Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Basic Engly Twentyfido

I take language seriously – spelling, punctuation, grammar, the whole kit and caboodle. I think about what I'm going to say before I say it and that goes doubly for whatever I commit to paper and triply for anything I'm having published. Of course one can't be serious all the time. At least this particular one can't. Language can – and should – be fun.

The humour I appreciate most in this life is typified by someone like Ronnie (Fork Handles) Barker whose writing revolves around wordplay, especially puns. Or Steven (What's another word for Thesaurus?) Wright. I agree with Nabokov that the pun is mightier than the word (not his precise words). People who don't know how to play with words and enjoy playing with them cannot properly work with them.

But there is one man who only has to open his mouth and I start to smile, a man who will be forever remembered for talking the most entertaining nonsense in the world, "Professor" Stanley Unwin.

Unwin was the inventor and finest exponent of Unwinese (or, "Basic Engly Twentyfido", as he would put it) which The Times described "…a glottal-stopped gobbledegookian language that sounded deceptively like English trying to swallow itself." He was well known in the UK, from the mid-fifties up till his death in 2002 at the age of 90, but I doubt the rest of the world would have heard much of him. He was best known for cameos and short skits – frankly it's hard to listen to him for more than a few minutes – but his humour was popular with advertisers, even if they had to add subtitles. He even did the narration on the B-side of the Small Faces album, Ogden's Nut Gone Flake.

Unwin attributed his gift to his mother who, he related, once told him that on the way home from work she had "falolloped over and grazed her kneeclappers." He also acknowledged the poet Edward Lear as a source of inspiration. Much to my delight his humour works well on paper. There are a number of lengthy examples to be found at including his wonderful takes on Goldyloppers and the Three Bearloaders and The Pidey Pipeload of Hamling.

Here's the opening section of a short talk he gave on language:

England joys all concentrate. Corruption of the English, well, English language, so manifest was so many careless. They mission it a sillibold, like "partic'ly" and intrudes ye an extra one, like "renovenate" instead of "renovate", as I heard by a zealous cockney who knowed it all. No bother, 'e think it, before out of the voice box he ho. Oh, no.

Listen to it here. It won't make any more sense mind.

Unwin is not entirely unique. Other comics have used gibberish at times. There is, for example, Suel Forrester, a Saturday Night Live character created by Chris Katten. Chaplin does it too in Modern Times and we can connect the dots right back 500 years to the time of the jesters who spoke a made-up language called Grammelot. There is a lengthy interchange at Language Log which discusses this if you are interested. Their related article on Simlish is also worth a gander.

Unwin’s devoted fans included Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, the Monty Python cast and John Lennon whose books, John Lennon in His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works, he openly admitted were influenced by Unwin's work.

A typical early example from Carry on Regardless (with onscreen translations courtesy of Kenneth Williams) can be found on YouTube.

A later example of his style can be found in the BBC archive. He was always a popular guest on chat shows even into his eighties.

There is so much new material available to people nowadays that no one has the time to cope with it all, let alone set aside time to remember so-called has-beens, and that is sad. It's easy to say that a book or a film or a person has had their day but, if we were to take that reasoning to its logical conclusion, there would be no more Shakespeare or Beethoven or Charlie Chaplin because they're all well past their sell-by date.

Take a few minutes out and enjoy these clips for what exactly they are.


Kathy McIntosh said...

I'm a huge Monty Python fan and when I checked out Ronnie Barker, realized I'd seen him before, also.
But I didn't know about Stanley Unwin.
Thanks for this wonderful walk through wordplay. I'll be back for more sidetrips.

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Thanks for introducing me to Stanley Unwin! Loved it. Also love your sense of humor. Keep writing!

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