Almost exactly a year ago, Cory Doctorow linked a video of Adriano Celentano’s Prisencolinensinainciusol on BoingBoing, sparking a lively debate which lasted several months, with hundreds of comments.
At the Sydney symposium on Literary Translation held by UWS last October, Esther Allen was telling Olivia E. Sears about it. I immediately joined in, quite surprised and amused at the idea that a cheeky Italian song recorded almost thirty years ago could spark a linguistic debate among serious translation scholars, but rapidly realising that the song does bring up a few linguistic considerations.
Obviously, one can simply take the song as an unpretentious bit of fun, going with one of Celentano’s explanations for it:
having just recorded an album of songs that meant something, I wanted to do something that meant nothing.
In another instance, maybe slightly more pretentiously, he said on TV that the song is about
“incommunicability” because in modern times people are not able to communicate to each other anymore. He added the only word we need is prisencolinensinainciusol, which is supposed to stand for “universal love”
As an amateur musician, I think that Italian words are too long and always finish with a vowel, making the language not ideal for rock ‘n’ roll.
However we want to see the song, it’s easy to see Celentano’s gibberish as an interesting symptom of skewed power relationship between languages and cultures. By the way, it started long before Prisencolinensenainciusol was ever in the making:
Also see Alberto Sordi‘s Un americano a Roma:
Most importantly, there is more to this phenomenon than mere phonetics. Since the end of WWII, with the increasing cultural dominance of the Anglosphere on modern Europe, English has represented coolness, modernity and progress for generations of young Europeans, who still use it whenever they want to convey a more cosmopolitan, international feel. Something similar, on a smaller scale and with less serious cultural implications, happens as Italian and French are constantly used to boost foodstuffs’ and clothes’ appeal in English-speaking countries, for example.
Another interesting consequence of the BoingBoing article about the song was the emergence of at least two videos where people tried to make sense of nonsense, subtitling Celentano’s gibberish with more or less plausible English approximations. Needless to say, some pretty original verses were born out of these attempts:
Just for the record, there is no actual debate on the fact that Celentano was just making random sounds that were supposed to sound like English (and mimicking the impossibly cool aesthetics of rock ‘n’ roll) , not unlike Kramer’s operatic Italian gibberish in Seinfeld:
In any case, we are back to the questions we were asking over breakfast with Esther and Olivia: what is one to see in Prisencolinensinainciusol? Simple, unpretentious imitation? Mockery, even? Or rather the worrying consequence of a cultural imperialism leading to almost grotesque efforts to bridge the gap between master and servant, and wiping out national and cultural identities in the process? There’s no easy answer, and it’s probably a multitude of factors at play, but it certainly is an interesting debate to have. Furthermore, the fact that a video like this can originate such a debate shows once again that linguistic issues are not just boring and trivial details for a few insiders.