Some people are gifted with languages — and some very special people are gifted at sounding as if they are gifted with languages.
During the Israeli War of Independence, my father was extremely ill and spent some time in a hospital. Since this was a military hospital, he wasn’t in a private or even a semi-private room but was, instead, in a ward, along with a rotating crop of several other patients. Although he was too out of it to be a participant in the following story, he witnessed the events and he and my mother both swore to their truth.
The men in the ward (some of whom were sick, as was my father and some who were wounded) mostly kept to themselves. One day, though a new man showed up in the ward and he appeared to be not just convivial but amazingly multilingual.
The Israeli Defense Force was, of course, a multilingual military, comprised as it was of Jewish soldiers from all over the world. Each individual soldier, though spoke only one, maybe two, languages, with a tiny fraction speaking as many as three or four. This man, though, went far beyond that.
When a new patient rotated through the ward and this language master heard the new patient speak (often in halting Hebrew), the language man would instantly pick up on the new patient’s native language and he was off. “Oh, you’re Polish?!” he’d ask, and follow that with a stream of fluent Polish. The same held true whether the speaker was French, Hungarian, Russian, Romanian, Italian, Bulgarian, or whatever other nationality ended up in the ward.
What mystified my father, lying there silent in the corner, too ill to speak himself, was the fact that almost invariably the new patient greeted so enthusiastically in his native tongue, after a moment’s excitement, would collapse in confusion and sometimes be visibly distraught. The patient would tap his forehead in bewilderment and sometimes summon the nurse or orderly to tell the doctor that something was seriously wrong.
The mystery was solved when the linguist picked up on my mother’s Dutch accent. “Oh, you’re Dutch!” he enthused, before directing a rapid monologue at her in Dutch. Or was it?
My mother, who knew herself to be strong and healthy, instantly realized what was going on. The man wasn’t speaking Dutch; he was speaking double-Dutch. That is, he was letting loose with a string of nonsense words that somehow or other managed to sound like Dutch.
I always loved that story when I was a child, although I’m old enough now to feel some compassion for those poor sick and wounded men who thought that they were going crazy or were in even worse shape than they had originally believed.
I no longer think about that story very often today — it was a long, long time ago that my father last told it — but I thought of it today when I read a little article in Atlas Obscura:
BEFORE CHILDREN LEARN HOW TO speak properly, they go through a period of imitating the sounds they hear, with occasionally hilarious results, at least for their parents. Baby talk evolves into proto-words, so that “octopus” might come out as “appah-duece,” or “strawberry” as “store-belly.” But it’s not just children who ape the sounds of spoken language. There’s a long tradition of songs that “sound” like another language without actually meaning anything. In Italy, for example, beginning in the 1950s, American songs, films, and jingles inspired a diverse range of “American sounding” cultural products.
The most famous is probably “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” a 1972 song composed by legendary Italian entertainer Adriano Celentano and performed by him and his wife, Claudia Mori. The song’s lyrics sound phonetically like American English—or at least what many Italians hear when an American speaks—but are clearly total, utter, delightful nonsense. You really have to hear it to appreciate it.
And you do have to hear it to appreciate what an extraordinary job Celentano did in capturing the sound of American English:
Another skilled double-Dutch speaker was Sid Caesar:
(Sometimes I wonder if Caesar was hiding out in an IDF ward in 1948.)