Thursday, July 22, 2010

Greeting From the Library of Congress

Dear Nonsensical Readers of Sonzenbia,

Kevin here.

So, Michael has been traipsing about Africa hunting for nonsense without me. I’d give my left tongue to be with him. But this is not to say I’ve been idle. Admittedly, for a while there, I was just resting in my hammock in Virginia. But one day when I was resting in my hammock I started to feel guilty that I was not hunting nonsense in Africa. The following is a photo of me at the exact moment when I was resting in my hammock and started to feel guilty that I was not hunting nonsense in Africa:

With guilt in tow I drove through the jungles of Virginia (three whole hours) to the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Something about Washington, and something about something named after Congress, made me think there might be nonsense about in this place.

I began my search.

My main search was for nonsense in Africa, naturally. But along the way I was surprised to find nonsense catalogued at the Library of Congress for Israel, Turkey, Germany, The Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, France, The United States, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and Colombia. It was a treasure trove. Who’d ‘uv thunk it? As the Library of Congress is a non-lending library I spent about 100 dollars making copies… but that’s neither here nor there.

The following is a picture of me there (or here):

About Africa…

The Library of Congress had almost no leads at all cataloged for “nonsense” and “Africa,” and none by any particular country name, i.e. “Kenya” or “Uganda.” I did have one hit from South Africa… “Gillian’s Nonsense” but the “nonsense” here was not nonsense, as we here know and define it. I also pulled up a small collection of African American street rhymes, which did indeed produce a couple good results. This one's from Texas:

I wish I had a nickel
I wish I had a dime
I wish I had a boyfriend
Who kissed me all the time
My momma took my nickel
My daddy took my dime
My sister got a boyfriend
And gave me Frankenstein
He made me wash the windows
He made me wash the floor
He made me wash his underwear
And he kicked me out the door

Back to Africa… I searched under various languages as well, such Lou, Bantu and Swahili. Nothing. I knew in this moment that Mike had his work cut out for him in the field. But I kept digging and searched instead under the wide umbrella term “folklore” to see if any likely suspects might turn up from oral traditions.

In the end I think I did find a few things.

The following is somewhat nonsensical, and is a translation of a Kenyan folksong collected by Gichuhi Ngugi in 1984. The title is “Wagacuki.”

Bee, let us fight.
If you will fight with me, I’ll slaughter you.
The meat will be taken to the blacksmith ;
The blacksmith will make knives ;
The knives will stab the clouds :
The clouds will give the rain :
The rain will water the grass ;
The grass will be fed to the calf ;
The calf will marry a wife ;
The wife will cook porridge ;
We will drink the porridge.

And here's another Kenyan folksong, titled “Lililio" which was collected by Joshua Eshiokhunjira in 1984. It is a comprised of a string of nonsense words with a couple of random objects thrown in for seemingly no reason. With the “sensible” objects translated to English the song runs:

Bitter meat
Bitter fish

Turning to a slightly different genre, Mike and I have learned that prose-folk-nonsense is one of the rarest types of nonsense—always a surprise when it’s found. The following is an African folktale/riddle, that if read simply as is, is pretty nonsensical:

A man and his brother were on the way to sow their millet. The younger brother went on ahead, carrying the millet seed on his head.
As they walked along, the younger brother suddenly stopped and said, “It is sweet!”
They sowed the millet, cultivated it, harvested it, and then passed a season until the rains came again.
One day the man and his brother started out again to sow the millet.
When they came to the same place where the younger brother had spoken the year before, the older brother asked, “What is sweet?”
The younger brother answered, “Honey!”

Kind of funny I think.

I also found some other examples of folksongs that will have to wait for transcription for now—beer drinking songs, naming songs and coming of age songs--And there were a few longer modern poems that may make it into the anthology… works such as “J. Oreng” by Lucas Odote or “Msonga Odhil” by Ogwang Okoth... both of whom were writing in the Lou language.

In all The Library of Congress nonsense holdings proved pretty enlightening.

When my Africa search dried up I turned my attention to collecting some great material from New Zealand, Canada, France, Italy and Germany. Alas, the Turkish, Israeli and Japanese material was not made available to me on this visit. Another time. However, I think that my favorite find at the Library of Congress was a rare book published in New York in 1825. The title? “Aldiborontiphoskphorniostikos.”
Aldiborontiphoskphorniostikos is a collection of mind (and tongue) numbing nonsense phrases and tongue twisters. It was, ostensibly, published as an alphabet “game," but apparently did not catch on. Perhaps the page representing “N” will explain why:

“N, Never were such Times! said Nicholas Hotch-Potch, as Muley Hassan, Mufti of Muldavia, put on his Barnacles to see little Tweedle gobble them up, when Kia Khan Kreuse transmogrified them into Pippins, because Snip’s wife cried illikipilliky, lass-a-day! ‘tis too bad to titter at a body, when Hamet el Mammet, the bottle-nosed Barber of Balsora, laughed ha ! ha ! ha ! on beholding the Elephant spout mud over the ‘Prentice, who pricked his trunk with a needle, while Dicky Snip the Taylor read the Proclamation of Chronohotonthologos, offering a thousand sequins for taking Bombardinian, Bashaw of three tails, who killed Aldiborontiphoskphorniostikos.”

Time to get back in my hammock.

Dr. Kevin Kelley Shortsleeve, July 2010

1 comment:

  1. Mandy from dear old Winnipeg here...

    It has always been a not-so-secret nerdy ambition of mine to visit the Library of Congress. I would hope they have on site camping facilities because I'd likely be there for a lengthy stay.

    The "I wish I had a nickle" was a clapping game rhyme I remember very well from elementary school although our variant was that Frankenstein was kicked out by the narrator ;)

    By the way, if you come across anything in Arabic, I have a friend who can translate.