Back in 2016 I posted on a “gibberish language” called Grammelot, with a reference to “the invented penguin language Pingu”; now Gabriel Rom has a nice piece in the NY Times (archived) about the latter:

In the unreal early days of the pandemic, when it seemed foolish to try to comprehend the enormity of what we were collectively living through, a clay penguin reacquainted me with the clarifying power of gibberish. “Pingu” is a stop-​motion children’s television show about the titular character, a penguin tyke who lives with his family in a little igloo village at the South Pole. Initially, the episodes appear to be light five-minute affairs about the small dramas of toddler penguinhood: Pingu spits his veggies into the toilet; a municipal penguin employee turns Pingu’s play area into a parking spot. But with a balance of farce and sentiment, the show also gestures toward some of early life’s more complicated realities — sibling rivalries, parental punishment and the loneliness of childhood. Created by the German animator Otmar Gutmann, “Pingu” premiered in Europe in the early 1990s and became a worldwide phenomenon; but unlike other global cultural crazes, the show did not need to be dubbed or subtitled. Nothing could be lost in translation because there was nothing to translate. Every “Pingu” character speaks the language of Penguinese, which sounds like Thai, Indonesian, Italian, something in between or something else entirely. Yet, despite the lingo’s seeming inscrutability, it is mysteriously — hilariously — comprehensible. […]

My first brush with “Pingu” came when my Canadian cousin, a more cultured toddler than I, once brought a VHS tape of the series with her during a visit. I dimly remember watching an episode on a Sunday morning, while squeezed together in bed with my family. The show was a revelation. “Pingu” did not speak two languages, one to children, another to adults. There was no hierarchy of comprehension, no winking jokes meant to soar over young heads to keep the adults in the room vaguely interested.

The language of “Pingu” is built upon the wisdom of children: The border between sense and nonsense is poorly guarded. There is raw, ridiculous power in expressing oneself through noise alone. It’s a truth adults tend to forget. As we age, we are asked to convert our emotions into more socially acceptable forms of articulation. But sometimes we have feelings that speech is ill equipped to convey, which demand audible expression nonetheless, in the form of yowls, bleats and groans.

The art of speaking without words is known as “grammelot.” It’s a tradition that had its high point in the raucous early professional theaters of Commedia dell’arte (which inspired Molière, Rossini and Puccini) but may go back as far as the Greco-​Roman mimes. Theatrical troupes made up of professional actors and the occasional charlatan traversed Renaissance Europe performing plays in improvised language. Their gibberish often served as a form of mutual intelligibility with audiences, both literate and not, with whom they otherwise couldn’t communicate. In their vowel-rich dialect, these actors spoke through the ascending and descending scales of real language without using real words, tapping into a subterranean world of sense.

And so it is with “Pingu,” which extends the democratic conceit of grammelot from the stage to television, accessible to all regardless of education or age. Carlo Bonomi, the Italian clown who voiced every character on “Pingu,” practiced grammelot as a young man and was perhaps one of its best living representatives until his death this August at 85. Today grammelot has largely disappeared and is kept alive only by a handful of troupes around the world. But in one of the strange, unpredictable ways cultural forms from the distant past weave themselves into the contemporary moment, it lives on in an anthropomorphic clay penguin.

In that earlier thread, I learned, thanks to Roberto Batisti, that “The most widespread pronunciation in Italian – also the only one I’m familiar with – is /gram’lo/, reflecting the word’s (pseudo-)French origin.” So now you know.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    My elder son just loved Pingu when we llved in Ghana. He particularly identified with P’s somewhat ambivalent response to being suddenly presented with a baby sister. For some reason.

    (He misinterpreted a scene where Pingu throws a disposable wipe down the toliet as involving throwing said newborn sister down the toilet, and thought this was extremely funny. Amazingly, he’s grown up surprisingly normal, though a touch Hispanic. As has his baby sister.)

  2. Now on Youtube, with ads.

  3. Makes me think of another Italian’s creation, the Codex Seraphinianus, which was intended to recreate the experience of a young child perusing an encyclopedia.

  4. if i remember right from something dario fo wrote, there are specific flavors of grammelot intended to sound like english, german, french, italian, etc.

    and i wonder if there’s any relationship between these kinds of performance language and the technologies of performance voices, like the swazzle (the jews-harp cousin used by Punch & Judy professors to create the characters’ traditional vocal timbres).

  5. And then there’s Prisencolinensinainciusol;

    Get on down.

  6. Plenty more about Singing in Nonsense, previously.

  7. Huh, and that post mentioned Grammelot as well.

  8. Ah, might have known!

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