Sanskrit-Welsh Movie Choruses.

Adrian Daub’s “But Who Tells Them What To Sing?” is an investigation of the history of Hollywood film choruses — not obvious LH material, but as it turns out there are some passages of Hattic interest:

As the soprano Catherine Bott said: “You enter a studio and you open the score and off you go. You sing what you’re told, and it’s all about versatility, just being able to adapt to the right approach, whatever that may be for that conductor or that composer.” And part of that, singers told me, was singing the words — whatever they may be. As Donald Greig pointed out to me, a lot of these singers have training in classics; they certainly know their way around a Requiem or a Stabat Mater. And yet often enough when they step into Abbey Road they’re being asked to sing perfectly nonsensical phrases in pseudo-Latin — but the studio is booked, the clock is ticking, and as Bott put it, “that’s not the time to put up your hand and, you know, correct the Latin.” […]

Interestingly enough, early in this long tradition of made-up languages, Hollywood felt the need to pretend that it did mean something. When Lost Horizon was released in 1937, Columbia Pictures claimed in its publicity material that Dimitri Tiomkin’s score “includes authentic folk songs of Tibet.” The same press sheet noted that the Hall Johnson Choir, a popular gospel choir, “will sing the folk song arrangements in the native Tibetan language.”

Film music historians agree that this is hogwash. There is no evidence Tiomkin researched Tibetan folk songs for his score — what the ad men were selling as “authentic folk songs” were almost certainly newly written pieces in a made-up language. Tiomkin had started out as a concert pianist and relied on a small army of orchestrators to turn his melodies into actual playable scores. Someone in that group put a pen to paper and wrote these pieces, and either that same person or someone else seems to have made up some fake Tibetan text to distribute to the singers. […]

I grew up on Hollywood films in dubbed versions — though those didn’t typically dub the music. Meaning, as a kid who didn’t speak English, I became pretty used to following a plot in German, then the music would swell and I’d sort of tune out for a few minutes as the soundtrack, and the English language, washed over me. I’d get the basic idea of course — the characters were happy, or sad, or patriotic — but I had no idea what they were saying, and I was okay with that.

That’s sort of how most of us feel when we listen to the theme to the 21st-century version of Battlestar Galactica — unless we happen to be familiar with the mantras of the Rig Veda. Still, it’s a culturally specific experience. These days we can’t watch fantasy or science fiction without being sung at in Sanskrit, Old Norse, Dwarvish, Elvish, Uruk-hai, Klingon, and so on. When composer John Williams returned to the Star Wars universe for 1999’s The Phantom Menace, he composed an amped-up piece for the final duel — and over its churning ostinatos he overlaid a chorus belting out a … Sanskrit translation of a Welsh poem. And apparently the syllables of the Sanskrit text were rearranged to the point of incomprehensibility. Clearly, these shows and movies are not addressing us as potential speakers of Klingon or Sanskrit or even Welsh — they’re interested in the feel and a sound of a language rather than its meaning. At one recording session, Donald Greig told me, “they spent ages telling us how to pronounce the Russian and then we realized, ‘well this doesn’t actually mean anything.’” This turns out to be both a pretty new and pretty old way of listening to music. […]

After all, unlike a humming chorus, a Latin chorus does create extra levels of meaning for those who want to listen more carefully. Composer Jerry Goldsmith wrote “Ave Satani” for The Omen as a deliberate transposition of various Catholic masses. While the individual Latin may have been hard to pick up on (and wasn’t entirely correct to boot), listeners who were Catholic likely would have recognized what was being inverted here, given that they’d spent most Sundays around the actual Latin texts. It’s not clear how seriously Goldsmith (or the choirmaster who jotted down the Latin lyrics for the composer) grappled with that dimension of the score — for one thing, the very title of the piece messes up the declension of Satan. But that dimension was there nonetheless — The Omen was part of a kind of religious revival in Hollywood, and though it plays as camp today it was taken far more seriously then. […]

This gets a lot more troubling in the case of the phrase “Nants ingonyama bagithi baba,” likely one of the most repeated, parodied, and bowdlerized lines of text in any soundtrack. It’s clear that it isn’t addressing the average viewer with the intention of being understood. The very fact that it is in Zulu, but the story of The Lion King appears to take place in the Serengeti, thousands of miles to the north, suggests that the language is here to signal one thing and one thing only: African-ness.

For contrast, look at the way composer Michael Abels’ score for Jordan Peele’s Get Out features Swahili voices: Outside of the considerable number of Swahili speakers in the world, most people watching Get Out won’t know what the singers are saying. But what they’re saying does matter, in a way: Literally “listen to your ancestors,” but as a saying meaning something kind of like “you’re about to be in danger.” The viewer who doesn’t understand this line is missing an important warning about what is to come in the film. As is, of course, the film’s African American protagonist who cannot listen (or at least understand) his ancestors. Peele and Abels manage to wring from this small decision a whole range of subtle points.

He ends with a thoughtful account of the use of Goethe’s “Wandrers Nachtlied” at the end of the 2008 film Valkyrie (“The strange thing is: I am pretty sure Goethe’s ‘Nachtlied’ is the first utterance in actual German in this film about Germany”). Though it has nothing to do with movies, this seems a good place to add that the lyrics of the Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra,” while based on Hugo Ball’s poem “Gadji beri bimba,” are heavily “adapted” — for instance, the titular phrase does not occur in Ball, who has “i zimzalla” and “im zimbrabim.” It’s a nice question to what extent the butchering of a meaningless text is reprehensible.


  1. The challenges to both singers and composers, especially now that they strive to at least “sound genuine”! Of course they are Hattily interesting.

    This post reminds me of the well known Charlie Chaplin film (I forget the title) in which he is a singing waiter who forgets his words and i mprovises meaningless lines using French words.

  2. (The comments include the French original of “Je cherche après Titine.”)

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    “Ave Satani” is wrong straight away. I have no desire to discover more.

    Rubbish pseudo-Latin is sadly common among English-language SF and fantasy authors who seem unaware that Latin is an actual language, and that you can’t just string dictionary items together and expect it to be correct (or more likely, they Just Don’t Care, and insultingly assume that the reader doesn’t care either, and is equally ignorant.)

    The best counterexample to this lamentable tendency is (naturally enough) Ada Palmer.

    I’ve always been irritated by the Swahili in The Lion King. Somebody all too evidently thought, “It’s African! Let’s have words in The African Language, to show how enlightened we are!” It’s like throwing in bits of Armenian to add verisimilitude to your account of the South Wales collieries.

    What is this alleged Welsh poem that the alleged John Williams allegedly translated into bad Sanskrit for the alleged Phantom Menace? Does it actually exist anywhere outside a PR handout?

  4. a part of why i like my favorite piano player at the piano bar i frequent* is her refusal to let anyone butcher the isiZulu in Circle of Life**. instead, for the chorus parts, we sing “pink pajamas, penguins on the bottom”, which probably comes from drunken riffing lost in the mists of time…

    * though not recently: despite the owners’ decision to re-open, drinking heavily and singing in a crowded basement is, well, somewhere between ill-advised and deadly, depending on how many tourists are lying about their vaccinations that day)

    ** a song, and show, i’m not fond of, aside from its important role as one of the few ways for black performers to build up the broadway credits that they need to get steady broadway/off-broadway/touring work, and its excellent puppetry design.

  5. Romanes eunt domus!

  6. It’s like throwing in bits of Armenian to add verisimilitude to your account of the South Wales collieries.

    Armenian and Hebrew as stand-ins for Kazakh are fine, when the speakers are fluent and oh so very shameless.

  7. All I remember from the movie Lawrence of Arabia is the Heathen Orientals calling him “Orrence”, for some reason, and a mob of Swarthy Sons of the Desert shouting “[ʔakaba]! [ʔakaba]!” instead of [ʕagaba] or such.

  8. “…over the local cries and the shrilling of women came the measured roar of men’s voices, chanting, ‘Feisal, Nasir, Shukri, Urens’, in waves…”

    Seven Pillars, 1935 text, 1.xi.18, p. 668

  9. I was reading a popular article by Leanne Hinton recently describing something like this among California Indian singers. In one case, a Havasupai song stretches three-syllable phrases into six-syllable lines by apparentl just adding a bunch of random-looking syllables between words: nyaj evah gets stretched to venyajo evaha.

    All I remember from the movie Lawrence of Arabia

    “Orrence”, at least, is authentic-ish: his hosts reinterpreted the L- in his name as the Arabic definite article and named him “Awrans”.

  10. Why wouldn’t they keep the l-, as in (if I may) your name?

    (Dept. of nitpick: the Havasupai are in Arizona.)

  11. Surprisingly many Arabic speakers insist on calling me Amin, no matter how I introduce myself. (I don’t particularly object to that pronunciation, but it really annoys my mother.)

  12. “As is, of course, the film’s African American protagonist who cannot listen (or at least understand) his ancestors.” This seems to contain an extremely dubious assumption that if only the fellow knew Swahili like his ancestors he would understand the warning. The median African-American, of course, has African ancestors who overwhelmingly-to-exclusively came from parts of Africa thousands of miles to the west of the part of the continent where Swahili was/is commonly spoken as either an L1 or L2. At least as far away as the setting of the Lion King is from where Zulu is spoken, I should think. It’s a large and linguistically diverse continent.

    OTOH, the “African American protagonist” character, named Chris Washington, is apparently played by an actor named Daniel Kaluuya, who was born and raised in England and whose parents immigrated thence from Uganda. So the actor himself is substantially more likely to have had ancestors who understood Swahili than the character would have.

    Obviously by some point in the 1960’s Swahili had become for whatever contingent reasons having to do with the politics of the day a go-to symbolic pan-African language for many Americans (both with and without African ancestry of their own), with the lack of any historical connection to the actual African ancestors of most actual African-Americans apparently not being thought at the time to be a problem.

  13. I remember reading that in the first Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan film, the cast just made up nonsense words, but one of them turned out to be an obscenity in some language, so the studio told them they had to speak a real language and hired someone who knew Swahili to write their lines. Not that they ever said much in Swahili, except to the elephants, as I recall. Those films were rather vague as to exactly what part of Africa they were in.

  14. What is this alleged Welsh poem that the alleged John Williams allegedly translated into bad Sanskrit for the alleged Phantom Menace? Does it actually exist anywhere outside a PR handout?

    A snippet of “Cad Goddeu” via Robert Graves, apparently.

    The words the chorus is singing in this dark, demonic cue are clear, but the language is unfamiliar. It turns out it’s Sanskrit. (“Sanskrit!” Lucas exclaims when Williams tells him. “That’ll give the fans something to figure out.”) Williams had been strongly affected by a phrase from the old Welsh poem by Taliesin, “The Battle of the Trees,” that the poet Robert Graves had cited and translated in “The White Goddess.” “Under the tongue root, a fight most dread, / And another rages behind in the head” seemed to fit the evil ritual. Williams arranged to have these English words translated back into the original Celtic and into other ancient languages. “I chose the Sanskrit,” he says, “because I Ioved the sound of it. I condensed this into “most dread/inside the head,” which seemed both cryptic and appropriate. For the funeral scene, I had my own words ‘Death’s long sweet sleep,’ translated into Sanskrit too.”

  15. Was I the only one brought up short by Daub’s, “the phrase ‘Nants ingonyama bagithi baba,’ likely one of the most repeated, parodied, and bowdlerized lines of text in any soundtrack”? I mean, that’s not even the most repeated and parodied line in an African language from that movie! (That would be “hakuna matata,” in Swahili.) Reading that bizarre claim about The Lion King immediately triggered my If he writes something that is that obviously false to an inexpert observer, how much can the rest of what he writes be trusted? alarm.

  16. David Marjanović says

    TV Tropes has it all and more.


    ||: Ecce homo
    qui est faba

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    @Tim May:


    The source in The White Goddess aligns nicely with John Williams’ general intellectual spuriousness …
    The Welsh poem is from the pseudepigrapha fathered on the real Taliesin in the Llyfr Taliesin. I would like to track down the closing “obscure reference to metalwork”, but I’ve only got Ifor Williams’s edition of (what he regarded as) the genuine poems of the historical Taliesin.

  18. There is some pop song in pseudo-Latin for which some Turkish students made a parody video that is put to use in internet memes. Every year a few of my new students ask me to translate the lyrics for them… They always look crestfallen when I tell them it is just nonsense.

    I love the following comment on the YouTube parody, from Tarık PM:

    Ülkenin resmi dinini İslâm sanan akrabalarıma Türkiye’nin lâik bir ülke olduğunu söylemişimdir… Artık onların gözünde ben:

    I told my relatives who believe that the official religion of the country is Islam that Turkey is a secular state… Now this is how they see me:

  19. Sanskrit done right in this extremely moving film ending, in which the following Vedic mantra is heard:

    वेदाहमेतं पुरुषं महान्तमादित्यवर्णं तमसः परस्तात् ।
    तमेव विदित्वाति मृत्युमेति नान्यः पन्था विद्यतेऽयनाय ॥

    védāhám etáṃ púruṣaṃ mahā́ntam ādityávarṇaṃ támasaḥ parástāt
    tám evá viditvā́ti mr̥tyúm eti nā́nyáḥ pánthā vidyaté yanāya

    I know the great Purusha, who is luminous, like the sun and beyond darkness.
    Only by knowing Him does one pass over death; there is no other way to the Supreme Goal.

    (Vajasaneyi Samhita 31.18)

    By the way, for LH readers who might not know him, bass-baritone Donald Grieg is an extremely fine singer, by the way. Here is one of my favorite performances of his.

  20. there is no other way to the Supreme Goal

    With my rusty Sanskrit I can figure out that नान्यः पन्थाः विद्यते (na anyaḥ panthāḥ vidyate) is ‘no other way is found’; where’s the Supreme Goal?

  21. @Xerib: I think I heard Ameno a hundred times on radio and TV, but I didn’t know that it just had a nonsense text. So thanks for the illumination!

  22. No, this is the Supreme Goal.

  23. Where’s the Supreme Goalie ? The Anti-Maradona, that is ?

  24. Apologies for the confusing post. The word yanāya should be ’yanāya. I forgot the apostrophe to represent the avagraha symbol ऽ. The translation is a loose one I quickly pasted from the internet to represent how it is usually taken by those who recite it. The word that this translation is rendering as “to the Supreme Goal” is ayanāya, which I take as a dative of end or purpose of ayana- “going, advancement, progress; a way, path” (second column, middle of page, here):

    védāhám etáṃ púruṣaṃ mahā́ntam ādityávarṇaṃ támasaḥ parástāt ।
    tám evá viditvā́ti mr̥tyúm eti nā́nyáḥ pánthā vidyaté’yanāya

    I know this Purusha, great, having the color of the sun, beyond darkness,
    Only having known (viditvā́) him, does one pass over (áti) death. No other path is known for going.

  25. Your post wasn’t confusing at all, my Sanskrit just wasn’t up to it! Thanks for the explanation.

  26. David Marjanović says

    So, this “going” that evidently refers to the “passing over death” in the preceding sentence was reinterpreted as “to the Supreme Goal”? Looks like there’s a lot of history of religion in there.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    But what of the Supreme Goat?

  28. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @Stu Clayton: I’m anything but a football reference, but I believe the consensus candidate for Supreme Goalie remains Lev Yashin.

  29. But what of the Supreme Goat?

    Just another name for Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods, the Goat with a Thousand Young….

  30. @John Cowan: Interestingly, it’s not actually clear whether Lovecraft originally intended Shub-Niggurath to be the “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!” The two are just phrases that appeared together in a repeated chant in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931). The phrase “Iä! Shub-Niggurath!” had previously appeared in 1928 in “The Dunwich Horror,” but there is no indication of its meaning there. In light of the frequently description of Wilbur Whateley as “goatish” in “The Dunwich Horror,” a most natural candidate for the black goat is Yog-Sothoth, who certainly does have many offspring.

    The first mention of the goat is in a recording of an eldritch ritual that the narrator of “The Whisperer in Darkness” hears:

    … so from the wells of night to the gulfs of space, and from the gulfs of space to the wells of night, ever the praises of Great Cthulhu, of Tsathoggua, and of Him Who is not to be Named. Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!

    Subsequent verses also mention Azathoth and Nyarlathotep,* but of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, Yog-Sothoth is notably omitted from the ritual chant—unless Yog-Sothoth is “Him Who is not to be Named,” in which case the “Black Goat of the Woods” could be a sobriquet used in place of Yog-Sothoth’s taboo name.

    Evidently, either Lovecraft himself or (more likely, I think) somebody else eventually decided to make “Shub-Niggurath” the proper name of the entity also referred to as “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young” Whether this originated as a misunderstanding, Lovecraft himself did subsequently endorse the identification. (He grew somewhat dismissive in his later years of his use of made-up occult names—calling the writing that emphasized them “Yog-Sothothery”—and was, in any case, moving in a more science fiction direction in many of his last writings.)

    * Besides his own creations, Lovecraft mentions a number of his correspondents’ (and others’) creations elsewhere in the story, although in contexts in which it is not clear which which of the mentioned entities are actually real,

    I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connexions—Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua [created by Clark Ashton Smith], Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur [named by Ambrose Bierce, mentioned again by Robert W. Chambers in The King in Yellow, and later, after the deaths of Lovecraft and Chambers, fleshed out in several stories by August Derleth], Yian [Chambers], Leng, the Lake of Hali [same origins as Hastur], Bethmoora [Lord Dunsany], the Yellow Sign [Chambers], L’mur-Kathulos [“Kathulos” is a character created by Robert E. Howard], Bran [Howard], and the Magnum Innominandum….

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