Summary, children's mocking tune
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Nearly 20 people responded to my inquiry about the stylized
"nyeah-nyeah" tune that I've heard English-speaking children use to
taunt one another (sol-mi-la-sol-mi, as I expressed it -- I should
have added that the sols and mis are long, while the la is short and
unstressed). I thank...
Paul Boersma <email@example.com>
Jill Brody <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Kevin Caldwell <email@example.com>
Richard Desrochers <desrochr@ERE.UMontreal.CA>
Joseph F Foster <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Rosa Garcia <email@example.com>
Elaine Halleck <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dick Hudson <email@example.com>
Vincent Jenkins <Distinction@compuserve.com>
Auri Kuosa <auri.kuosa@Helsinki.FI>
Wen-Chao Li <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Martha Merrill <MMERRILL@infotel.kg>
Marc Pierce <email@example.com>
Louisa Pleiter <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dale Russell <email@example.com>
Claire Saillard <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Catherine Walter <email@example.com>
_Where it is used_
My question was about the geographical distribution of the
tune. According to these respondents, it is used throughout Europe,
both eastern and western. Specific languages and countries mentioned
were Danish, Dutch, Finnish, and French; Germany, Poland, Switzerland,
and Russia. It was cited also in the Portuguese and Spanish of Latin
America. On what we might call the Europe/Asia interface, it was
cited in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
My Greek-American informant had some doubts about Greece.
Apparently it is virtually absent from East Asia -- not heard
in Chinese or Japanese. But one respondent said it _is_ used in South
Korea. (The standard taunt in Japanese is "Your mother has a big
navel," with no special tune.)
Vincent Jenkins says "In Korea the tune is the same, but the
'words' are different - something like /ko ri ko ko/." He adds "I
find it hard to believe that the tune can be known in Korea but not in
Japan. I think that it is more probable that the Japanese students
are unwilling to admit that they know it or have led very protected
lives." Jenkins also says "Estonian is / be be bee/. NO TUNE [my
emphasis], but the last syllable is longer and higher." Also from
Jenkins: "The only Iranian student I have did not recognise 'nyeah
nyeah' nor could she think of any standard taunt."
The two respondents who mentioned Africa said they don't know
what happens there.
My informant for Punjabi and Urdu says he doesn't specifically
remember hearing the tune in those languages. He points out that even
if it did occur in them, it would be difficult to rule out English
Some of the respondents got their data by polling ESL classes.
Martha Merrill in Kyrgyzstan had an interesting comment: "I
have never heard children in K sing a song to that tune, but I spend
VERY little time around children and of course am in the capital,
where there is a preponderance of Russian-language rather than
Kyrgyz-language schools. I would think, though, that a more
fundamental question might be the cultural one -- to what extent do
children in different cultures mock or ostracize other children
publicly? Then, if they do it, how do they do it? Children here seem
much more convivial with each other than children in the US and I
would imagine that there is less direct ostracizing than in the US."
I understand that the tune can be sung with almost any variety
of taunting words -- at least that's my experience in English -- but
some words (or nonsense syllables) are more archetypally used with it.
For _my_ English it is "Nyeah-nyeah-nya-nyeah-nyeah." (I choose this
spelling because it rhymes with "yeah".) But Jill Brody reports that
in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it's "na@ na@ ni boo boo" (in which "na@"
is evidently equivalent to my "nyeah", "ni" as in "unique", and "boo"
as in "boot". My East Texas informant also reports variants such as
"Nanner nanner boo boo" or "Nanny nanny boo boo."
Sample "lyrics" from other languages: Finnish: "Et-p"as
saak-kaan kiin-ni! ('You can't catch me' -- I guess those "s are
umlauts). Louisa Pleiter reports from the Netherlands, "As in
English, you can just 'nyeah nyeah', but you can also fit sentences
in: 'Hij-is-een-dik-zak' : 'He-is-a-fat-so'." Also from the
Netherlands, Paul Boersma reports an incident with his 4-year-old son:
sol mi la sol mi Jelle heeft een Bar-bie "Jelle has a Barbie doll" He
adds "I think it's the only tune for this in the Netherlands."
Catherine Walter says "French children's equivalent is 'La (la) la
la lere (grave accent on penultimate _e_), and follows exactly the same tune
as in English.'
But Claire Saillard says "You might be interested in knowing
that French children 'at least' do not use the same 'taunting tune' as
American children. The French equivalent would rather be :
(do) sol mi do sol
ex. (la) la la l\232 re
ex. oh la men- teu- se (oh, the liar!)
ex. c'est bien fait euh (well done!)
"La menteuse" reminds me that one favorite lyric from my
childhood, was "Liar, liar, pants on fire; nose as long as a telephone
wire!" (Remember that a liar's nose grow long, a` la Pinocchio.)
Rosa Garcia reports "In Spanish (at least in the Mexican
dialect) the taunting tune children use is not exactly the same as the
one you describe for English, however it is amazingly similar. In fact
there is just one note the English one has, the second one, which ours
does not have. Our tune goes as follows:
1 sol la sol mi (notes)
le- ro le- ro (lero is a nonse word)
can- de- le- ro (chandelier, in Spanish, used as a
2 sol sol la la sol mi (notes)
na- ri- ces de cue- ro (noses of hide, here
used as nonse words)
Of course children may change the 'lyrics' adapting them to particular
situations, for instance:
3 sol la sol mi
te ca- is- te (you fell down) Also, they may repeat notes, as
in 2 above, and 4-7 below, use sandhi to join syllables in
neighbouring words, as in 5 (la-es) , or say the syllable up to its
nucleus in a note, and then repeat the nucleus (with the rest of the
rhyme) in the next note as in 7 ( no ...o). ...
4 sol la la sol mi
te re- ga- na- ron (they scolded you)
5 sol sol la la sol mi
Pa- me- la-es co- chi- na (Pamela is dirty)
6 sol sol la la la sol mi
nos co- mi- mos tus dul ces (we ate your candies)
7 sol sol la la la la sol mi
mi ma- ma te re- ga- no.......o (my mother scolded you)"
(Compare Spanish _lero_ with French _le`re_!)
Garcia adds "I asked a speaker of Mazatec, about taunting
tunes in that language (Mazatec is otomanguean, and is a tone
language). It turns out that the Mazatec have adopted the 'lero lero'
taunting tune. However, they have adopted it only partially. What
they do is they sing 'lero lero' (lyrics and all, but just that part)
and then they say whatever they want to mock the person for, but
without singing it; they say it as they do when they are speaking
normally. I wonder if their incomplete adoption of the tune has to do
with their language being a tone language."
_Origin and propagation_
Dick Hudson said "My theory is that it's very very old,
e.g. already used by the Romans. As you probably know, children of
primary school age (but NOT secondary school age!) are very
conservative, and model themselves closely on slightly older children;
so there are various expressions that are clearly age-graded in the
sense that children of age n learn them from those of n+1, then stop
using them when they are themselves n+1 - e.g. (in UK) `bags I X' or
`I bagsey X'.
Richard Desrochers points out that the same interval -- the
"descending minor third", as from sol to mi -- is used in an adult
expression of scorn in the following anecdote: "I've heard this
presumably true story of a philosopher beginning a conference by
saying that in all languages, two negations result in a positive
statement, although we never observe that two positives give a
negation. Upon which somebody in the back of the audience replied with
'yeah, yeah' using a descending minor third, with the ironical effect
of negation (after which, so the story goes, the conference was
cancelled because of the long-lasting laughs of the audience). Minor
thirds have great power."
More about adults using the tune: Marc Pierce points out that
"crowds at basketball games all shout 'AIRBALL' in the same key"; and
Kevin Caldwell adds "And from the baseball fields of America:
Pitcher's got a rubber nose, Wiggles ev- -ery time he throws!"
Caldwell adds "It's also the same tune as 'A tisket, a tasket, a green
and yellow basket...' and 'Ring around the rosie'". Also "Bye baby
bunting, daddy's gone a-hunting," if I'm not mistaken.
I theorize that the context of the basketball and baseball
games invokes the schoolyard and regresses adult fans to child status.
More on the descending minor third came from Joe Foster -- so
much more, in fact, that I can't begin to summarize it here. But here
are some choice quotes: Foster points out "...two facts: one, the
pervasiveness and apparent 'naturalness' of the minor third, and two,
the pervasiveness in 'spontaneous' folk music around the world...of
the pentatonic scale." And "The pentatonic scale turns out to be a
near optimum way of realizing and requiring the greatest possible
number of minor thirds with the fewest number of notes in a
harmonically simplex series, and not only allows but effectively
requires the use of minor thirds in singing and playing. Therefore,
the explanation for the wide use and preference for pentatonic scales
probably derives from the more basic fact of the preference and
apparent 'naturalness' of the minor third. What is the reason for the
widespread preference for the minor third? I dont know."
A final word: I have no claim of ownership on this topic, nor
any intention to research it further. If anyone is inspired to carry
on from here, welcome to it! Let me know what you find.
_References cited by people who responded_
- Bernstein, Leonard. 1976. The Unanswered Question: Six talks at
Harvard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. Book in which he relates
elements of language to elements of music. See p. 16. A videotape of
these lectures also exists.
- Hudson, Richard A. 1980. Sociolinguistics. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge UP. Brief mention in first chapter of this textbook.
- Ladd, D. R. 1978. "Stylized Intonation". Language, 54:517-540.
- Opie, Iona Archibald, and Peter Opie. 1959/1967. The Lore and
Language of Schoolchildren. On "children's speech forms such as
skipping rhymes and truce terms." It traces one item back to the
Dept. of Foreign Languages
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4521
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