You’ve likely heard and enjoyed music from languages you don’t speak. Although you may not fully understand the lyrics, you can usually tell the song’s tone and emotion from the singer’s voice. The ability to enjoy music from any language has catapulted non-English songs such as BTS’ “Life Goes On” and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” and Luis Fonsi to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.
Likewise, many English-speaking artists have had success with various audiences abroad. During the 1960s and 1970s, artists such as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and The Beatles were included in Italy’s best-selling singles charts. Their success inspired an Italian singer named Adriano Celentano, one of the most famous Italian musicians, to write and perform an unusual song called “Prisencolinensinainciusol” in 1972.
The song consists of gibberish that repeat the sound of American English without using any specific words. To achieve this, Celentano uses common sounds and pronunciations in the English language. Moreover, he attempts to replicate the American music of the seventies with a simple mechanical loop of four drums and a high-pitched trumpet.
It may sound conceptually strange, but this mix creates a surprisingly effective blend of pop and jazz genres, while Celentano’s vocals remind us a lot of a rock singer. As a result of its unusual premise, “Prisencolinensinainciusol” is often discussed as a minor novelty in music history. However, the song also highlights the many ways that specific languages can influence and change music.
Prisencolinensinainciusol was the product of Italy’s fascination with American music during the 20th century (principally from the 1950s to the late 1970s). During this period, the increasing popularity of foreign singers inspired many Italian musicians to adopt well-known American music. This included creating songs from genres recently popularized by American artists, especially rock and jazz, or incorporating English songs into their songs.
Celentano was 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 introducing the genre to the mainstream Italian audience. However, he has also developed a reputation as a versatile and highly skilled performer due to his ability to play a wide range of musical genres and a very successful acting career.
In 1959, a year after starting his professional music career, his song “Il tuo bacio e ‘come un rock”” was listed on Italy’s Hit Parade Singles chart for two weeks. Celentano would return to the charts in 1961 and stay there for 10 consecutive years.
Despite gaining a large following during the 1960s, Celentano’s experimental release “Prisencolinensinainciusol” did not receive much attention. However, the song’s popularity soared after he performed it on several TV shows in the following years.
Some Italian listeners misunderstood singing as authentically English, while those familiar with the language were amazed at Celentano’s ability to imitate speech through meaningless lyrics. To this day, “Prisencolinensinainciusol” is one of Celentano’s most famous songs and has helped spread his work to a global audience.
Imitation of language through meaningless sounds is known by a variety of names, such as “free-speak”, “gramelot” and “linguistic tongue” (although this latter term can also refer to the religious phenomenon of “speak”). in tongues”). Free pronunciation and related terms are defined by the rapid pronunciation of syllables to imitate language without any specific meaning.
One of the most common examples of this practice is infant babbling. Young children learn to speak the same dialect as those around them, although they do not match the refined imitation of Celentano’s song.
Trying to copy a language without its words requires a similar method of learning by listening. A TikTok user named Diego Rivas has gained popularity for his videos that show meticulous, phonetic imitations of how different languages appear to those who aren’t fluent in them. In an interview with Diane Senffner, Rivas cited his studies of Wernicke’s aphasia, or the inability to process the meaning of written and spoken words, as the primary inspiration for creating these videos.
Aphasic patients hear real words but cannot attach meaning to them, and Rivas wanted to convey this difficulty of communication through nonsense, like Celentano. Rivas studied and practiced his impressions by listening to interviews with fluent speakers and consulting video lessons to understand the familiar sounds and speech patterns of each language. As a result, learn to recreate the sentence structures of a particular language, dialects and other distinctive features.
Celentano described a process similar to writing “Prisencolinensinainciusol” during an interview with NPR. Since American music influenced most of his early career, Celentano was already accustomed to hearing English, even if he wasn’t fluent in it. He also claimed that he found singing in English easier than singing in Italian. These factors helped him improvise the lyrics after composing the episode of Supporting Instruments.
However, by removing recognizable words and leaving only the mechanical structure and sound of English, Celentano also shows how a language can serve as a distinctive musical instrument. While different vocabulary is a significant factor in how music changes between languages, slight differences such as the pronunciation of letters or the transition between individual words can greatly affect a song.
The emphasis on the pronunciation of vowels over other letters in “Prisencolinensinainciusol” draws its inspiration from American English. However, it also allows the song to maintain its fast pace by smooth transitions between each nonsensical lyric.
Other songs also used uncommon features from certain languages, such as Xhosa’s song, “Qongqothwane” (commonly known as “click song”). The song requires singers to pronounce consonants to tap repeatedly, making it a challenge for those not fluent in Xhosa or similar South African languages.
None of these songs would offer the same experience if they were modeled on a different language. The fast, upbeat beat of “Prisencolinensinainciusol” stems from its English origins, and the rhythmic “Qongqothwane” beats are rarely found in Western music.
However, the difference between the different languages is what helps “Prisencolinensinainciusol” and many other songs attract global audiences. Listening to your own language in music enables you to understand the lyrics without subtitles, but certain musical patterns can only be detected in other languages and cultures.
Prisencolinensinainciusol proves that language is defined by more than words. Whether through behaviors or dialect, the various traits associated with each individual language embody the customs and values of their cultural origins. Celentano’s transformation of the English language into a no-nonsense interpretation continues to resemble its foundation by understanding how different languages use structural and phonetic differences to create their own unique sounds.
Moreover, these distinctive sounds lend themselves to different types of music, which means that artists and listeners can benefit from listening and learning from different styles from all over the world. Ultimately, language is a valuable tool in creating music, and Celentano shows how every subtle aspect of it can greatly influence the perception of a song.