The Art of Gibberish

Why we appreciate nonsense


In a final scene of Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times, Chaplin’s character stands in front of a crowd to sing a song. Before he can begin, he loses the lyrics he’s written and proceeds to sing absolute gibberish. The audience loves it nonetheless. It’s one of the most classic scenes ever put on film.

This song, often referred to as “The Nonsense Song” sounds to a native English speaker like a hybrid between Italian and French. Yet in neither of those two languages (nor any other) are the lyrics intelligible.

Se bella giu satore

Je notre so cafore

Je notre si cavore

Je la tu la ti la twah

The lyrics to The Nonsense Song, according to Google

Gibberish Sounds

Upon rewatching Modern Times recently, it occured to me that the same trick has been done in the reverse.

In 1972, Italian singer Adriano Celentano released a song called—get this—Prisencolinensinainciusol. The song was written to sound as if were being sung in English, despite none of the words being real. In other words, it’s a song that gives you the distinct impression you’re listening to English… except you’re not.

Celentano described his process like this: “I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything.”

Prisencolinensinainciusol is quite incredible in that it offers native English speakers a glimpse into what their language sounds like to a person who does not understand it. This is a rare insight. To be able to separate sound from its underlying meaning offers a kind of third-party perspective. Just as you can identify, say, German, even if you cannot understand it, Adriano Celentano’s song allows you to identify English—a language you do speak—with the same level of comprehension you have for German.

Gibberish Writing

This technique extends beyond music. There is an often overlooked field of art known as asemic writing. The idea is simple: Show text that appears as if it portrays human writing, but give it no semantic meaning. Put differently: gibberish.

The word asemic itself is derived from asemia, meaning “Loss of power to express, or to understand, symbols or signs of thought.”

In a way, we’re very familiar with asemic text in our every day lives: the chicken scratch on doctor’s notes. Decidedly human writing with no comprehensible semantic meaning.


What is it, ultimately, that draws us to this literal nonsense? I can think of a two primary reasons.

First, it offers a separation that occurs between the form (such as words sung or written) and its meaning. In most of what we consume, we blissfully overlook the fact that what is said and what is meant are two very different things. When one replaces substance with non-substance in the “what is meant”, we can finally appreciate the “what is said” all on its own.

(Interestingly, the ability to separate between what is said and what is meant is a uniquely human capacity, and arguably what makes us human in the first place. I’ve written two articles recently here and here about how AI cannot do this, and about why that matters).

Second, there is something quite fascinating about an artist’s ability to convey a feeling, a story, a meaning without resorting to substance. When I listen to Charlie Chaplin’s Nonsense Song, I get the sense that I understand what he’s conveying. When I read asemic text, it’s as though there exists a parallel universe in which the writing does carry real meaning—and we’ve accidentally discovered it.

Classic Funk

Last word goes to Key & Peele, in a classic sketch that shows a funk band singing a different kind of nonsense song. Although this one has intelligible words, it’s the combination of them that is so hilarious. This song will likely get stuck in your head, so be forewarned. You’ll be singing “Penicillin trapdoor laser currency beans” before you know it…

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