario Italiano textual database, which includes more than 20 million words of pre-1375 Italian text.

Pending any evidence of use before 1960 or so, it still seems to me that the word grammelot is a modern invention -- whether the inventor was Fo or Jacques Lecoq or someone else -- which has been introduced into general use by Fo. The fact that the word occurs in an Italian dictionary published in 1995 doesn't address this question one way or another, unless it gives citations from an earlier time.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 19, 2005 10:25 AM