Do Is for “Donut.”

Lameen has posted “The Sound of Music” across three languages:

You may well be familiar with The Sound of Music, an American musical from the 1950s loosely based on the von Trapp family’s memoirs. It features a neat little song for teaching musical notes, “Do, a Deer”, which has been translated into a number of languages. Let’s contrast three versions – English, Japanese, and Arabic – and see what they suggest.

That is, of course, just the sort of thing I love, and after giving the versions (Japanese: ドはドーナツのド Do is for “donut” [dōnatsu], Arabic: دو دروب ومعاني Do is “paths” [durūb] and meanings), he concludes:

As should be obvious, the Arabic version is derived from the Japanese one (via a popular anime of the 1990s) rather than directly from the English one. However, it contrasts sharply with both in the choice of note-mnemonics. In English, each note name (well, except “la”) is mapped directly to a near-homophonous monosyllabic word, taking advantage of English’s relatively short minimal word length; most of these are widely familiar, high-frequency items. In Japanese, the word choices are necessarily longer and perhaps more obscure (the syllable fa is found only in relatively recent loanwords anyway), but in each case the note is mapped perfectly to the first syllable of a single word, usually referring to something readily visualisable. In Arabic, the note is again mapped (increasingly approximatively) to the first syllable, not of a word, but of a 2-4 word phrase; not a single one of these phrases refers to anything concrete enough to visualise. High-flown slogans replace the original’s homely whimsy.

I have no way of proving it, but I believe this is symptomatic – certainly of the Arabic dubbing in the cartoons I used to watch in the early 1990s, and plausibly of Modern Standard Arabic discourse in general: an imagination based on recitation rather than visualization, preferring stirring abstractions to concrete details. After all, concrete details travel poorly in this diglossic context.


  1. WP’s English page for the song talks a little about an Autrian version. The page is in 11 more languages. The Arabic one doesn’t mention any translations.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    # When The Sound of Music was translated to German in 2005 for the Vienna Volksoper, the song “Do-Re-Mi” was rewritten as “C wie Cellophanpapier“.[8] The solfège syllables were replaced with the letters C through H,[a] and the mnemonics were words that began with each letter. However, when the musical finally premiered in its setting of Salzburg in 2011, it was performed with a German version of Do-Re-Mi that kept the solfège.[9][10] #

    C wie Cellophanpapier” … The Germanness of it all ! I note that this happened while the Lebensmensch was still going strong. 3 years after he died, things were back to normal

  3. Replacing do, re, mi with C to H makes a certain sense in a German context, because that’s the musical notation German children learn at school, while the sol-fa names are an exotic add-on.
    OTOH, in the new orthography, the preferred spelling, and thus the one school children would be familiar with, is now Zellophan, so a new illustrating word would have to be substituted.

  4. David Marjanović says

    The material itself isn’t as common as it used to be; I bet millions grow up without knowing it.

  5. I guess my age shows again…

  6. But Americans also use A-G terminology (down with C-dur dominance!). I guess, the “Do-Re-Mi” song is the only exposure to an alternative that any American who doesn’t study music specifically ever has.

  7. @David, yes, but the material appears to have some cache as a bio compostable alternative to plastic based foils for packaging and storing. The “Frischhaltefolie” at DM is made of “Cellophan”. Maybe it will make a comeback.

    Also the “C” spelling still seems to be relatively common place, at least in Austria.

  8. What if the solfège syllables had been borrowed into English before the Great Vowel Shift?

    Do, a verb, a modal verb,
    Ree, a lawyer’s kind of pun,
    My, a word that goes with self,
    Fay, a gorilla’s honey-bun,
    Soo, a bridge across the straits,
    Lay, a thing to do with Sue,
    Tie, a cloth around the neck,
    And that brings us back to do, do, do, do …

  9. @JC: People used to be sent to Devil’s Island for that kind of thing.

  10. D.O.: You are certainly the ideal commenter for this post.

  11. דו הוא דוב לבן צפוני
    רה הוא רע מאוכזב
    מי דופק על חלוני
    פה ילדה יפה אוהב
    סול סולחים לו על הכול
    לה קוראים לאהובה
    סי סלחי נא חביבה
    דוב אוהב אותך נורא

    Do, a polar bear (dov)
    Re, a disappointed friend (re’a)
    Who (mi) is knocking on my window?
    Fa, a pretty (yafa) girl I love
    Sol, we/they forgive (solxim) him for everything
    Her (la), the name of the beloved.fem
    Si, Forgive (silxi) me o pleasant_one.fem
    Bear loves you very much.

  12. David Marjanović says

    appears to have some cache as a bio compostable alternative to plastic based foils for packaging and storing. The “Frischhaltefolie” at DM is made of “Cellophan”.

    I guess my age is showing again!

    (…last week… last ice age…)

  13. (well, except “la”)

    While most sources agree that the line “La, a note to follow sew” is weak at best, one David H. Lewis takes a different view, and does not even acknowledge that his opinion is a minority one:

    The stricken Mr. Hammerstein in those last months did, remarkably, muster the will to pen some of his better lyrics. In the deceptively simple “Do Re Mi,” his gifts are on full display. Somehow, Hammerstein found a way to turn each of the notes of the scale into an image, and to fit them all perfectly into a tight, delightful little puzzle. What, for instance, to do with the impossible “la”? According to O.H., “la” is a note to follow “sew.” One would be hard pressed to find a more cleverly wrought lyric.

    Am I and so many others missing the cleverness? Was “note to follow” a telegram catchphrase, or term of art in sewing?

  14. If the cleverness were supposed to be connected with the phrase “note to follow”, wouldn’t all three words be italicized?

  15. Yeah, it’s got to be something else, but what? Couldn’t he have deigned to be a little more explanatory?

  16. i don’t understand lewis, but i share his appreciation for the line, which is one of my favorites. to me, the brilliance is that it’s so aggressively not complicated; that it’s self-referential in the bluntest way possible, amidst clever wordplay pointing everywhere else. it’s harpo marx handing someone his knee.

  17. [Hey Hat, I have a comment in limbo, do you see it by any chance? It’s 4569939]

  18. [Found it in the spam folder — it’s back now. But the comment number doesn’t help; I have to search on the username.]

  19. As a kid growing up with Canadian English, I had two nonstandard thoughts about this song:

    1. “fa” and “far” sound very different to me, so it took me a long time to realize that this line *was* following the trend of the rest of the lyrics

    2. “la” and “law” are homophonous to me, so I thought this line *was* following the normal pattern. It might seem impossible, but to my child’s mind the lyric was defining ‘law’, like this: “a note [written thing] to follow so [that one is obligated to follow/conform to, just so]”.

  20. Could it be not linguistic but just musical – that is, “sol” is the 5th in the scale, harmonically as well as melodically of the greatest importance, and “la” is the 6th, a note that has no special importance except as the next stop in the ascending scale after the 5th? After all, the context is that Maria is teaching solfège to insecure young non-singers. I used to wonder, when I was a young music student, why solfège syllables corresponded to note names in Romance languages and not to note names in German (and why Maria didn’t teach the kids the German names instead), until my piano teacher explained about “moveable do”, where “do” is the tonic no matter what key you were in and the other syllables correspond to scale steps and not to fixed notes – and after all the song was written in English, she added drily.

  21. I can’t for the life of me come up with a fitting English line that starts with “ut”.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    Ut o sicht, ut o mind.

    This one starts with “fa”:
    Fada bhon t-sùil, fada bhon chride.

  23. ut,
    a butt,
    a big fat butt

  24. Kafka Kebab says

    I think Ryan O is exactly correct with the reading of la as law. This is also why David H. Lewis italicizes “follow” in the quoted part above, since we follow laws.

    Law, a note to follow so

    Too clever perhaps.

  25. So the song is supposed to be sung by a nonrhotic speaker with the cot-caught merger? I’m skeptical.

  26. Well, it’s clearly nonrhotic: “Fa, a long long way to run.”

  27. Of course. The cot-caught merger is the part I’m skeptical of, and it seems more dubious when combined with the nonrhoticity.

  28. I just watched the clip from the movie on Youtube; the children giggle after the “fa” and “la” lines, lampshading that those are the strained ones.

  29. @ktschwarz: That’s an innovation of the film. The play (which is better) doesn’t have the laughing business in the score, although it does have a lot more stage directions in the score and book that most musicals I’ve performed in. For example, it’s noted in the score that, by the end of the whole group of “Do-Re-Mi” songs, Maria has been singing so long she has lost her voice.

  30. But the laughter for “la” could be about giving up on trying to find a pun. Would Oscar Hammerstein (or Julie Andrews) have even thought of “la” as sounding like “law”? Who has an accent where both fa = far and la = law?

  31. Was Oscar Hammerstein (born 1895 in New York) personally nonrhotic? Even if so, he wouldn’t have written characters to have his own accent.

    Did Mary Martin (born and raised in Texas) play Maria nonrhotically on Broadway? I can’t find anything indicating that in Martin’s autobiography. In 1959 on Broadway, did they aim for English, or mid-Atlantic, accents for a story set in Europe? And what accent did Martin use as Peter Pan?

    At any rate, since it’s followed by a vowel in the line — “fa, a …” — “far” would be distinguished from “fa” by a linking r in (most) nonrhotic accents. So I can’t believe Hammerstein intended “fa” as a perfect pun, let alone “la”. I take those lines as deliberately awkward, pretty much what rozele said, indicating “I’m willing to look silly. Don’t be intimidated by my astounding voice: join in and let’s be silly together.” Admittedly the Japanese and Arabic translators must not have felt that, since they didn’t treat those lines differently from the rest.

    Julie Andrews used RP; Christopher Plummer is an often-cited example of mid-Atlantic; other characters in the movie are generally in that vicinity, so they must have been cast/directed that way.

  32. PlasticPaddy says

    I thought that up to about 1970, the heroes had the mid-atlantic (or RP) accent and only minor characters and baddies spoke with regional accents. Does anyone have an older recording of “Porgy and Bess” or “Oklahoma”?

  33. 1970 is well after the accent went out of fashion in Hollywood. Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart famously did not use mid-Atlantic. The History of English Podcast has a nice episode on Rise and Fall of the Classic Movie Accent, with lots of sound clips; the discussion of the fall begins about 33:47.

    From Dialect Blog:

    I first experienced Peter Pan via the 1950s Mary Martin stage musical (produced for live television in 1960). I’ve long associated Pan with Martin’s homey Texas twang and, despite the character’s British provenance, have on some level never considered Pan anything other than American.

    It’s hard not to see Neverland as a stand-in for America, or rather, a Victorian daydream of America in all its rugged beauty. (Note the presence of now-cringeworthy “Indians.”) So why wouldn’t Pan have an American accent?

    The 1960 televised production is on Youtube. Mary Martin sounds American to me (though I don’t hear a Texas twang), not mid-Atlantic: rhotic and no BATH-TRAP split.

  34. “far” would be distinguished from “fa” by a linking r in (most) nonrhotic accents.

    Maybe that was true in 1950s New York; it certainly isn’t true in England, where linking r appears whether there was an etymological r or not. (I think phonologists’ preferred example is “India[r] ink”, which gives some idea of how long this has been the case.)

  35. The linking r might not arise anyway, because of the pause after fa (between word and definition).

  36. There are plenty of official-looking published versions of the lyrics that use spellings “sew a needle” and “far a long long way” etc. OTOH there are next to no Google hits for “law a note to follow”

  37. Lameen: linking r appears whether there was an etymological r or not

    *headdesk* I forgot that “intrusive” (non-etymological) r also exists; it’s difficult for my rhotic brain to grasp. It’s more complicated than that, though: the linking r does *not* always appear even when it’s etymological. The Hannisdal PhD thesis is often cited.

    Anyway, in this line, *headdesk* again, Keith is right: the prosodic break after “fa” prevents any r sandhi. For the same reason, Julie Andrews also does *not* produce a linking r at “a deer, a female”, nor an intrusive r at “la, a note”.

    Since intrusive r is stigmatized, more so in 1965, I wonder if Andrews (who’s often held up as a “proper”, “cut-glass” speaker) would have avoided it in a phrase like “fa is the fourth note of the sequence”. I did scrape up a couple of what sound to me like intrusive r’s in the movie:

    (search youtube for “sound of music frog in pocket”)
    HOUSEKEEPER (English-born actress): You’re very lucky. With Fraulein Helga(r)it was a snake.

    (search youtube for “sound of music bedroom scene”)
    MARIA: God bless Louisa, Brigitta, Marta(r)and little Gretl.

    Feel free to double-check my ears.

  38. David Marjanović says

    I thought it’s “linking” between two words and “intrusive” inside one, e.g. drawing coming out as droring?

  39. No, “intrusive r” has included unetymological r’s at word boundaries since at least Jespersen 1909 (who provides a thorough survey of complaints about it going back to 1787), and in the usage of subsequent linguists such as Jones, Crystal, Lewis, and Wells. Wells, for example:

    I use intrusive r freely after ə, ɑː and the centring diphthongs, even word-internally, but never after ɔː. So I would readily put an r in china and glass, Grandma again and even in semi-nonce forms such as concertinaing, magentaish; but not in thaw out, sawing, withdrawal.

    Likewise the OED, in its etymological note on the letter R (2008 revision), notes that “A distinction is often made between ‘linking’ /r/ … and ‘intrusive’ /r/”, giving both law and order and drawing as examples of the latter. They also have an entry for “intrusive r” s.v. intrusive (formerly part of the R entry), giving both the idea(r) of and draw(r)ing as examples in the definition.

    Many linguists think the r in the idea(r) of *should* have been called “linking” rather than “intrusive”, but the usage is established. J.W. Lewis:

    One wonders how far it was a case of ‘give a dog a bad name’. Perhaps the widespread inhibitions about using the non-orthographic analogous linking r would not exist if it had been labelled the ‘euphonic’ r by some revered pundit such as Dr Johnson.

  40. David Marjanović says

    Ah, thanks!

    (Lore and order. I like that.)

  41. And Jonathan Ross would pronounce that as Love and Order.

  42. David Eddyshaw says

    Laura Norder has long been a heartthrob for the UK Conservative Party. (Though they seem to be cheating on the lady nowadays.)

  43. Who hasn’t Boris cheated on?

  44. David Marjanović says

    Laura Norder

    *facepalm* I had known that.

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