They say human beings use language to make sense of their surroundings. We frame, categorise and systematise the objects around us with the help of nouns and verbs and adjectives. The sky is blue. The horse gallops swiftly. The sentence is a ridiculous rhetorical filler. We do this to understand each other, to convey information, give orders, ask for favours. To some, thought is practically unthinkable (!) without language. If there is no word for mother, then there is no mother—or, at the very least, no mother to speak of.
And yet when we’ve finally managed to raise and strengthen these structures enough to have some sort of conversation, we start picking them apart. We join the boy-scouts to sing gibberish like Ging Gang Goolie; we giggle at Smurf-books with debates about whether an object should be called “a smurf-opener” or a “bottle-smurfer”; we can’t be bothered with films in (real) languages we don’t understand, but who can withstand the charm of a Klingon conversation?; we play computer games in simlish; listen to music in hopelandic and scat; devise made-up languages of our own—pig Latin, rhyme-slang, arpy-darpy—to cloak our darkest secrets from our parents and/or the police.
There are many theories about divine languages spoken by God, angels, Adam and Eve, languages of pure universal harmony. Some Pentecostal Christians speak in tongues —“glossolalia”, as it’s called—which is believed to be a holy language, perhaps from Eden and perhaps from Heaven itself. These people fall into some sort of trance and start speaking something which resembles a language, and indeed has linguistic structures, although the sounds usually originate from the speaker’s native tongue. These divine languages sound mostly like gibberish—like complicated pig-Latin or simplified Klingon, like very basic sound-poetry—at least to the uninitiated. Religious zealots from the glossolalian’s particular sect would, of course, be more likely to sense “the presence of God” than the presence of, let’s say, hopelandic.
In the 13th century the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, had his servant experiment on newborns to see if, undisturbed by human languages, the infants would eventually start speaking in the language of God (presumed to be Hebrew, Latin, Arabic or Greek). The infants were completely isolated from hearing any language. They never spoke and they died for they could not live without “the gladness of countenance.”
Jacob Grimm, of the famous Brothers Grimm, theorised that if God speaks any language involving dental consonants, He must have teeth, and since teeth are made for eating and not for speaking, He must not only be a talker but also an eater which, as the Dutch philosopher Frits Staal put it (according to Wikipedia): “leads to so many other undesirable assumptions that we better abandon the idea altogether.” We can only assume that Staal means He might speak with His mouth full.
Poetry, as everyone knows, is full of gibberish. Not only are poets often deliberately labyrinthine as well as voracious neologists and portmanteurs—making up new words with varying degrees of sanity—but some of them actually attempt to write pure nonsense, utterly bereft of any sense. The Russian Futurists wrote poems in a language they called Zaum, a transrational language to awaken the creative imagination from its drowsy everyday existence. The Dada-poets had Hugo Ball’s Karawane and Dada-Mertz had Kurt Schwitters’ opus magnum, the Ur Sonata. Since the beginning of the twentieth-century sound-poetry has a non-stop history. But even before the birth of the so-called avant-garde, there was nonsensical poetry. In Iceland, Æri-Tobbi wrote his tercets and quatrains in the 17th century; in 13th century Catalonia the troubadour Cerverí de Girona had his own songs of gibberish, and 16th century Italy had Teofilo Folengo. The history of poetry is blotted high and low with work of such inspired delirium.
Perhaps, deep down inside, we are not as impressed by “actual” language as we sometimes let on. Perhaps we feel there are other ways of using and abusing our tongue, our language centres and vocal cords—a thinking beyond mere meaning. Like screaming. Like laughing. Grunting. Like giggling. And then, if I’m allowed to quote “meaningful” poetry to drive my point home, perhaps Emily Dickinson had something like gibberish in mind when she wrote “Much madness is divinest sense / To the discerning eye; / Much sense the starkest madness.” And maybe Kurt Schwitters said it all, when he said: “Ziiuu ennze ziiuu nnskrrmüüü, / ziuu ennze ziuu rinnzkrrmüüüü; / rakete bee bee, rakete bee zee”.