A Twitter post last week reminded me of this remarkable song, “Prisencolinensinainciusol“, by Adriano Celentano. The lyrics are composed of nonsense syllables, meant to sound like English to a non-English speaker. Celentano’s song was aimed at Italian listeners in 1972 who loved music sung in English but didn’t know English well enough to know what the song’s lyrics meant. As he explained,

Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, because I like American slang—which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than Italian—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.

As a native English speaker, I find the song both fascinating and confounding. My brain keeps trying to hook on to what he’s singing in anticipation of it being a word that I know, but comes up short.

Oh, and that choreography, those outfits. What a video.

David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

Discussion

7 Thoughts on "Prisencolinensinainciusol"

This is fascinating since I’m a native English speaker but with a hearing loss and this sounds to me exactly like the majority of songs do. I can usually pick up some words but most of it is this until I see the lyrics!

There appears to exactly zero correlation between the lyrics we’re hearing and what’s being sung in the video. But I guess that’s OK; trying to remember a whole song’s worth of nonsense words is probably pretty tough. I’m guessing they didn’t perform this live with any regularity.

Thanks for adding this to my life!

This is a great video. Hilarious. Thank you. But, David, I know you are a Beatles-hater, but for the sake of scholarly integrity you could have pointed out the immediate precursor to this is “Sun King” on the Abbey Road album. The nonsense Italian/Spanish/English, offered with a straight face, sounds like “foreign” music to an English speaker. Added attraction: look up the lyrics online and they come with a button to translate!

My partner is a linguist and teaches ESL courses to non-native English speakers. I’m encouraging her to play this for her classes to see if her students all think this is English.

As a ,musician myself (drummer), who once played in a band whose repertoire included playing one entire side of Abbey Road nonstop, I developed the peculiar habit of never hearing lyrics as words but only as sounds, hearing the voice just like any other instrument, so that I can appreciate the vocal virtuosity of Mariah Carey or Ariana Grande while not at all appreciating the poetry of Bob Dylan, whose raspy voice is hardly sonically pleasing.

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