The following is an excerpt from Sigur Ros’s ( ) by Ethan Hayden, out August 28th. The 99th volume in the 33 1/3 series, Sigur Ros’s ( ) looks at the Icelandic band’s signature release from the perspective of linguistics, particularly the notion of “nonsense” language and, in particular, Sigur Ros’s “Hopelandic.” The book is available for pre-order on Amazon, Bloomsbury.com, and at your favorite independent retailer.
Just a few months before the premiere of Ball’s lautgedichte at the Cabaret Voltaire, the same venue hosted a series of “Negro Nights” at which the Dada poets Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara presented a more exoticist form of poetry. Partly ethnographic and wholly racist, their chants nègres (“negro songs”) were designed to imitate the rhythms and patterns of West African songs, doing so by mixing nonsensical mimicry with fragments of authentic African verses. Tzara’s chants nègres oft en combined pseudo-African sounds with German “translations,” as in his “Gesang beim Bauen” (Building Song):
a ee ea ee ea ee ee, ea ee, eaee, a ee
ea ee ee, ea ee,
ea, ee ee, ea ee ee,
Stangen des Hofes wir bauen für den Häuptling
wir bauen für den Häuptling
Those with the desire to evoke the otherness of an outside culture, whether real, fictionalized, or a mixture of the two, often turn to nonsensical utterings. This is nonsense as exoticism, or nonsense as other, part of a strategy called xenoglossia (“strange” or “foreign” language). Xenoglossia is invoked to create a sense of foreignness in a text, to give a text an alien nature by creating a deliberate break in intelligibility. As distinct from sensical xenoglossia, a text in an existing language one doesn’t understand (e.g., Welsh or Azerbaijani), nonsensical xenoglossia guarantees otherness by creating a text that no audience could comprehend.
In its more offensive manifestations, including the Dadaist example above, xenoglossia can consist simply of linguistic mimicry. A well- known instance from popular music would
be David Seville’s 1958 song “Witch Doctor,” in which a love- struck young man turns to the titular witch doctor (a stock character of the “magical negro” variety), whose incantation provides the solution to his unrequited affection (you’ve surely heard this phrase, which begins with some “ooh”s, “eee”s, and “ah”s before naming a city in Washington and concluding with “bing bang”). In this case, a language, presumably African, is imitated, lending a foreign air to the refrain so as to emphasize its magical properties. The nonsensical recitation is sung by a high- pitched, proto-Alvin voice (“Seville” was the pseudonym of Ross Bagdasarian, Sr., who would go on to release “The Chipmunk Song” later that year), thereby reinforcing the witch doctor’s alienness.
In most instances, however, the xenoglossic is not a mere imitation of existing languages, but is a simulation of an entirely new fictive language. Perhaps the earliest such example would be the language spoken by the residents of Utopia in Thomas More’s sixteenth- century book of the same name. The book, which describes the social structure of a fictional country in the New World, contains an addendum in which More includes Utopia’s alphabetic characters as well as a sample quatrain, transliterated into the Latin alphabet:
Vtopos ha Boccas peula chama polta chamaan
Bargol he maglomi baccan ſoma gymnoſophaon
Agrama gymnoſophon labarem bacha bodamilomin
Voluala barchin heman la lauoluola dramme pagloni.
The poem, pretending to be an example of a Utopian cultural artifact, adds depth and dimension to More’s account, giving a greater impression of authenticity. Admittedly, since More provides a full translation, the sample is not quite nonsensical, but leans closer to that mainstay of science fiction, the artistic language or “artlang.”
Writers of science fiction have been creating artlangs since More’s time, but the practice was used with increasing frequency in the twentieth century. The most well- known examples, of course, are the family of Elvish languages from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Tolkien had worked at artifi cial language creation for most of his life, referring to his hobby as “glossopoeia” or “language- creation.” His languages are the furthest thing from nonsense, having fully functioning syntax, extensive lexica, and elaborate philologies, setting the template for innumerable subsequent artlangs, such as Dothraki, Na’vi, and Klingon.
We can differentiate between a glossopoetic artlang and nonsensical xenoglossia by the simple fact that artlangs strive to be usable languages, while xenoglossia is simply nonsense meant to give the impression of an alien language. (Klingon, perhaps the most infamous artlang, was originally a form of xenoglossic gibberish before it was developed into a functioning semantic language for the third Star Trek film in 1984.) This distinction does not delegitimize or lessen xenoglossia, since omitting usability and semanticity from a xenoglossic tongue has its own significant effects.
Perhaps the most substantial musical xenogloss can be found in the work of the French progressive rock band Magma. Formed in the late sixties by drummer Christian Vander, Magma have released ten concept albums (and counting), all of which contribute to the expansive science fictional narrative of the planet Kobaïa and its conflict with Earth. Each of these albums is sung in the non-semantic Kobaïan tongue.
In Magma’s futuristic mythos, a small group of exiles leave earth and settle on the distant Kobaïa, establishing a technologically and morally advanced society based around harmony, magic, and love. Years later, Kobaïan missionaries are sent to share their wisdom with Earth, which, by that point, is a viscious, chaotic dystopia. When the Kobaïan delegation is violently expelled, they reflect all of Earth’s hatred back upon itself with a celestial weapon. This leads to the Theusz Hamtaahk (Time of Hatred), which is only ended when the messianic Nebehr Gudahtt leads his fellow earthlings to a spirito- celestial enlightenment, based on Kobaïan teachings.
What is, up to this point, standard concept-album fare, diverges with the introduction of the linguistic element. While Magma’s albums sustain the narrative with elaborate programmatic suites, the sung Kobaïan texts are themselves meaningless, combining echolalic phonosymbolism with phono- erotic elements to create vast expanses of nonsense which contribute to the atmosphere of alienness:
Iss da Zëss eusfeuhl dêt nünd
Ïš dëh rawëhn dëh štünditt
Ëk da ëhrdzort fuh osk düts euht weuhrdrešt
Dün dëh bündëhr wortsiš glaö
Dün dëh Wahrgenuhr Reugëhlëmêstëh [. . .]
Ätüh! Ätüh! Ätüh! Ätüh
Wï wï üss üss wï wï
Wï wï wï üss
üü üüüü üü üüüü
The proliferation of umlauts, carons, and other diacritics in Kobaïan contribute to the language’s exoticism, as such markings—at least for francophone or Anglophone audiences—can create a sense of otherness, evoking the orthography of Slavic languages, while the phonetic constructions resemble German. This itself is not unlike the xenoglossic mimicry demonstrated by Tzara and Huelsenbeck (much of Magma’s music is percussive and militaristic, so the suggestion of German phonemes is likely an intentional appeal to certain historo- cultural connotations).
The excerpt above, from the first track of Magma’s 1973 album Mëkanïk Dëstruktïẁ Kömmandöh, moves from varied expressions which suggest full grammatical sentences (“Iss da Zëss eusfeuhl dêt nünd”) to more repetitive, Schwittersesque exclamations (“Wï wï wï üss/üü üüüü üü üüüü”). The text is designed not to tell a story—that role has been delegated to the music itself. Instead, it exists simply to resonate with the music, supporting it in the creation of a singular, focused, and consistent expression.
Such xenoglossia is successful because, in the words of Michel de Certeau, “This fiction of language does not cease to be taken for a language and treated as such. It is ceaselessly obliged ’to mean’ something. It excites an unwearying impulse to decrypt and to decipher that always supposes a meaningful organization behind the sequence of sounds.” Create an alien tongue and present it as such, and listeners will assume the presence of meaning even in its absence. We are accustomed to hearing people speak in unfamiliar languages, and we take it for granted that such expressions carry meaning. Nearly every vocal utterance we encounter, even extra- linguistic ones, is a sign of some sort. It takes extra effort on the part of the interpreter not to interpret.
Ethan Hayden is a composer and performer, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in music at the University at Buffalo, US.