December 08, 2006

Maybe Jacques Lecoq did it

In a couple of Language Log posts back in March of 2005 ("Gibberish by any other name", "Fo did it"), I concluded (with considerable help from Ray Girvan and Stefano Taschini) that the word grammelot is probably a modern invention. The "rambling nonsense-speech" that this term describes may have been a feature of the Commedia dell'Arte 500 years ago, but the term itself seems to be a recent one. I suggested that perhaps "the term was invented in the 1960s by Dario Fo and Franca Rame to describe their own linguistic experiments", and in the course of the discussion, I quoted from a paper by Adrienne Ward, which in turn quoted from a book by Antonio Scuderi. Professor Scuderi has recently written to correct me.

Professor Scuderi's note, reproduced with permission:

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.

Well, actually, there's a sense in which blogs really are peer reviewed, as Professor Scuderi has just demonstrated. I've appended his note to my original post, with a response to the effect that there is still no evidence that the term grammelot or any of its variants was used 500 years ago, or even before the 1960s. And I suggested that he correct the Wikipedia entry, which he promised to do.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I'm in favor of careful scrutiny of ideas, free debate, and scrupulous correction of mistakes. We always make corrections in a way that is at least as prominent as the original error, and doesn't hide the fact that a mistake took place. I'll leave for another time a discussion of the future evolution of the peer-reviewing process in scientific and scholarly publication, and instead just point to the contrast between peer-reviewed journals, weblogs and other methods for honestly attempting to present the truth on one hand, and the current practices of some esteemed media organizations.

And let me remind all readers that in case of less than full satisfaction, the Language Log Customer Relations Department stands ready to refund double your subscription price.

[As several people have pointed out to me, my first version of this post substituted "1995" for "2005". Time flies, but not that fast.]

[Professor Scuderi responds:

I really don't want to waste any more time on this, especially in this format. I don't appreciate being dragged into your discussion for all to see, cited as a secondary source, as if I am claiming that I know where the term comes from, which I never did. I do know that much of the commedia dell'arte was passed down to forms of low-brow theater, which derive from it, whole or in part, such as mime, music hall, vaudeville, circus clowning and so forth, in an oral tradition. This means that maybe, just maybe, you can't find some of the technical terms of these performers listed in print anywhere, until after they were in use for some time. Some may even have been lost with no record. The technique of imitating the sounds, intonations, and cadences of a given language, while inserting a key word that the audience can understand, was known to some American vaudevillians, for example, as "double talk." (To see it done, just watch some old Sid Caesar sketches.) I'd just like to say that if Copias, for example, or Lecoq invented the term then "Fo Didn't Do It."

Fair enough. Many terminological histories are possible -- in this case, such evidence as there is suggests that the term "grammelot" dates from the second half of the 20th century. As for the dragging part: Adrienne Ward quoted Antonio Scuderi, and I quoted Ward quoting Scuderi, and Scuderi wrote with a correction, which I promptly posted, and then an objection, which I've just posted. If that be dragging, make the most of it.]

[Trevor, who doesn't have to be dragged into anything, writes:

It sounds rather like a Romance version of gramatol, which turns up in Speke Parott by the satirist John Skelton ca 1500 (nodypollys and gramatolys of smalle intellygens) meaning windbag (Greg Walker, John Skelton and the Politics of the 1520s) or smatterer (Thomas Wright, Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English). Skelton was a player in the Grammarians' War and Tudor England despised the learned, so I guess you could hypothesise something along the lines grammatologist(s) -> gramatolys. This is more or less what Steve McCaffery suggests in (p261) Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics, although I've never actually come up against the word grammatologist in Tudor literature & haven't got corpus access to check.

I'm sure ;-) you've read Jacques's Of grammatoly.

The OED glosses gramatol as "A smatterer", giving the single citation

a1529 SKELTON Sp. Parrot 319 Nodypollys and gramatolys of smalle intellygens.

but has so far missed the chance to include grammatoly in its Jacquian sense.

The Skelton citation is the only hit in the LION database. More of the passage, which is worth quoting:

316 And thowe sum dysdayne yow, and sey how ye prate,
317 And howe your poemys arre barayne of polyshed eloquens,
318 There is none that your name woll abbrogate
319 Then nodypollys and gramatolys of smalle intellygens;
320 To rude ys there reason to reche to your sentence:
321 Suche malyncoly mastyvys and mangye curre dogges
322 Ar mete for a swyneherde to hunte after hogges.

Neither grammatologist nor gramatologist nor any of their obvious typographical variants occurs in LION or in EEBO, alas.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 8, 2006 06:46 AM