Away from the serious academic work of constructing languages as international auxiliary tongues, or the heady worlds of alien languages used in science fiction or fantasy, is an area of linguistic construction that has largely escaped notice – comedy languages.
Please note that this article is mainly concerned with constructed comedic languages from the UK with some from the USA and Australia. Contributions from speakers of other languages about their own comedy traditions would be gratefully received, as would other examples from the English speaking world. However, please note that I don’t consider simple word-play a new language, such as Victor Borge’s “inflationary English”, in which any syllable that sounds like a number is increased by one. So much though I love it, I can’t include it here, unfivetunately.
I believe that the root of comedy languages lies in childhood, when children learning to speak often “talk funny”, making jokes out of nonsense words and deliberate mispronunciation. This has further been used by adults seeking to entertain the young and very young. For decades the BBC entertained very young children with series of short television programmes made in the 1950s and repeated endlessly. In one of these, “The Flowerpot Men”, two puppets called Bill and Ben use a mixture of mispronounced English and invented words to entertain the kids – so that they pronounce the name of their friend Little Weed “iggle weeb” while the local tortoise is called “flobalob”. More recently, the Teletubbies have used the same mix to entertain children around the world, with a language that we are told can be understood by children but not by adults, perhaps proven by the fact that while three of them are speaking a distorted English, the smallest of them, Po, apparently speaks a childish form of Cantonese.
Another possible origin is in “scat” languages, jazz phrases used by such stalwarts as Slim Galliard’s “Voot”, or “Vout” – which had a large vocabulary and methodology for inventing words to fill in when English didn’t fit. Sometimes the words were nonsense, but in Vout all that was often necessary was to put “mac” in front of a word or “oroony” afterwards, as in tracks such as “Laguna Orooney”.
A further boost to comic languages came from the revolutionary - and highly influential - 1950s BBC radio show "The Goon Show", which spawned an entire hit single - The Ying Tong Song - which charted twice, once upon release and again over a decade later. However, the words are not intended to mean anything, they simply sound funny.
Comedy languages for adults should be distinguished from mere use of neologisms. A classic example of this from British radio comedy is from “Round the Horne”, a sketch show from the 1960s in which various means were used to suggest indecency without falling foul of the BBC censor. Two characters, for example, used Palari, the gay slang of London, to delight and confuse an audience that was largely unaware of its origins – but Palari is indeed a slang, not a constructed language. Another character, a folk singer called Rambling Sid Rumpo (played by Kenneth Williams) used either invented or misused words for the same purpose, as in the following lines (which are much funnier when heard than when read):
Joe, he was a young cordwangler, Munging greebles he did go, And he loved a bogler's daughter By the name of Chiswick Flo.
Vain she was and like a grusset Though her gander parts were fine, But she sneered at his cordwangle As it hung upon the line.
Nonsense though this is, it is still clearly English. The same cannot truly be said of the first actual constructed language I know of to be used in comedy, Unwinese.
Created by “Professor” Stanley Unwin in the 1950s, Unwinese (so named by a then famous fan) is a largely English-based language in which the Professor would deliver lectures. What made Unwinese different from many other comic tongues is that it was the language itself, rather than the subject matter, that was funny. Using a vocabulary either of distorted English with extra suffixes or prefixes (like Vout) with invented extras, it is clearly a deliberate construction. One unique aspect is the use of correct English terms in an unusual way, such as the Unwinese for “very happy” – “deep joy” This uses a grammatical feature that is common in Unwinese but rare in English itself.
Also known as Gobbledegook (in the film “Carry On Regardless”), Unwin himself referred to it as “Basic Engly Twentyfido” – demonstrating a knowledge of at least one other constructed language – Basic English. Unwinese, however, was different, as the valediction at his funeral – written by Unwin in advance – shows:
"Goodly Byeload loyal peeploaders, now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle - oteedee. Oh yes."
Unlike many constructed languages, though Unwin died in 2002 Unwinese still has speakers and many have written texts on the web, making Unwin more successful a language constructor than many others. There are even dictionaries available online. Deep joy.
I think it is also worth pointing out that Unwinese has its own grammatical features, and definite rules that I for one cannot follow – I have listened to Unwin for decades but find that while I can create a comic Anglo-romance language on the spot, Unwinese is beyond me. Unwin, however, could speak Unwinese without – unlike other creators of comic languages – having to script it first – he was often interviewed on TV shows and gave answers in Unwinese without pausing to work out what to say.
By the 1970s, comedians and writers began to feel confident about using other languages as sources. One example is in the otherwise appallingly unfunny “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox” (1976), in which Goldie Hawn and George Segal are wasted for most of 90 minutes, with the exception of a segment aboard a stagecoach in which they communicate in a language they are supposed to be creating on the spot to disguise the escape they are planning from a third actor, referred to throughout the conversation as “El Schmucko”, a Hispanicised form of a Yiddish original. As the only funny part of the supposed comedy, this segment was widely used to promote the film, which has since sunk into oblivion, though a DVD release might be out there somewhere.
One “language” used in the 1970s series “Taxi” was that created by Andy Kaufmann – however, although at one point another character also speaks it, it is not clear that it had any rules or vocabulary and may have simply been gibberish.
Later in the 1970s the English comic writer Miles Kingston began writing a column for Punch magazine in Franglais, a comic take on the type of French spoken by English speakers many decades after they last studied the language at school. Highly successful, a series of books were produced, ending with “Let’s parler Franglais un more temps”. A television show was less successful. A form of Franglais was also used in the film “The Adventures of Barry Mackenzie” giving an Australian take on the concept. Although comical, to a certain extent Franglais does represent the way that English tourists in France speak – and also how French creoles are often constructed with French vocabulary but English grammar. Strangely, Kingston was presumably unaware that Franglais had already been used as a term by linguistics expert Professor Etiemble in 1964 to describe French being bastardised by importing English terms.
The 1980s did not bring much in the way of comic languages, although one-off sketches where a para-foreign tongue is used were a feature of a long-running television series featuring Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett – and anything with word-play tended to be written by Barker. In a famous restaurant skit, for example, a confused customer at an unidentifiably foreign restaurant tries to complain, but instead orders food. The sketch uses the fact that most English people at least know the French numbers from one to ten, so when the customer describes his treatment as “disgusting” he gets served ten peculiar looking dishes as the waiter counts out “dix gusting”. As with real languages, the waiter uses hand gestures to communicate the meaning of the invented tongue. However, one-off sketches rarely need an entire grammar. Other Two Ronnies sketches also used “Franglais” type word-play.
The next, and latest, popular constructed comedy language is the unnamed one used in the successful and widely influential TV series “The Fast Show”. In the show, the screen would seem to suffer interference before cutting to a news channel from somewhere in the Mediterranean. Using words only occasionally sourced from English, such as the ever-present “scorchio” used by the weather girl to describe the temperature everywhere on her chart, this language uses the same technique as Interlingua to identify words of mainly Romance or Greek origin that are familiar to the English speaking audience, such as the phrase for “weather forecast with Paula” itself – which I transliterate as approximately “prognostica meteorlogica mit Paula” - sourced from Greek, Greek again but then German. This language thus reinforces the claims of Interlingua to be the best take on an international auxiliary language by a totally different argument – it demonstrates that it works because people laugh. It even manages to parody the way that foreign languages import English – in one episode where an entertainment show rather than a news report appears – a cheesy male singer over-uses the words “sexy”, “lady” and “disco” to great comic effect.
Although, with the exception of Unwinese, comic languages are not intended to last, they offer lessons. Unless words sound funny - as in the Ying Tong Song - what makes audiences laugh is the contrast between unfamiliarity and recognition. If the language sounds too English it isn't funny, if it is unrecognisable it isn't funny. The language has to be understood - and the split-second longer it takes to understand than English is part of the humour. In other words, Interlingua just might be funny where Esperanto can't be.
Steve Wilson 2009