Notes on Nonsense

The only language men ever speak perfectly is the one they learn in babyhood, when no one can teach them anything.

–Maria Montessori

All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of a beggar’s teeth.

 –Antonin Artaud

Adults fundamentally misunderstand children. Few talk about it, which is odd, because the evidence is everywhere. Tune into any form of media, and you’ll learn that education is in crisis, that toys are too gendered, or that the internet has become too dangerous, while playgrounds are now too safe. Even the most essential facts about children—the level of their need for supervision, for strictness, and for stimulation—appear to be completely mysterious to the people tasked with raising them. Confronting this widespread mystification, it becomes difficult to believe that all adults were once themselves children—let alone how recently this was the case. 

You could argue that film and television made for children is an exception to this principle of misunderstanding. Think of the unshakeable pink joy on a child’s face as she bounds for the couch in time for Spongebob, or belts out Frozen’s theme song for the hundredth time. Yet this enthusiasm hardly proves that producers of children’s film and television have any real understanding of the minds of children. Adults buy the movie tickets, after all. And as anyone who’s ever seen a child go glow-eyed in front of the TV will know, they’re as entranced by adverts for cereal and vacuum cleaners as they are by cartoons. It is the screen itself that hypnotizes, not the content.  

This isn’t to say that all film and television made for children is primarily shaped by the tastes of adults. Universal Studios’ Despicable Me, released in 2010, is a useful illustration of where children’s movies go right. Simultaneously schmaltzy and bizarre, the film’s premise—a supervillain adopts three orphans as part of a plot to steal the moon before growing to adore them and embracing the role of fatherhood—mangles tropes in a delightfully self-aware fashion, spooling out a narrative that feels both expansive and familiar. The film grossed over 500 million dollars and spawned an Oscar-nominated sequel, plus plans for a third (to be released in 2017), as well as a 2015 spinoff devoted entirely to the invention at the crux of the films’ success: a sea of small, banana-colored, absurdist creatures called minions.   

A relatively minor feature of the original Despicable Me, minions have since become a cultural phenomenon. They are ubiquitous online and endlessly purchasable, not only as toys and costumes, but also as images plastered on the surface of every object a child could conceivably desire, not to speak of products that could only be of use to older people, like phone cases and adult-size shoes. (There is even, floating somewhere out there in this world, a minion blimp.) It can be difficult, once this alarmingly rapid evolution from character to brand has taken place, to recall exactly what was appealing about a given figure in the first place—think Mickey Mouse. Yet a clue to the popularity of the minions can be found, I think, in a children’s show that, at first glance, bears little similarity to Despicable Me at all. 

Pingu ran from 1986–2000, and chronicled the escapades of a young penguin and his igloo-dwelling family in claymation. A joint British-Swiss production, the show consisted of 156 five-minute episodes. Unlike Despicable Me, which, like most CGI blockbusters, delivers layers of meaning on multiple levels in order to appeal to viewers of all ages, Pingu’s intended audience was primarily very young children. Its episodes were designed for the shortest of attention spans. They contain not so much actual narratives as quick strings of events that blur into each other, thanks to a strikingly ‘90s overuse of the dissolve technique of scene transition. 

Between the vast, complex, flashy cosmos of Despicable Me and the retro, minimalist landscape of Pingu, we encounter a surprising connection: invented language. A key source of the minions’ comedic appeal is their distinctive mode of communication, which consists of a mishmash of mispronounced and seemingly random phrases of English, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Japanese, etc. (“gelato,” “what,” “para tu”), mixed with a gibberish that echoes the intonations of real language. The characters in Pingu express themselves in a nonsensical yet melodious series of babbles, honks, squawks, mutterings, sighs, and squeaks. 

The minions’ language is only a small aspect of Despicable Me, one zany element in a narrative otherwise dominated by American English. Pingu, on the other hand, features no real words of any kind. Only once in the entire length of the show’s 14-year run can a coherent English phrase be heard. At the end of the Christmas Special episode, first aired on December 25, 1992, Pingu turns to the camera and honks the words “Happy Christmas!” while his plasticine beak pokes out roundly. (The result sounds a little more like “Happy Christ-moose!,” implying that, like a real mother tongue, Pingu-ese leaves an indelible imprint on its native speakers.)

Despicable Me and Pingu are hardly alone in their representation of nonsensical communication. Though markedly absent from American children’s television and from movies in general, several other British kids’ TV shows also feature creatures who do not speak anything close to comprehensible English. The vaguely nightmarish Teletubbies coo and burble like toddlers making their very first grasps at language, while the more obscure, rodent-like aliens that populate the creepy and claustrophobic world of The Clangers (1969–74) communicate exclusively in haunting whistles. Teletubbies was heavily criticized for its use of babble-talk. Angsty child psychologists and parents chastised its creators for supposedly exacerbating the delay in language fluency that has been proven to result when young children are exposed to too much television. This criticism has since been refuted, though the fact remains that the Teletubbies’ sing-song gibberish might be, if not developmentally damaging, so insufferable as to cause real psychological harm. 

The major difference between Pingu or Despicable Me and shows like Teletubbies or The Clangers is that the penguins and minions in the former speak not gibberish but actual invented languages, however rudimentary they may be. After watching a series of Pingu episodes, you will begin to notice patterns, rhythms—even something like structural rules. “Penguinese has a complex intonation pattern,” writes Tony Thorne, Director of the Language Centre at King’s College, London. “It seems to mimic not just the language of human beings, but the sounds that animals—and birds, of course—make, too.” 

Key elements of the minions’ language have been explained and interpreted by enthusiastic amateurs on fan pages across the web. Universal went so far as to develop an app that humorously “translates” the minion’s speech—just one part of its menacingly extensive marketing campaign. 

It is this complexity that accounts for the extent of the Despicable Me trilogy’s critical success and saturation of pop culture. Yet—like the sprawling Pingu Wikia that cannot possibly have been constructed by the show’s primary viewing audience of infants—this interest in the linguistic construction of minion-speak explains the films’ appeal for adults, not children. Kids, while they might be unconsciously aware of the similarities between minion- and penguin-talk to human language, are hardly going to be delighted by analysis of these constructions’ surprising linguistic sophistication. Could this be another case of mistaking adult enthusiasm for real engagement with the minds of tiny viewers? Or is it possible that, while adults are drawn to the obsessive pleasure of picking apart the machinery of these constructed languages, they hold a different—and even more significant—magnetism for the minds of children?    

Compare, for a moment, the delightfully weird babble of the minions and Pingu family with the way English is spoken in the rest of children’s TV and cinema. Recall the deliberate slowness, patronizingly exaggerated emotion, and intense, syrupy feminization of the voice in shows such as Barney and Friends and Dora the Explorer, not to mention the limited vocabulary and extreme oversimplification of what’s actually being said. If anyone spoke like this in real life, it would be nightmarish—perhaps this is why the eerie, sing-song intonation reminiscent of children’s TV has become something of a trope in horror movies. Yet we subject children to it by the mouthful. 

The simplified language of children’s films and television shows reflects the tamed, narrowed, decluttered version of the real world they construct. It is as true on the visual level as it is on the linguistic. Visually, Pingu has a distinctly German minimalism: a sparse white landscape set against a block-blue sky; a homogenous cast of near-identical clay penguins; a set of simple, symbol-like objects (ball, fish, skis). Despicable Me, though infinitely more expansive and varied, remains anchored in the visual archetypes of children’s narratives (orphanage, suburban street, villain’s lair) which tether it to recognizable terrain like a tent to soil.  

The made-up languages of Despicable Me and Pingu open these landscapes up—tearing their horizons like seams, collapsing the boundaries of their conventional narrative arcs. Once they have tapped into the immeasurable imaginative capacity of their young audiences, the possibilities of meaning and sensation within each story become limitless. The central problem—even tragedy—of children’s TV and film is that productions fail to utilize their most potent asset: the outlandish, surreal, and inconceivably vivid minds of their viewers. What makes Despicable Me and Pingu so successful is that—with the melodies of their warped and gabbled chatter—they manage to do exactly this.    

After we emerge into the grayscale latter stages of our lives, it becomes easy to forget how frustrating life was when we were children. A child spends her days being spoken down to, misunderstood, and ignored—being told she must follow rules “just because,” that her deepest concerns are humorous or nonsensical, and that she won’t possibly be able to understand until she’s grown. Imagine the relief of that child—legs tucked up against the black plush of the movie theatre seat or the familiar folds of her sofa—as she listens to a language that belongs not to adults but to her and to her alone. A language that is honest as music and rich as a full young heart, without boundaries or barriers keeping her out. A language that, to a child, probably sounds most like the truth.