As children, many of us pretended to speak a foreign language, imitating the cadences and sounds of Chinese, French, Italian or another distinctive-sounding tongue. These fake dialects are an example of what the experts call pseudolanguage. The prefix pseudo- (false) distinguishes these meaningless "fake tongues" from artificial languages such as the various creations of J.R.R. Tolkien, or Klingon from the world of Star Trek for example.
Pseudolanguage for Fun
The primary use of pseudolanguage is for the dubious comedic effect of "pretend German" or "fake Japanese," for example. Long a staple of Vaudeville and music hall comedy routines, as audiences have gotten (presumably) a bit more mature and sensitive, the "wacky foreigner" character is now seen as somewhat boorish and vulgar (Borat notwithstanding). As a result, pseudolanguage is largely reserved for children, who do not yet realize that some people may find mocking another language as impolite behaviour.
There are a couple of major exceptions to the idea that pseudolanguage is offensive or impolite. One, the Swedish Chef, from the Muppet Show, was so funny (and gentle) that it is hard to see how anyone, but the most ready-to-be-offended person, could have found the character offensive.
The work of the late performance artist Andy Kaufman used some pseudolanguage in a very non-juvenile context. Kaufman debuted on American television portraying a character of unknown ethnic origin on stage. This little man spoke very broken English, occasionally breaking into an odd, Slavic-sounding language (he even sang a fairly convincing 'folk song' in his native tongue, playing the conga drum as an accompaniment). Kaufman's character was sufficiently convincing that he actually fooled a lot of American television viewers (who were subsequently puzzled and/or outraged when they heard him speaking perfect English). This character became the basis for his famous (and beloved) character of Latka Graves from the television program Taxi.
Pseudolanguage for Faith
Apart from children and comedians, one of the few places you might encounter pseudolanguage is in the phenomenon of glossolalia or "speaking in tongues" seen in some Christian churches.
Even if one accepts the possibility that, in some very specialized circumstances, the Holy Spirit may grant people of exceptional faith the ability to speak in other languages, there must certainly be a possibility that many, if not most, of the cases of glossolalia are created by more mundane causes such as frauds, hoaxes, or even the power of suggestion.
Linguists who study the glossolalia of these religious ecstasies can seldom fit it into a linguistic family. Often, upon analysis, it seems to be a highly repetitive collection of syllables that do not seem to have any connection to any known language. Apologists claim that this is a sort of godly or angelic language, debunkers say that it is gibberish—pseudolanguage. One example which I own on a CD features a preacher who is obviously being whipped into a frenzy by the goings-on, he then drops into what sounds like a sort of stereotyped "African-ish" language. Here is my transliteration of a portion of it:
Ambra non kansuteeade lenshen ef Hesus tamaya. Mambra non kanteen me hanshute*. Eredella chedis shirstabiya*. Ara vata oo. In tha nombra dieso. In tha nombra dieso. In tha nombra dieso. Ha ha ha ha. In tha nabaho weeiaje*. Mambra foof fravesu. Eredella chinashtushtu?* Para gegege* de mas.
The effect is amazingly convincing for a couple of sentences, and a bit creepy. However, I have marked with asterisks several words or syllable combinations wherein the speaker slurred, stumbled and the effect of this being an actual language became somewhat less-than-convincing, shall we say
Pseudolanguage and Problems
Strokes, hemorrhages, tumors, and injuries are just a few of the nasty things that can happen to the wonderful organ inside our skulls, causing all number of bewildering and alarming effects. When the injury to the brain affects the speech centers, the patient's ability to speak coherently may be severely compromised. Most commonly, these deficits result from damage to the portions of the brain which govern the motor control and feedback necessary for speech. When the speech comprehension area of the cerebral cortex is damaged, the effect can be bizarre and profoundly eerie.
The principal portion of the cortex responsible for turning thoughts into words (and vice versa) is Wernicke's area, a small region of the temporal lobe. Damage to this area can result in a rare form of aphasia. Many persons with so called receptive aphasia or Wernicke's aphasia can speak with some clarity, but may misuse words (they may, for instance, substitute the word 'telephone' for 'television') and often throw odd, made-up words into their sentences. In severe cases, however, a victim of this odd cerebral disorder will speak a strange patois consisting almost entirely of pseudolanguage, perhaps with some real words put in (although the usage may be unusual). Patients with this disorder usually have trouble understanding spoken and written words as well.
Wernicke's aphasia is a terribly confusing and unsettling disorder, as one might imagine. Fortunately, it is seldom permanent—in many cases, the ability to speak and comprehend speech will return. Recovery may take months, or even years and many patients will still exhibit symptoms of aphasia long after the worst bits of the deficit have cleared up.
The pseudolanguage of aphasiacs tends to be very repetitive and often rhythmic (a word like potato may be rendered as potatatatato for example), sounding much less like real language than the glossolalia of religious charismatics.
E2 nodes: Wernicke's aphasia by alex.tan and Chris Hook
xenoglossy by me
Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, 19th edition (FA Davis, Philadelphia, 1997).
Carey, Benedict, "A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues" The New York Times, Nov. 7, 2006
Stollznow, Karen, "Speaking in Tongues" on line: http://www.bad-language.com/tongues
Brother Russell, Jesus Made Me Do It volume 2 (Audio CD), Melbaworld productions.
National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, Aphasia article: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/voice/aphasia.htm
a look at my old college notes to check where W's area is on the brain
and a big thank you to my friend John B.,MD, for reminding me about W's aphasia!