June 03, 2006

Naming That Tune: "We keep it incessantly in pleated skirts and scowls"

This morning, I asked about the language of a song sent in by Sven Godtvisken. JS Bangs gave the right answer right away:

The song is in Romanian. Am I disqualified because my wife is Romanian and I'm fluent in the language?

I would never disqualify anyone for knowing something!

JS continued:

Here's a transcription in standard orthography:

Gaşca-i adunată din mii
Nu s-a schimbat
În pliu fu şi în fiţe o ţine ne-ncetat
Tatuaje noi, inele şi cercei
Stând doar pe MTV
Şi nu ne pasă ce zic ei

E o lume nouă
Una nouă nouă nouă
E o lume nouă

Once more in English:

The gang's made up of thousands
It hasn't changed
It was in the crease* and always wears a scowl
New tatoos, rings and earrings
Only watching MTV
And we don't care what they say

It's a new world
A new new new one

* The first part of this line was very hard for me to make out. As I transcribed it ("in pliu fu") it literally means "he/she/it was in the crease". I'm probably either hearing it wrong or am ignorant of some colloquialism using "pliu". The Academia Română DEX doesn't have any
entries for "pliu" that are helpful, alas.

Wouldn't that be "in the groove"? This is based on my English-side language model only, of course: I was able to guess that it was Romanian only by hearing some obviously Romance morphemes (mostly in other verses) and working through the possibilities by a process of elimination.

JS wrote back later with more information from his wife, the native speaker:

I wrote earlier today with a sample translation and transcription of the mystery song. My wife, the native, has since gotten home and we
came up with a more satisfying (but still not great) transcription of
the first three lines:

Gaşca-i adunată
Nimic nu s-a schimbat
În pliuri şi în fiţe o ţinem ne-ncetat

The gang is gathered
Nothing has changed
We keep it incessantly in pleats (i.e. pleated skirts) and scowls

I don't think we're going to do better without an actual lyrics sheet, given the famous difficulty of understanding song lyrics in any language :).

I don't know -- somehow the a priori probability of "we always keep it in the groove", as a rock lyric, seems higher to me that "we keep it incessantly in pleated skirts", which strikes me as likely to be my first encounter with a Romanian Mondegreen. But then, what do I know about Romanian rock sensibilities?

JS wrote again:

This is the last time I'm writing about this, I promise. A little extra googling revealed that the band is "Voltaj", who evidently got some sort of award from MTV in 2005.

Still couldn't find an online lyrics sheet, though, and now I really am giving up :) .

Jarek Weckwerth, unbiased by any actual knowledge of Romanian, relied on the web:

It's Romanian.

Method: Listen + google. Brute force, trial and error, simple tools, 20
minutes :)

My first impression was that it was Slavic/Balkan rock, a useful cue :)))

After first listening through the built-in speakers of my laptop, I thought I heard [dva] and [tatuaZe], which indeed seemed to point to a Slavic language (I'm Polish). But then I wasn't able to make out any other words, which would be quite unlikely if it really was a Slavic language.

I then listened through headphones, and decided to start from [tatuaZe] as [ta] was very clearly a word boundary and the word ("tatoos" e.g. in Polish) seemed to make good sense in a rock song. It started sounding familiar; last year we had a big (ugly disco) hit from Moldova (of all places), pounded ad nauseam all over Europe.

So I had a look at the Wikipedia description of Romanian orthography (simple tools, as I said) to see how [tatuaZe] could be spelled, added the next syllable, and googling "tatuaje noi" produced Romanian pages exclusively. Bingo. Then:

[tatuaZenoi | ineleSitSetSej ... emtiviSinunepas@tSezikjej]

which is compatible with the following (no Romanian diacritics... trial and error, adding one syllable at a time):

tatuaje noi inele si ce cei ... MTV si nu ne pasa ce zic iei ...

where all the substings google to Romanian sites. (Mind, I don't know any Romanian and had no idea at this point whether this made any sense at all...) But then googling "MTV si nu ne pasa" found just two pages, both containing the lyrics.

So, it's Romanian, the band is called Voltaj, song title 1@999, lyrics available here:


(So you can see that my transcription was far from perfect.)

(And of course the presence of [@] and (especially) [ts] also helped, as well as the relative absence of nasalisation.)

What do you say?

I say bravo; hooray for Jarek, and hooray for Google, and hooray for Wikipedia. Jarek wrote back to say that

Hello again,

In fact I've just noticed that already the third hit for "tatuaje noi" points to the lyrics... Got to get those glasses at last.

The lyric sheet gives the first verse and refrain as:

Gashca-i adunata, nimic nu s-a schimbat
In chefuri si in fite o tinem ne-ncetat
Cu tatuaje noi, inele si cercei
Stam doar pe MTV si nu ne pasa ce zic ei

E o lume 9, 1@999
E o lume 9, yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah
E o lume 9, 1@999
E o lume 9, hei-hei-hei-hei.

A Romanian-English dictionary glosses chefuri as "revelry", so it was neither "in the groove" (at least not literally) nor "in pleated skirts". And it (apparently) isn't a new ("nouă") world, a new new new one; instead, it is (or rather it was) a nine (also "nouă" ) world, one nine nine nine ("unu @ noua noua noua"), i.e. 1999. (Or maybe 9 for "nouă" and 1@ for "una" is Romanian 733t-speak?). Of course, probably it is (or was) both a nine world and a new world, over there is Bucharest seven years ago. Anyhow, there's nothing like a rock lyric for engendering Mondegreens. Of course there's no guarantee that the lyrics posted on the site "Versuri de melodii romanesti" are correct, either -- but between pleated skirts and revelry, somebody's hearing something other than what was sung.

Other submitted guesses were further afield, e.g.

  • Based solely on general phonology, I guess Saigon Vietnamese.
  • So, my guess is that it's Albanian. I managed to hear and roughly transcribe a word which was later found on many Albanian pages --namely, "tatuazhe". Though I still don't know what it means :)
  • My guess is Euskara (Basque). I think I could identify the words "etxe" and "loa", and that was enough.
    Don't really have any idea who the artist is, nor the song name, but I'm sure there's some Basque out there who'll be sending you that.
    This was fun.

Yes, it was. Thanks, Sven!

[Update -- Stephen Smith wrote:

Regarding your follow-up to the name-that-toon post on Language Log, in the bottom, with the Romanian transcription, you find something odd that appears throughout online Romanian text (I read Romanian with middling amounts of fluency): people replace Romanian letters (such as the s with the comma, ş or ș depending on what encoding you're using) with their equivalent English sound. And it isn't only nonnative Romanian speakers, or, say, second-generation Romanian-Americans who only know how to speak and not how to write the language. Native Romanians, living in Romania, post online using this shorthand. However, they do not usually find any way to represent the vowels (â, ă, î). Romanian can be completely comprehended without the accents, and in fact many things are published without them. The anglicization is totally unnecessary and reveals a strong affinity among Internet-savvy modern Romanians for English, which all Romanian school-aged children are taught.

The "lyric sheet" you used gives the first line as: "Gashca-i adunata, nimic nu s-a schimbat," where "Gashca" is meant to be "Gaşca," where the ş makes the /ʃ/ sound. Ţ makes the /ʦ/ sound and is sometimes, represented as "ts" or "tz," although this is not as prevalent as the ş/sh depiction.


[JS Bangs writes:

Looking at http://www.voltaj.ro/, it would appear that the song 1@999 did in fact appear on the "Risk Maxim 2" album, released in 1999. I'm sure that the play on words is deliberate.


Posted by Mark Liberman at June 3, 2006 12:06 AM