Grammelot.

Over a decade ago, Mark Liberman posted at the Log about a garbled account of a “magical sounding gibberish language”; I won’t confuse you with the details, which turned out to be irrelevant, but the upshot was that the actual term was grammelot, which seems to have been invented by Dario Fo. A followup post has more details, and makes it clear that the notion that it is “a gibberish language … that was first described over 500 years ago” is balderdash. Mark wrote:

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.

(Wikipedia says that Angelo Beolco was “better known by the nickname Il Ruzzante.”) Stefano Taschini suggested that “Grammelot might result from the composition of the French words grammaire, mêler, and argot.” The exact history is murky, and if anyone knows anything more, please share. Thanks for the links go to Michael Trevor, who found out about “Grammelot” from this article on the invented penguin language Pingu, which calls Grammelot “a technique that has been used in theatre and commedia dell’arte for hundreds of years,” which may or may not be true depending on how narrowly you’re defining “technique”; at any rate, it certainly wasn’t called Grammelot.

Comments

  1. I will pronounce “Grammelot” to rhyme with “Spamalot”.

  2. Me too, more or less. I always assumed it was from an Italo-Romance variety that dropped final vowels, but certainly not French.

  3. Hmm. As a historical linguist, I wonder: what is the exact nature of the relationship between “Grammelot”, “Penguinese, AKA Pingu”, and the Northern Italian gibberish used in this fine work of Italian art (which as a child I assumed was real Italian)?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Linea_(TV_series)

  4. Jim (another one) says:

    Grammelot – isn’t that a mixture of lemon zest, garlic and minced parsley?

  5. Roberto Batisti says:

    Gladly taking up Hat’s invitation to share knowledge, here is a short paper by Pietro Trifone clarifying the origin of grammelot:

    https://www.academia.edu/41849443/Letimologia_di_grammelot_-_2020

    Basically, it seems almost certain that the word goes back to French grommelot ‘gibberish, unarticulated noise’ (from grommeler ‘to mumble’), the name of an acting exercise developed by director Jacques Copeau (1879-1949), paretymologically remade after grammaire.

    The most widespread pronunciation in Italian – also the only one I’m familiar with – is /gram’lo/, reflecting the word’s (pseudo-)French origin.

    Fo’s own statement that the word went back to the Commedia dell’arte by way of Venetian ‘gramlotto’ was just a bit of self-mythologizing.

  6. Stu Clayton says:

    French grommelot ‘gibberish, unarticulated noise’ (from grommeler ‘to mumble’), the name of an acting exercise developed by director Jacques Copeau (1879-1949)

    The word does not occur in the French WiPe article on Copeau, nor is Copeau mentioned in any of the other articles on the word I just read, for example Grommelot.

    Most often referenced are a 2006 article by the French linguist Claude Duneton, and the Italian La Linea cartoon series linked above by Etienne.

  7. Stu Clayton says:

    Apart from Fo, of course.

  8. The most widespread pronunciation in Italian – also the only one I’m familiar with – is /gram’lo/, reflecting the word’s (pseudo-)French origin.

    Thank you — after four years, I finally know how to pronounce it!

Speak Your Mind

*