(A linguistic examination of silly Youtube videos)
Paraphasia is a subset of general aphasia. The latter term can describe a number of impairments to language ability resulting from neurological trauma or illness, such as blows to the head, strokes or tumours. The former word, paraphasia, refers more specifically to speech being superficially coherent but still fundamentally wrong in some way to everyone but the speaker, because of partial or total mispronunciation (e.g. “mispornuntiacion”, or “window” for “widow”, or vice versa), or due to varying degrees of word substitution (e.g. quasi-homophonic errors like “beg” instead of “bed”, or massive and incomprehensible errors like “wrestler” instead of “library”). Obviously all of these paraphasias can blur into what would generally be considered “normal” linguistic mistakes, i.e. mistakes not resulting from a medical condition, of which there are quite a few widely recognised types:
An eggcorn, which was named by linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003, is when a person creates a plausible (but wrong) interpretation of a word they know but don’t know how to pronounce, that they’ve misheard, or have heard more or less correctly but never seen written down. Pullum’s example is “egg corn” for “acorn”. These actually seem to be increasingly common on the internet. Wikipedia’s article on Eggcorns points out two that I’ve often seen myself online: “baited breath” and “ex-patriot”, which should be “bated breath” and “expatriate” respectively. Confusions of “bear” and “bare” are also very common, although these are probably for the most part spelling errors rather than full blown eggcorns, since I should imagine the majority of English speakers know that being bare and being a bear are different things even if they’re unsure of the correct spelling for each one.
Good examples of malapropisms come appropriately from the original Mrs Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s 18th century play The Rivals. Malaprop suggests that somebody be “illiterated” (obliterated) from memory, talks about “allegories” in the Nile (meaning alligators, although surely these would be crocodiles anyway…) and speaks of a “nice derangement” (arrangement).
Mondegreen is a less recent neologism, this time by Sylvia Wright in 1954, coined to describe a mishearing that completely changes the original phrase’s meaning. The internet has launched hundreds of these as comical videos and anecdotes, but the 1950s naming of it points to it being a longstanding phenomenon, as do near-universal mondegreens like Jimi Hendrix’s “excuse me while I kiss this guy”, when the real lyric is “excuse me while I kiss the sky”. This particular mondegreen also famously makes more sense than the original line, as do many of the popular mondegreens from Bohemian Rhapsody.
Mondegreens also work across different languages, but this is a thing that seems not to have a name in English. The Japanese name for it is soramimi (空耳). 空 is false or hollow; 耳 is an ear or hearing, one of the easier kanji to remember because it actually looks like an ear. In soramimi, a phrase in one language is coincidentally close enough to a coherent phrase in another language to at least form proper words, if not a coherent sentence. One example is the English language Beatles song I Want to Hold Your Hand, which transcribes phonetically to some Japanese ears as アホな放尿犯/Aho na hounyouhan, which means something like “idiotic public urination.” The Latin of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna can be almost entirely rendered as absurd but complete English words.
The tables flipped now we got all the coconuts bitch
OK, it’s taken a while but now I’m getting to the point. Recently I’ve been really enjyoing– if that’s the word– the new album by Death Grips, called The Money Store. I’ve been nigh on obsessed with one track in particular, Hacker. This is partly because it totally blows my head off sonically and I wish I was young enough and still had the kind of friends who’d go with me to a place where I could get on the floor and go completely mental dancing to it. Seriously, everyone, stop breeding and choosing furniture and working all the time and shit. I want to go out.
It’s also because MC Ride/Stefan Burnett’s lyrics and rhymes make absolutely no sense whatsoever in a way that I find completely brilliant, evoking some kind of severely aphasic but still fully functional individual who’s cornered you at a bus stop and either doesn’t realise or simply doesn’t care that his conversation is like a jumbled up but somehow self-organising magnetic fridge poetry kit.
A sample of the lyrics to Hacker:
I got this pregnant snake
Stay surrounded by long hairs
A plethora of maniacs and spiral stairs
Make your water break in the Apple Store
Sink or swim, who fucking cares
Cut the birth cords, press send
Gaga can’t handle this shit
Headed for the Sammy Davis wing
Throw up a black hole at the entrance of Linens N Things on the way
Never call it a day
Visit Tesla’s grave for the ninth time today
Still on the way
Of course there’s nothing new about pop songs, avant garde musicians, and everywhere in between deploying incomprehensible non sequitur lyrics or sheer gibberish. In 1955 some people thought Little Richard singing “a-wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-wop-bam-boom” (or however one chooses to render whatever he’s actually singing there) represented some kind of musical götterdammerung. The admittedly inexplicable penchant of singers in the 1920s for the nonsense phrase “vo-do-de-o” caused consternation in certain quarters. I wouldn’t be surprised if over-the-hill Elizabethan parents plaintively asked their kids what “hey nonny-nonny” meant. Often the aim seems to be merely putting otherwise unrelated words and evocative phrases together in a reasonably plausible way that scans and / or rhymes. In that regard Beck and Sean Ryder both immediately come to mind in a generally entertaining way, possibly also David Bowie both for good and for bad, Jim Morrison’s faux poetry and Noel Gallagher’s pseudo-Beatlisms mostly in a bad way.
Readers are really welcome to correct me, but I feel as if the emergence of lyrical strategies that deliberately sound like mondegreens, malapropisms, algorithmically-generated spam, machine-translation mistakes and other paraphasias a la Death Grips is a relatively new and different thing, perhaps a thing that has been born of the internet. In any case, I like it. Let’s talk about Bad Lip Reading and St Sanders.
Why in the world did you treat me as if I didn’t understand trigonometry and tai chi?
While there’s a certain black humour (to me, anyway) in lines like “make your water break in the Apple Store”, I wouldn’t say in general that Death Grips are a barrel of laughs by any stretch of the imagination. The deliberately paraphasic jokes of the pseudonymous Bad Lip Reading are widely noted as always being musically superior and sometimes even lyrically superior to the musicians he makes fun of by completely replacing the soundtracks to their videos… although since these musicians include Nicky Minaj, Will.I.Am, Justin Bieber and James Blunt this is frankly not setting the bar very high. BLR’s undoubtedly impressive musical talent isn’t the main point, though. Turning squeaky clean manufactured pop stars and on-message politicians into bawdy puppets who say inappropriate things against their will is BLR’s aim, and the humour usually comes from the non sequitur, the malapropism, the random, and above all from a kind of English-t0-English soramimi. Here Miley Cyrus– to her great benefit– joins forces with Snoop Dogg to blaze up a blunt in her car and get pregnant…
Double bonus points for knowingly putting a gratuitous rap section into a pop song and a near-perfect impression of Snoop Dogg in the same video. Occasionally things like “dude so crazy, he trying to sell me hubcaps” or “please help me down from this swing” relate to absurdities in the original video, but lyrics like “Imma get dumb and bang a wizard” are pure (deliberate) paraphasia. If you’re new to BLR then Russian Unicorn, Gang Fight, Time to Rock and (deleted from BLR’s playlist but mirrored elsewhere) Dirty Spaceman are all recommended. It’s rumoured that Nicky Minaj took exception to the latter video, in which she is made to rap “I can tell I’m beginning to like Alejandro, he’s brave and dapper and NOT DRUNK, I loved his junk in high school, he’s like a big Swiss hand rapist.” If it’s true it must surely be because she knows in her heart that even in jest BLR’s babbling word salad parody of her is far more poetic and penetrating than anything she’s actually recorded.
Elm! BEEF! Elm! BEEF!
St Sanders is similar but predates BLR by several years, and he’s another very talented musician in his own right. St Sanders’ Van Halen, Queen, Marilyn Manson and Rolling Stones are genius, too. I suspect that him being Finnish helps to make these funnier. No, seriously, and it’s not because foreigners are funny merely for being foreigners. Scandinavians I’ve met abroad, while working in Sweden, and while I lived in Norway have usually been terrifyingly fluent in English as a second language, and yet still with enough of an outsider’s perspective to use English in incredibly playful, original, delightful and occasionally completely demented ways. If you don’t know any Scandinavians in person, just think about Björk and the way she speaks, writes lyrics and generally expresses herself. Not that anywhere in Scandinavia is a nation of Björks– that would be unbearable, wouldn’t it?– but just in terms of the connections she makes and the way she puts words together in ways that even the most fluent native speakers rarely do.
Or you could think of ABBA and their technically flawless but still occasionally wonky English, like “I was sick and tired of everything when I called you last night from Glasgow”: it’s grammatically, logically and semantically correct– it even uses the idiomatic, formulaic dyad “sick and tired” correctly– but this sentence is still not something a native speaker is likely to ever say, least of all somebody who’s actually in Glasgow, even if they’re sick and tired of everything.
When I was over there (in Scandinavia, not Glasgow) I found that as a native English speaker the proximity of Scandinavian languages to English and German also had the reverse effect. Sometimes it felt as if I’d become aphasic or dyslexic, when I saw signs for things like “car parkering.”