Some years ago, I was visiting a friend in another country. We were in a small village chatting under a streetlamp when a man passed us walking his dog.
“ONAWANNAFOUR,” he said, imitating our English.
Since then, “ONAWANNAFOUR” has been a phrase I often repeat to myself. It’s a clue to something I can’t quite get my head around. When the man said it, I saw myself as I appeared to him: Foreign. But there’s something else to it, something essential that is impossible for me to totally understand, like the nature of color to a blind person.
Recently, I discovered Adriano Celentano’s 1970 song, “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” which is pretty much the fifth dimension of my ONAWANNAFOUR thoughts. The song, Celentano said, “means nothing,” but to me it sounds a lot like he is mimicking English (and apparently playing out an elaborate Bob Dylan fantasy).
It’s hard for me to listen to this without trying to make it intelligible. I keep latching onto “words,” trying to arrange them into some meaning (I’m sure he’s telling someone to hurry up and get to the shoe on time). I’m just not content to stay on the surface—at the ONAWANNAFOUR level—as I’d surely be able to if I had passed that man in the village, talking to his dog. It’s too much like English, too close to home.
My secret wish has always been to become a translator—to navigate tenses and stretch vocabularies all day long. I love hearing about the logic of unfamiliar grammars and trying to bend my own in similar fashion. It’s a way of testing my Anglo ideas of time and space. Like how Germans must wait until the end of the sentence to find out what the verb is, so that the movement of things is always just about hanging off a cliff. Or how in biblical Hebrew, there was apparently a prophetic tense which described not so much a possible future but how “things are unfolding as expected”—a mind-boggling collapsing of “will be” and “is.”
In a way it is like the fable of the blind monks who, encountering an elephant, each touch one part—a tusk, a leg, the trunk—and describe the elephant accordingly. English is only one part of the elephant. By learning about other languages I can just maybe connect trunk with ear, stretch my fingers a little further and come closer to an idea of the whole animal.
But then the Celentano song convinces me we can’t unthink ourselves out of our own language enough to perceive the shape of it. We need someone from another language to show it to us.
Probably no-one mimicked these aural surfaces better than Marcel Marceau.
I would have liked to hear Marcel Marceau mimic English, but even more I would have liked to hear him attempt French in the same sort of nonsense way. I wonder if it would have been possible for him. It would be a bit like him trying to imitate Marcel Marceau, or one of the blind monks describing his own face.
At least there is a hint of something in “Prisencolinensinainciusol.” If nothing else, it reveals to us that English is a land of pure exuberance. As soon as the “school kids” begin their language lesson, they are transported to a flashy, cool-as-can-be reality, their bodies stretched out like emphatic “I’s,” their hair tossed about in a space where accents don’t exist, their intonation rising and falling as steady as jazz snaps.
To Celentano, we’re almost the embodiment of Futurism, a glittery variant of the species, flaunting our poses, chanting in leotards and moving in unison, doing our best deadpan in a hall of mirrors … looking in on ourselves, but not completely seeing.
- Kelly Dignan