Matt at No-sword has a post that starts off with Gary Snyder and quickly moves to something I knew nothing about and found fascinating, a refrain in Ainu song known as a sakehe, “a group of words the meaning of which is not well understood but which are retained for the importance of their sound and their function in the song).” Here’s a description Matt quotes from Sarah M. Strong’s “The Most Revered of Foxes: Knowledge of Animals and Animal Power in an Ainu Kamui Yukar” (2009; pdf):

As a native speaker of Ainu, Chiri Yukie knew orally the chants she had heard since childhood. For her, each kamui yukar was not a static, memorized “text” but rather a living oral tradition, and her written versions possess qualifies of oral performance. One feature of each chant that was clearly central to her experience of it was its refrain or sakehe. Because the refrain of each kamui yukar is unique to the particular chant it was traditionally used as a way of identifying the chant. Both in the earlier notebook versions and in the Ainu shin’yoshu text Chiri includes the sakehe as a defining title after first identifying the animal spiritual being who is singing its tale. Thus, in the case of the third chant of the Ainu shin’yoshu she names the chant as that “of the fox (chironnup) about itself” and further identifies it with its unique sakehe, haikunterke haikoshitemturi. Although the sakehe, with its long phrases, might seem puzzling for readers unfamiliar with the tradition, for those within Ainu oral tradition it serves as an easy way to distinguish this fox kamui yukar from others about the same animal spiritual being.


  1. This reminds me of the nonsense words in the Kalevala, e.g. xi:56 Enkä lähe Inkerelle, penkerelle, pänkerelle, where the capitalized word means ‘to Ingria’ but the following two just echo it. It could be translated “I won’t set out to Ingria, to Pengria, to Pangria” (thus Francis Peabody Magoun).
    It’s also a bit like the mysterious labels of some of the Psalms.

  2. It’s not nonsense, just partial reduplication common in many unrelated languages, including English (easy-peasy,lunch-shmunch, wishy washy, etc)
    PS. “Kultur-multur yok!” (c) very loud complaint I’ve overheard at the Ankara airport

  3. a group of words the meaning of which is not well understood but which are retained for the importance of their sound
    That would be a good definition of “quote from the King James bible”.
    easy-peasy,lunch-shmunch, wishy washy, etc
    There’s a special kind of repetition that is not “merely sing-song” and is claimed to be originally typical of Yiddish humor in English – as I read somewhere ages ago. You know the pattern: Joe’s boss wants him to finish a contract, Joe complains that he wants to go to lunch first, the boss says: “Lunch, smunch, you don’t finish the contract first, you’re out of a job”.
    Wischiwaschi is a German expression with an entry in Grimm as well as Duden. Schlegel/Tieck use it to translate “pribbles and prabbles” near the beginning of the Merry Wives.

  4. Old Irish poetic tracts describe elaborate rules of obfuscation, such as adding nonsense syllables to words to make them sound more poetic. The reason for this is the preservation of some really old poetry which predates sound changes such as syncope which completely whacked the metre. So they preserved the poetry, but the words, while mostly, if sometimes vaguely, recognizable, sometimes made no real sense. So they decided that poetry was supposed to be like that, and acted accordingly.

  5. I must say that penker/penkere is a legitimate word:
    bank, berm, embankment, levee, terrace
    But then Finnish is full – and fond – of such alliterative reduplications:
    yllin kyllin, sikin sokin, hujan hajan

  6. One other interesting thing about sakehe is that at least in the yukar I’ve seen written down they only appear once, at the start of the poem, but in recitation they appear at the start (or end, if you like), of every phrase. So for example Chiri Yukie’s written version of the Owl yukar with the sakehe “konkuwa” starts like this:
    Teeta kane itakash hawe karinbaunku
    kunum noshki chauchawatki korachitapne…”
    But in recitation (at least in the recording by Nakamoto Mutsuko) it’s more like:
    “Konkuwa, teeta kane
    Konkuwa, itakash hawe,
    Konkuwa, karinbaunku,
    Konkuwa, kunum noshki,
    Konkuwa, chauchawatki,
    Konkuwa, korachitapne…”
    You can see why Chiri only wrote the sakehe out once at the top of her transcriptions, but even if you’re aware of the issue it makes the written versions feel completely different from the recitations.

  7. Wow, interestinger and interestinger!

  8. There’s a lot of this in English folk songs, especially drinking songs where you want everyone ot be able to join in on the chorus, all that hi diddle dee doe stuff. Tolkien invented some to add flavor. And apparently it’s common enough in sentimental Irish songs that there is a slighting term for it – “Tura lura” songs.

  9. The Ainu oral, incantatory “songs” would seem to have more in common with the animistic traditions of the Northwest Coast or Inuit people. The parellel drawn to a Gary Snyder poem, despite his background in Asian religion, is still more than a koans throw away.

  10. marie-lucie says

    In many old French folk songs there are nonsense syllables and words which must be pre-Roman. Irish “tura lura” reminds me of French turelure and also tireli and similar “non-words” which seem to just fill up space in a line of music. It is possible that such non-words occurring in Celtic languages (and also in their successors, whether Romance or Germanic) are actually pre-Celtic and might have been meaningful in a long-forgotten substrate language.

  11. “are actually pre-Celtic and might have been meaningful in a long-forgotten substrate language..”
    Oooh, M-L! Let’s go find some…ooooh…..Iroquois origin of that!
    That reminds me of “Eenie, meenie, miney moe…” which clearly does come from a substratum, a Celtic one in this case.

  12. “Kultur-multur yok!”
    in mongolian such repetitive words could be constructed substituting the initial letter with m to any of the nouns, like nam mam (party or whatever), nom mom (book or whatever), suvd muvd sounds like pearl merl
    this is used of course in informal speech and adds some plural meaning too, but mostly sounds like “..whatever”
    m words take z sound, maihan zaihan tents, mal zal cattle, mori zori horse/s etc
    there should be some other sounds taking s, but i can’t recall them right now

  13. some music zuzik
    to share, hope you’ll enjoy

  14. SFReader says

    Mongolian (and Turkic languages as well) also have partial reduplication to indicate superlative.
    I’ve even heard a Mongolian joke about this:
    How you translate “khav khar” (very black) into Russian? Answer: “chov chorny!”
    *Correct answer: “cherny-precherny”

  15. marie-lucie says

    pre-Celtic … Iroquois ,,,
    Jim, what is the joke? someone brings up Irish “tura lura”, I add French “turelure” as probably related, and you bring up Iroquois ???

  16. With Turkic languages the result is more comic:
    How do you translate “sary (=yellow) sary sapsary” into Russian?
    (triggered)answer: “zhop-zholty”
    correctly: “chorny-prechorny”

  17. In Scottish Gaelic singing, there is a tradition of having chorus lines of meaningless syllables like this:
    Mile marbhaisg air a ghaol
    O hi ri, ri ri ri u
    Asam fhin a thug e chlaoidh
    O hi u a, o hug o
    O hi u a, o hi u
    Haoiri u ha, ho hug o

    I’ve read articles claiming that there is a grammar to these choruses, in the sense that certain sequences would be judged correct and other sequences incorrect. (Note that the fact that certain sequences of symbols can be generated from a formal grammar does not imply that the sequences have any meaning.)
    Others have claimed that they are relics of some pre-Celtic language. Pictish is a favourite candidate, since so little is known about Pictish that nothing you say about it can be proved wrong.
    To me this claim seems dubious, since some of these songs can be dated to the 18th century and even more recently, and Pictish became extinct back around the 9th century or so. But the idea that one might be able to develop a grammar is interesting.

  18. Maidhc: Well, since we have documented cases of Irish -> English-gibberish, it seems reasonable that pre-Celtic languages might become Irish-gibberish as well.

  19. some music zuzik
    to share, hope you’ll enjoy

    I did, thanks!
    Jim, what is the joke? someone brings up Irish “tura lura”, I add French “turelure” as probably related, and you bring up Iroquois ???
    I think the joke was just the absurdity; Iroquois might as well have been Basque or Sumerian. But Jim will correct me if I’m wrong.

  20. Maidhc: Well, since we have documented cases of Irish -> English-gibberish, it seems reasonable that pre-Celtic languages might become Irish-gibberish as well.

  21. M-L, Hat has it right. This is bleed over from Dienikes’ blog , where in a post where he decries obscurantism and anti-scientific obstructionism in the field of North American native genetics he got a flood of crap from a bunch of self-righteous asses getting up on high horses. One point of outrage was the Solutrean-Clovis proposal, because it is just so heinous to suggets there may have been early European migration. So my joke was just going the other way. Sorry.

  22. John Cowan: It’s an interesting question how long such gibberish will last. “Shule Aroon” is probably no more than 200 years old. Diarmaid Ó Muirithe in An tAmhrán Macarónach says that macaronic singing in English and Irish, like that example, began around the early 18th century. However, macaronic singing where one of the languages is Latin was common throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. In most cases the Latin remained ungarbled, as in “The Boar’s Head Carol”. But there are a few examples of garbled Latin that have become permanent, such as “hocus pocus”, from “hoc est corpus” in the Mass (the OED calls this a “conjecture”).

  23. marie-lucie says

    Jim, thanks for the explanation. I saw that it was a joke, but could not understand what point you were trying to make.
    Incidentally, I am currently reading the Solutrean-Clovis book (Across Atlantic Ice), the first half of which is practically a course in how to make unpolished stone objects, a very difficult and specialized skill. It gives you a new appreciation for the people of the “Stone Age”, usually regarded in popular culture as stupid brutes.

  24. M-L, when I was a kid my family used to vacation in the Pit River/Mt. Lassen country. The whole area is volcanic and there are dumps of high grade obsidian here and there – whole mountains of it in some cases. I used to try to knap arrowheads, and I never figured out how to get anything better than crude lumps.
    Here’s a story for you – they used to have lectures at the main lodge in the park at Mt. Lassen, and one of the lecturers was a local woman who liked to lecture out under one of the pines. She talked about how her mother could tell by looking which ine trees had god roots for digging (I foound out only much later this was for basket making, aand that her relatives could catch trout with their bare hands – “No one believes me and I don’t blame them, but I swear its true!” – and how when her father needed a break from homelife he would “pack a little lunch” and go away for a couple of weeks to chip arrowheads, living off whatever was in season as if he were in a cafeteria. (I always think of this attitude of seeing foraging as an easier way to live when I happen across those wilderness survival shows thatare all macho posturing, especially that clueless ponce “Bear” Grylls, who once talked like a heaven-on-earth tarn in the high Sierra was some kind of survival challenge.)In many ways she grew up in the Stone Age.
    Later on I wondered if she was Leonard Talmy’s Atsugewi informant/consultant or whatever the fashionable term is.

  25. marie-lucie says

    jim: I used to try to knap arrowheads, and I never figured out how to get anything better than crude lumps.
    Then by all means read the book! and start practicing. (I have no intention to go beyond reading the book myself).
    It is not just a matter of fashion. The older term “native informant” was disliked by many whose only context for guessing the meaning of the word “informant” was “(police) informer”, with all the negative connotations of the term. That’s why “(native) informant” was replaced by “(linguistic) consultant”, which has a much more positive, professional connotation, reflective of the wealth of knowledge of the persons thus designated.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    marie-lucie: FWIW the google ngram viewer shows “native informant” (which I suppose could also be used in non-linguistic contexts?) increasing in popularity from the mid-’80’s (when i learned it as the standard term in a linguistics context) through the late ’90’s and then plateauing rather than declining. I’m not sure what the best word is (or if it matters), but there’s the whole paradox that ultimately ones primary source of data has to be native-speaker intuitive judgments of grammaticality/ungrammaticality of particular sentences, but that native speakers (including of English etc. – this has nothing to do with the wealth or “sophistication” of the culture in question) commonly do not consciously know and cannot successfully articulate the tacitly-known syntactic rules they are in fact following and (without specialized training) often do a lousy job in attempting to theorize about why it is they are doing what they are doing. “Consultant” to me, although understandable as a euphemism, almost implies a level of knowledge that would frankly make the role of the outside researcher unnecessary.

  27. informer maybe, or just a fluent native speaker, not informant if consultant is that objectionable

  28. so informer doesn’t sound bettet than informant too
    well, then maybe it’s better to over-honor someone than offend as if like indirectly, no? especially if the other doesn’t know the meaning if those words in the researcher’s own language, it’s perhaps just a matter of one’s, as russians say, shepetil’nost’

  29. marie-lucie says

    JWB: Perhaps the choice depends on the context. If you are a North American linguist doing fieldwork say in a Latin American country, using Spanish as the common language with your native-speaking helpers, it won’t matter what your report or article, written in English, calls them. Similarly with Siberian languages and Russian. But if you are working with indigenous people whose language of wider communication is English, then “informant” is too close to “informer” for comfort, even if your helper (often a very old person with limited English skills) is aware that it is a different word. The connotation “betrayer of secrets” is too strong, especially among a marginalized group. By contrast, “consultant” connotes specialized knowledge and confers respect on the person thus designated.
    Linguists doing fieldwork (anywhere – could be in their own city) know what “consultant” means in that context. They do not expect those consultants to theorize or otherwise do the analytical work of the linguist, but there is much that a good, smart “language consultant” can contribute, such as think up examples, illustrate the meaning of words, clarify the situational or other differences between similar forms, rephrase a sentence which occurs in a story, etc, which will greatly assist the linguist in learning their language. A good consultant also gets interested in linguistic work and sometimes anticipates what the linguist is after. Not every native speaker can be a good language consultant, something which takes not only a full command of the language but intelligence and imagination as well as cultural knowledge, but in recent years, some consultants have indeed become qualified linguists after starting out as “native informants”.
    read: maybe it’s better to over-honor someone than offend as if like indirectly, no? especially if the other doesn’t know the meaning if those words in the researcher’s own language

  30. SFReader says

    —They do not expect those consultants to theorize or otherwise do the analytical work of the linguist,
    Reminds me of an extremely politically incorrect anecdote.
    Soviet academician Marr (rather infamous for his linguistic theories during the Stalin’s era) was giving a lecture, illustrating with examples from Armenian language.
    Someone from audience interrupts: “I think your example is wrong, I am a native Armenian speaker, this word doesn’t mean what you say it means”
    Marr: “Does the fish want to become an ichthyologist?”

  31. January First-of-May says

    As far as I know, such “nonsensical lyrics” are referred to as “scat singing”, and are common in many languages, Russian included. (Some seem to be made up for the specific song. Тири тири там там тирам…)
    The classic long-form example is said to be the middle stanza of Ievan Polkka (the one with “jatsu tsappari dikkari dallan”). But it’s unclear whether any of that is actually official lyrics (many versions of this song’s lyrics don’t seem to include this section at all).

    I’ve only encountered one example of supposed rhyming Irish gibberish – the verse for driving away the sidhe, as given here by Anna Korosteleva (her posts about her travels to Ireland read more like an adventure story, the anecdotes she is retelling from other people she met in Ireland are even more fanciful, and I don’t know enough to comment on the Irish).

  32. But there’s a big difference between scat, which is essentially random (whatever the singer feels like uttering at the moment), and formalized (though “meaningless”) refrains.

  33. January First-of-May says

    Most of the “meaningless” song refrains I’m aware of are formalized – the “jatsu tsappari dikkari dallan” is about the only exception (and even that song has a formalized meaningless part, though it is shorter). By “made up for the specific song”, I meant “they rhyme with the rest of the text, and don’t seem to come up anywhere else” (there are a few standard phrases, like тра-ля-ля, which come up all over the place).
    I’ve been told that “scat” applies to both the “whatever the singer feels like” lyrics and the more formalized ones. Is there a better term for the latter?

  34. Huh, I’ve only ever applied it to the kind of thing Louis Armstrong did, and Wikipedia seems to agree. But maybe some people use it more generally.

  35. “Scat” can definitely refer to nonsensical but standardized lyrics. When I was in school, I sometimes practiced my viola in the room next to where a fairly serious scat group rehearsed. Their singing was clearly supposed to sound spontaneous, which made it all the weirder when I heard them singing exactly the same nonsense syllables time after time.

  36. David Marjanović says

    as given here by Anna Korosteleva

    “И тут наступает коронный номер.”

  37. John Cowan says

    The lines sung in The Mikado to drown out one of the characters who is about to proclaim a highly inconvenient fact, “O ni! Bikkuri shakkuri to!” are a kind of scat (at least, the best available Japanese interpretation is “Oh two! Surprise hiccup door!”) though quite fixed. On the other hand, the song “Mi-ya sa-ma” that precedes the Mikado’s first appearance actually is the first verse of a Japanese patriotic song, and means ‘Honorable Prince, what is the thing fluttering in front of your Highness’s horse?’; the last line “Toko tonyare tonyare na” is Japanese onomatopeia for trumpet and drum sounds. On the gripping hand, getting toko instead of yam, as one of the characters says she will, is getting a beating (from Hindi ठोको) instead of food.

    The element name strontium has sidhe (see above) in it, though only in the i. Strontianite, the ore from which the element was first refined, was first found in a Highland village called Strontian in English, phonetically from its Scottish Gaelic name Sròn an t-Sìthein ‘peak of the fairy hill’.

    ObIrrelevant: The regular verb seethe originally meant ‘boil’ (now only figurative: one seethes with anger, but not one’s dinner), and the synchronically unrelated adjective sodden ‘soaked’, was the old strong past participle of seethe. But it occurred to me this morning to wonder what the lost strong preterite might have been. Well, it turns out that in late Middle English it was sod from the participle, but before that both the present and preterite forms were spelled seeth, but the present tense had /eː/ whereas the preterite had /εː/ — a rare case in Middle English of the spelling being a lie.

  38. Very interesting!

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    Fairies’ Nose.
    Welsh trwyn can likewise mean “spur of a hill.” It must be something to do with Celtic Roman noses.

    I met a highlander once who rejoiced in the surname Sronach, though he did not in fact seem to be particularly well-endowed in that area himself. Regression to the mean, I dare say.

  40. John Cowan says

    Indeed; I meant to add “(lit. nose)” to the gloss but forgot until Too Late. Cf. Spy Nozy.

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    I shall now torment passers-by with the question: “Which chemical element is named after fairies’ noses?”
    Sphinx, nothing. Amateur.

  42. PlasticPaddy says
    The first link has a text in Irish a bit different to the text in the Russian blog; the second describes the children’s game and has an English text. I am not sure the kids were trying to frighten the fairies but the link in Irish has a “forfeit” for the child with the leg out last.

  43. John Cowan says

    A sort of hybrid of Sphinx and Skeiron, perhaps.

    OED3 revision status by D-AW. Short version: 50% of entries are new or revised, but 67% of text. With pictures.

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