‘Carthage must be destroyed’

I was at the Gerrard Scare Winnersss shopping for underwear (new Stanfield’s of Truro for $3) when, among the nonstop stream of recognizable tunes over the Muzak, a ’90s indie nugget was heard: “Big Me” by the Foo Fighters. And thus was I reminded of nonsensical songs that seem to make sense because of the prosodic delivery.

“Big Me” sounds sensible because of the ebb and flow of stress on the sentences, each and every one of them delivered with “sincere irony,” as Coupland would call it. And oddly for a pop song, they are, for the most part, complete sentences, though in the model of Chomsky’s “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously”:

When I talk about it, it carries on. Reasons only knew. When I talk about it, Aries or treasons all renew. Big me to talk about it! I could stand to prove. If we can get around it, I know that it’s true.

Word sequences like these do not work in captioning. Surely you recall the novelty music video (an ersatz Mentos® commercial), complete with a captioning job by WGBH that was solid for its time. ♪ ARIES OR TREASONS ALL RENEW ♪ makes less sense than tits on a bull, but the vocal rendition sounds great, a fact lost to most viewers of captioned music videos.

This came up from time to time, actually. Why, I’ll never forget sitting in the WGBH Caption Center office on Park Ave. South in New York – this was back when they still had such an office, but they drove that into the ground the way they would later drive the Boston mothership into the ground. I was sitting with the manageress as the intercom piped up with the response to a question I had asked: What was that godawful metal group that insisted its nonsensical stream-of-delirium lyrics be captioned exactly, going so far as to demand to review work tapes? Answer: The Melvins.

But in their case, with their quasi–Cookie Monster delivery, there is no deceptive vocal current that carries the nonsense along like a boat bobbing up and down on a lake. The whole thing makes no sense and is an embarrassment for the listener.

I thought of another example, something I heard exactly once – as a kid, on CBC Radio. It was an “interview” on an episode of Eric Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television. In an example of truth in advertising, it’s entitled “Gibberish.”

HOST: Ham sandwich, bucket and water plastic Duralex rubber McFisheries underwear. Plugged rabbit emulsion, zinc custard without sustenance in kippling-duff geriatric scenery, maximizes press insulating government grunting sapphire-clubs incidentally. But tonight, sam pan Bombay Bermuda in diphtheria rustic McAlpine splendor, rabbit and foot-foot-phooey jugs rapidly big biro ruveliners musk-green gauges micturate with nipples and tiptoe rusting machinery, rustically inclined. Good evening and welcome.

GUEST: Hello.

HOST: Foreskin mousetrap view Mount Everest tintray lobotomy in England?

GUEST: Saddleback, saddleback. Lechery billboard kettlebum simpering snuff masticated bowelside handset lemonade enterprisingly apartheid rubberized plumbjoint curvaceously mucking squirrels!

HOST: I see. Rapidly piddlepot strumming Hanover peace pudding [polite chuckle] mouse rumpling cuddly corridor cabinets?

GUEST: Sick in a cup! Toejam whisper tap Sunderland shower curtain, ice wallpaper cups grouchingly rubberking wrapped butter kissing-feathers definitely pheasantry daughter successfully douche dinner-bottom.

HOST [confidentially]: Machine-wrapped, with butter?

GUEST: Machine-wrapped, with butter.

HOST: So, nail-attacking butterfly-clouts reputedly. Without I might galvanize sugar, elbow-wrenchingly heartfelt until purse-playing perspicaciously rattled mandibled on asinine shoestring-drawn two lost three butter-machismo whenever cobbled therein. Good night.

GUEST: Good night.

So my question for the linguistics Weblogs is: Has the phenomenon of an appearance of making sense when nonsensical words are uttered in a certain prosody actually been studied?

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.05.27 14:39. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
http://blog.fawny.org/2006/05/27/bigme/

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