Pingu Pongu

Not remotely what I intended to post about today, but it figuratively leapt from the pages of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, figuratively shrieking directly at me:


Well, as it turns out, sort of penguin, sort of language. The sort-of-penguin is Pingu, a claymation tv character. The sort-of-language is Pingu’s variety of  grammelot, a performance art form of “speaking without words” (pronunciation note: in English, /ˈɡræməlat/).

In the Magazine’s Letter of Recommendation section, a piece by Gabriel Rom: on-line 10/11 with the title “This Kids’ Show Proves the Wisdom of Gibberish”; in print 10/16 with the title “Pingu”; and both with the subtitle: ““Pingu” teaches everyone, even adults, to find meaning in made-up language”

(#1) Pingu, a creature of affective utterance and non-verbal communication (illustration by Niv Bavarsky)

“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. [AZ: as there was, famously, with some shows, like Rocky and Bullwinkle]

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.

(#2) Pingu in the comic books based on the tv series

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.

“Pingu” enjoys a second life online, where it is tailor-made for internet meme culture.

Yes, YouTube has a Pingu channel, where you can watch, for example, this (47:17) video of the best episodes from season 1 of Pingu.

A note on grammelots and Grammelot. No standard dictionary, including the OED, seems to have an entry for grammelot / Grammelot. Though there is a Wikipedia entry, which I’ll excerpt below.

Strikingly, the entry goes back and forth between using grammelot as a (lower-cased) count common noun (with plural grammelots) for a type of speech form; and using (capitalized) Grammelot as a proper noun referring to a particular grammelot (or perhaps betraying an assumption that there is really only one grammelot, essentially the same for all users — which seems to me to be transparently mistaken). Such a proper-noun usage would be parallel to the term creole used for any of a class of languages, and Creole (or Krio) as the name of  a specific creole language (sometimes serving as a national language).

Now, the NYT piece refers to the Pingu grammelot as the language of “Pingu”,   and later speaks of it as improvised language — using language in its broadest, most metaphorical sense to refer to any system or routine using speech (or its counterpart in another medium) to express or communicate some kind of content. But talking, and thinking, this way just fuzzes over the very distinctions we need to make to understand what is distinctive and interesting in grammelots. 

The NYT piece emphasizes the improvised nature of Pingu’s grammelot, but scarcely notes the patterns in it, suggesting that it’s just chaotic nonsense. But of course it couldn’t be, because it does convey quite a lot to its audience. Meanwhile, on the other side, everyday talk in languages is a performance of improvising on — and, often, extending — the patterns in those languages; we are all riffing, all the time. The crucial differences lie in how we riff, and with what resources, in what contexts, with what audiences, for what purposes. Someone should take the time to analyze Pingu’s grammelot in the same way we analyze conversations.

In similar fashion, it’s not enough to observe that Pingu’s grammelot is in some sense nonsensical — though  it certainly is — because it differs crucially from nonsense routines that have been studied in various languages, which are highly structured according to the grammatical patterns of those languages.

Now, finally, what Wikipedia has to say:

Grammelot (or gromalot or galimatias) is an imitation of language used in satirical theatre, an ad hoc gibberish that uses prosody along with macaronic and onomatopoeic elements to convey emotional and other meaning, and used in association with mime and mimicry. The satirical use of such a format may date back to the 16th century commedia dell’arte; the group of cognate terms appears to belong to the 20th century.

… While the historical origin of the term is unclear, it has been particularly popularized by the Nobel-winning Italian playwright Dario Fo. His 1969 show Mistero Buffo (“Comic Mystery Play”) was a satirical touring performance involving sketches based on mediaeval sources, told in Fo’s own grammelots constructed from Gallo-Italian languages and phonemes from modern languages (he has coined separate Italian, French and American grammelots). In his Nobel lecture, Fo referred to the 16th-century Italian playwright Ruzzante’s invention of a similar language [AZ: eek] based on Italian dialects, Latin, Spanish, German and onomatopoeic sounds.

Another notable modern Italian exponent is the Milan actor/writer Gianni Ferrario.

Voice actor Carlo Bonomi, also from Milan, used grammelot to voice Osvaldo Cavandoli’s cartoon La Linea and many years later, outside Italy, Otmar Gutmann’s Pingu. Mainstream comics have also used Grammelot-like language: for instance, Stanley Unwin. The Canadian circus and entertainment troupe Cirque du Soleil uses in its routines similar forms of language; journalists often term them “Cirquish”, but Cirque du Soleil’s own staff use the word “Grommelot”.

[Other famous examples of Grammelot: Charlie] Chaplin’s imitation of Hitler in The Great Dictator, and Monty Python’s Flying Sheep.

Stuff that isn’t grammelots. Here I’m just throwing a few things out, for you to think about.

nonsense verse. Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and all that.

word salad. From NOAD:

noun word salad: a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases, specifically (in psychiatry) as a form of speech indicative of advanced schizophrenia.

“secret  / hidden” languages like Polari: suites of slang for disguise, or for asserting identity. On (campy) Polari specifically, see my 9/6/16 posting “Julian and Sandy”.

“double talk”, especially as done by a master like Sid Caesar. You can watch him here doing double talk in four languages (French, German, Italian, and Japanese) in a televised birthday performance for Bob Hope (air date unknown).

The Pingu collages. Keen-eyed long-time readers of this blog will have noticed that, except for that very brief brush with Julian and Sandy just above, there’s been no gay content: linguistics and penguins (penguins being one of my totem animals), but where’s the gay stuff? I mean, is this Arnold Zwicky’s blog or what?

Be not dismayed; the XXX-rated comic homoerotic collagist is here, with Pingu! Pingu has a subcategory of these collages all to himself. Even better, from the WordPress point of view, most of the Pingullages aren’t actually XXX-rated (in particular, they have no penises in them), though they’re certainly homoerotic (and comic).

More Pingu background, from my 10/21/16 posting “Pingu watches over the gay boys”:

On AZBlogX, two postings of homoerotic Pingu-based collages (featuring the animated penguin Pingu), 8 in each set: “Pingu: first wave” (here) and “Pingu: second wave” (here) — being birds of the sea, penguins come in waves.

Pingu is a British-Swiss stop-motion clay animated children’s comedy television series created by Otmar Gutmann and produced from 1986 to 2000 for Swiss television by Trickfilmstudio and The Pygos Group. It centres on a family of anthropomorphic penguins who live at the South Pole. The main character is the family’s son and title character, Pingu.

… One reason for Pingu‘s international success is its lack of real spoken language: nearly all dialogue is in an invented grammelot “penguin language” consisting of babbling, muttering, and his characteristic sporadic loud honking noise “Nug nug!” accompanied by turning his beak into a megaphone like shape. This noise is often incorrectly written as “Noot noot!” in popular culture. … all voices [are] performed by Carlo Bonomi, who created all the sound effects for the series. This feature enables people of different linguistic backgrounds to be able to follow the story.

… The program is set in Antarctica and centres around penguin families living and working in igloos. The main character, Pingu, belongs to one such family. He frequently goes on adventures with his little sister, Pinga, and often gets into mischief with his best friend, Robby the Seal.

… Pingu is the main character of the series, a typically playful, sometimes naughty, curious little boy penguin. His name comes from the German word for penguin, Pinguin. He is strong-willed and mostly well-behaved but prone to making mischief and throwing occasional tantrums. (Wikipedia link)

Three AMZ Pingullages, using images from the (German) Pingu comic books:

(#3) No man is an island

(#4) Find him easy, find him fast

(#5) Etwas für mich? (Weihnachtspingu)

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