11th January 2017 – Grammelot: The art of speaking nonsense

What is Grammelot?

Grammelot is essentially another name for gibberish or gobbledegook, that was invented and put into practice around 1400 by the Commedia dell’Arte actors who used the language as a way of expressing their comedic performances without the worry of the language barrier between them and their audiences. Instead the comedic actors would use a combination of sounds, invented words, amongst exaggerated, vibrant movements to convey their messages and stories. It became apparent that it didn’t necessarily matter what they were saying as much of the comedy came from the extremely expressive and hyperbolic movement, facial expressions, and interaction, and the fact that so much could be interpreted from the tune and intonation in their speech.

Throughout the lesson we did a series of exercises and short activities using the idea of Grammelot as the communication between the two characters in the scene, but first Lynn introduced the concept of the nonsense language to the class and how it first came into play. To my surprise I had in fact done some work using Grammelot before with NYT when a professional clown and tutor from Le Coq came to do a workshop with us. At NYT we were set the task of performing a stand up act as a ‘clown’ in Japanese – which essentially meant speaking made up gibberish and focusing on the tone and tune of voice as well as expressing the jokes and engaging the audience with facial expressions and gestures.

Lynn explained how the comic characters from traditional Commedia Dell’ Arte would use the language as a way of getting past their struggle with the language barrier when touring their productions and so created this nonsense language as a means of communicating and presenting their characters. We were then asked to brainstorm ideas where might use nonsense words/ gobbledegook in real life and came up with several ideas:

  • Babies – when talking to babies adults tend to put on an exaggerated happy voice and use sounds a baby talk to communicate as obviously the baby cannot understand complex language and responds to facial expressions and the pitch of the voice.
  • Children’s TV Shows: Pingu, Bill and Ben, Clangers  – Simialr to babies, young children who are still developing their language skills will respond better to sounds rather than formal language. Also, it helps develop the children’s skills of interpreting body language/facial expressions and tone of voice.
  • Foreign language barrier – often when there is a language barrier and someone is trying to communicate the person will over exaggerate their sounds and rely on the tone of voice to get their message across and therefore often abandon formal words and use sounds instead, alongside gestures.
  • Lynn gave the examples of listening to the ‘Fast show’ which has a sketch called ‘I was very very drunk’, where the character grumbles and mumbles and only ever says real words amongst it all ever now and again, which is where the comedy is.
  • She also suggested watching the Welsh Chanel (SC4) on TV as it has a similar affect in the sense you have to rely on the tune of voice, facial expressions and basic context in order to get some understanding from it – however, as welsh is a dying language there are several words and phrases that they haven’t got translations for yet and so every now and then there will be random words that we wold recognise which makes for very comical moments.

Dario Fo – English Grammelot 

  • Lynn also asked us to look up an Italian comedian called Dario Fo, who often plays with the idea of Grammelot by speaking in fake English. His greatest achievement as a performer was ‘Mistero Buffo’ (1969) which was a reworking of medieval mystery plays, which he performed using the onomatopoeic language grammelot and a mixture of various dialects. Here is a clip of Dario performing his portrayal of the English dialect and person:

We used this idea of taking a ‘language’ and mimicking the vocal patterns and intonations to recreate this through speaking complete gobbledegook – which can often be misunderstood as being slightly racist when executed however is a great observational exercise and create great comedy! All of this aspect of Grammelot really reminded me of what I had done in my workshop at NYT in 2015 s it essentially used all the same ideas and techniques.

We proceeded on to an exercise where we had to use this idea as a stimulus and create our own short scenes in a fake German accent and language based around the idea that someone hides something and the other character catches them doing and they have to resolve the situation in one way or another. I worked with Han and we created a story of 2 young ‘German’ children who are playing with their toys when one hides it from the other. We used a lot of stereotypes in language such as saying ‘ya’ a lot, and we also adopted a very angry and aggressive tone of voice to mimic that of a German, who tend to use exceedingly long words and phrases executed rather monosyllabic  and attacked with force. We also played with the idea of telling the story through facial expression and gesture and so there was a lot of stamping of feet and crossing arms in a stroppy toddler way as way of capturing the age of the characters.

Expert and Translator Game


Instruction Exercise 

Things to look up

  1. Dede – national theatre
  2. Tate translator
  3. Welsh Chanel (poblycym)
  4. Fast show
  5. Dario Fo










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