You’ve likely heard and enjoyed music from languages you don’t speak. Although you might not fully understand the lyrics, you can typically discern the song’s tone and emotion from the singer’s voice. The ability to enjoy the music of any language has led to non-English songs like “Life Goes On” by BTS and “Despacito” by Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Similarly, many English-language artists have found success with various overseas audiences. During the 1960s and ’70s, artists like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and the Beatles were frequently listed in Italy’s top-selling song charts. Their success inspired an Italian singer named Adriano Celentano, one of Italy’s most famous musicians, to write and perform an unusual song titled “Prisencolinensinainciusol” in 1972.
The song consists of gibberish lyrics that replicate the sound of American English without using any specific words. To accomplish this, Celentano uses sounds and pronunciations commonly found in the English language. Furthermore, he attempts to replicate American music of the ’70s through a simple instrumental loop of four drumbeats and a high-pitched horn.
It may sound odd conceptually, but this mixture creates a surprisingly effective blend of the pop and jazz genres, while Celentano’s vocals are heavily reminiscent of rock singers. As a result of its unusual premise, “Prisencolinensinainciusol” is often discussed as a simple novelty in music history. However, the song also highlights the many ways specific languages can impact and change music.
“Prisencolinensinainciusol” was a product of Italy’s fascination with American music during the 20th century (primarily from the ’50s to the late ’70s). Throughout this period, the growing popularity of foreign singers inspired many Italian musicians to adopt recognizable staples of American music. This included making songs in genres recently popularized by American artists, primarily rock and jazz, or incorporating English vocals into their songs.
Celentano had been an early adopter of the rock genre in Italy, with one of his first songs being a cover of Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.” As a result, he is often credited with helping introduce the genre to a mainstream Italian audience. However, he also developed a reputation as a versatile and highly skilled performer due to his ability to play a wide range of musical genres and highly successful acting career.
In 1959, a year after he began his professional music career, his song “Il tuo bacio e’ come un rock” was listed on the Italian Hit Parade Singles Chart for two weeks. Celentano would return to the charts in 1961 and remain there for 10 consecutive years.
Despite garnering an impressive following throughout the 1960s, Celentano’s release of the experimental “Prisencolinensinainciusol” received little attention. However, the song skyrocketed in popularity after he performed it on multiple television programs in the following years.
Some Italian listeners mistook the vocals for authentic English, while those familiar with the language were amazed at Celentano’s ability to imitate speech through nonsensical lyrics. To this day, “Prisencolinensinainciusol” is one of Celentano’s most widely recognized songs and helped spread his work to a global audience.
The imitation of language through meaningless sounds is known by a variety of names, such as “free vocalization,” “grammelot” and “glossolalia” (though this last term can also refer to the religious phenomenon of “speaking in tongues”). Free vocalization and its related terms are defined by the rapid utterance of syllables to mimic language without any specific meaning.
One of the most common examples of this practice is an infant’s babbling. Young children learn to speak in the same dialect as those around them, though they do not match the refined mimicry of Celentano’s song.
Attempting to copy a language without its words requires a similar means of learning through listening. A TikTok user named Diego Rivas gained popularity for his videos that demonstrate phonetically accurate imitations of how different languages sound to those who aren’t fluent. In an interview with Diane Senffner, Rivas cited his studies into Wernicke’s aphasia, or the inability to process the meaning of written and spoken words, as the primary inspiration for creating these videos.
Aphasia patients hear real words but can’t attach a meaning to them, and Rivas wanted to convey this communication difficulty through gibberish, much like Celentano. Rivas studied and practiced his impressions by listening to interviews with fluent speakers and consulting video tutorials to understand each language’s familiar sounds and speech patterns. As a result, he learned how to recreate language-specific sentence structures, accents and other distinctive traits.
Celentano described a similar process for writing “Prisencolinensinainciusol” during an interview with NPR. Since American music influenced much of his early career, Celentano had already become accustomed to hearing the English language, even if he wasn’t fluent. He also claimed that he found singing in English easier than performing in Italian. These factors helped him improvise the song’s lyrics after composing the backing instrumental loop.
However, by removing recognizable words and leaving only the mechanical structure and sound of English, Celentano also demonstrates how language can serve as a distinctive musical instrument. While differing vocabularies are a prominent factor in how music changes between languages, more minor differences such as the pronunciation of letters or transition between individual words can drastically impact a song.
The emphasis on vowel pronunciation over other letters in “Prisencolinensinainciusol” derives its inspiration from American English. Still, it also allows the song to maintain its quick pace by smoothly transitioning between each nonsensical lyric.
Other songs have also used uncommon traits from specific languages, such as the Xhosa song, “Qongqothwane” (commonly known as “The Click Song”). The song requires singers to frequently pronounce click consonants, making it a challenge for those who aren’t fluent in Xhosa or similar South African languages.
Neither of these songs would deliver the same experience if modeled after a different language. The fast-paced, upbeat tempo of “Prisencolinensinainciusol” stems from its English origins, and the rhythmic clicks of “Qongqothwane” are rarely found in Western music.
However, the variation between different languages is what helps “Prisencolinensinainciusol” and many other songs appeal to global audiences. Listening to your own language in music enables you to understand lyrics without translation, but particular musical stylings can only be discovered in other languages and cultures.
“Prisencolinensinainciusol” proves that language is defined by more than words. Whether it’s through mannerisms or dialect, the different traits associated with every individual language embody the customs and values of its cultural origins. Celentano’s transformation of English into a meaningless interpretation still resembles its foundation by understanding how different languages use structural and phonetic differences to create their own unique sounds.
Furthermore, these distinct sounds lend themselves to different types of music, meaning both artists and listeners can benefit from hearing and learning from various styles from around the globe. Ultimately, language is a valuable tool in creating music, and Celentano demonstrates how its every minute aspect can significantly affect the perception of a song.