Because there’s no jam!

Even if I were a real linguist I would still abhor fine-tuning X-Bar grammar or Optimality Theory or any other highly formalised framework relying instead on gut feeling and common sense. And I sure wouldn’t focus on written language (you see, even today there’s a written language bias in academic linguistics), as a lot of things which interest me a great deal are only rarely committed to paper.

You’ve probably noticed my fixation with profanity. After all, if I get any traffic, it’s mostly people who want to know what “kurwa mać” means in English. But there’s a couple more things some people forget about when thinking about languages and cultures.

One of them is the language and culture of playgrounds, kindergardens and elementary schools. Children play a lot, and what they play quite often involves a sort of language game. You know, nursery rhymes, counting out games and the like. If you look at them more closely there’s quite a lot of interesting stuff – first everyone knows them, second they’re transmitted almost exclusively orally, not formally learnt, yet they don’t change much from generation to generation, third – the Polish ones (and I infer that the others as well) contain a lot of ‘nonsense’ vocabulary which may not be that nonsense at all, but a corrupted borrowing from old-fashioned slang, cant, or language of itinerant people like Romani. To wit: “Ene due like fake torba borba ósme smake deus deus kosmateus i morele baks”

The reason I’m writing this longish piece is that I want to share a kind of silly childish language game with you. See, when I was in kindergarden or elementary school we had this way of answering questions we thought annoying or boring with rude (sometimes vulgar) rhyming replies. I think these are quite stable across Poland, but I may be wrong.


Kogo? “whom?”  is answered with – Misia Gogo “Gogo the Bear”

Actually the trick was to ask somebody Znasz go? “Do you know him?” or Widziałeś go? “Have you seen him?” in hope that he or she wouldn’t know whom do you mean and ask back Kogo? “whom?” which would give you opportunity to say Misia Gogo

Co? “what?” – pstro “spottedly/colourfully” or jajco/jajeczko “egg/small egg (or testicle)”  or just gówno “shit”
Czego? “what (do you want)? – gówna psiego “(a bit of) dog shit”
Czemu? “why?” – Bo nie ma dżemu “because there’s no jam”
Która godzina? “what’s the time?” – Wpół do komina “half to chimney”

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  • Josh  On August 27, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Like the blog.
    How far into Thackston’s Sorani grammar did you get? I really like his set-up. Grammar, readings, lexicon = works really well for me.

    • peterlin  On August 27, 2009 at 6:44 pm

      Thanks. I’ve just googled your email and found your blogs. Will probably spend the rest of this evening reading through them – they both look extremely interesting!

      As for Sorani – my notes end at §20 but I’m sure I went a bit further. Not that I remember anything. But yeah, this is one of my favourite set-ups for a teach-a-language book. My first pick, though, would be Aronson’s Georgian Grammar – very demanding and detailed. I can’t say either worked for me, though – I’m quite ashamed to admit, that, despite all those years spent trying to teach myself this and that, the only languages I know at a useful level are those I took at least some formal classes in. Oh, and Russian, but that doesn’t count.

  • tedsz  On December 31, 2009 at 12:14 am

    “Ene due like fake torba borba ósme smake deus deus kosmateus i morele baks”

    Perhaps it is worth analyzing what this Polish nursery rhyme means. As you pointed out it seems to be “corrupted borrowing” of slang and word in various languages.
    “Ene Due” seems like straight forward “one two” from Italian uno due.
    “Like Fake” an obvious English lick her, fuck her in the most simplistic phonetic capture.
    “torba borba” is a mixture of Polish and Russian: torba a handbag and bobra mean struggle, so perhaps a “bag fight”
    “ósme smake” this again seems like a mix of Polish and English where “ósme” stands for number eight as in “action eight” and “smake” is phonetic “smack her”
    Deus, deus kosmateus seems like latin and some polish paraphrasing resulting in “god, god, devil”
    morele baks, actually often were chanted as “morele bums” which fit better the overall theme of this rhyme and refer to “peach bums” probably referring to the shape of the peach.

    I do not know the origins of this rhyme but it seems it had its roots (pun intended) in some English adult game, captured phonetically by kids unopposed by adults due to lack of knowledge of English in Poland.

    Tak naprawdę to może warto wiedzieć co te dziecięce wyliczanki znaczyły:
    Ene Due: jeden dwa (z włoskiego: Uno due)
    Like fake: liż ją, pier dol ją (z angielskiego lick her, fu ck her)
    torba borba borba – z ruskiego “walka”, wiec torba borba to walka na torebki.
    ósme smacke – po ósme uderz ja, albo daj jej klapsa (z angielskiego: smack her)
    Deus deus kosmateus: Bóg, Bóg, diabeł, a może: boże, boże, diable
    a morele baks: Okazuje się że w wielu wypadkach linia “morele baks”, była recytowana jaka “morele bums”, które bardziej pasuje to całego charakteru tej wyliczanki, z angielskiego “morelowe pupy” pewnie nawiązujące do kształtu

    Nie wiem jak ta wylicznka powstała, ale brzmi jak by była orginalnie jakąś zabawą dla dorosłych, która została przejęta przez dzieci bez przeciwów z braku zrozumienia angielskich slów w Polsce.

    • peterlin  On December 31, 2009 at 7:23 am


      Thanks for the comment. Your “translation” seems interesting but not very convincing. Particularly the “English” parts – the rhyme is old, older than me surely, and I guess at that time English just didn’t have high enough profile to be widely known (esp. off-color vocabulary! btw, most versions have “rike fake” not “like…”). It came to be the default foreign language only in the recent 30 years or so.

      Your version would be plausible only if we knew that the rhyme originated or at least is first attested among the Polish emigres in a English-speaking country and then somehow was transferred back to Poland (right after WWII perhaps). Except we don’t know if it was so, so we can’t really assume English was a source.

      All in all, Yiddish, regional varieties of German, Romani, thieves’ cants of various sorts seem a much more likely source of inspiration. And anyway, I am not sure if tracing the sources is even possible.

      How would you interpret “ene due rabe…” or “anse kabanse flooore…”?

  • tedsz  On December 31, 2009 at 9:04 am

    In 1992 there was a polish movie was called “Ene… due… like… fake…”. I have never heard of “rike”.

    The English sounding terms are uncanny. They are placed to rhyme and thus form a tied entity. English was not unknown in pre World War II Poland. It was thought in high schools. Plus, I am not sure, if there is a lot of historical influences in this particular rhyme. Poland had strong linguistic influences for many centuries from either friends or foes and yet you do not hear a lot of nursery rhymes with strong German, Russian, French or Italian (going back in chronological order). These were far more dominating influences than gypsies’ Romany language. Yiddish? Perhaps, but I do not know a single word in Yiddish.

    It would be interesting to find origins of this ever popular nursery rhyme.

  • tedsz  On January 3, 2010 at 1:01 am

    It is interesting you have mentioned “Ance kabance flore. O ma de o ma de o ma deo deo riki tiki deo deo riki tiki łan tu fri! sto dwadzieścia trzy i wypadasz ty”. Please note the “łan two tri – one two three” component. Again, clearly borrowed from English disproving your theory about usage of English in these rhymes. With exception of obvious “O ma de o ma de o ma deo” – oh my, oh my, oh my god, the rest is gibberish to me. However, in this case I would look at Romany language as “Riki Tiki” may have some hindu references (tiki for example sounds like “pinned” or so do my hindu friends tell me)

    • peterlin  On January 3, 2010 at 7:08 am

      Hello again,

      I don’t have “a theory” about nursery rhymes in general and English as their source in particular. All I’m saying is that I don’t think we can be able to find the origin by “oh it sounds like X to me” principle. No, that’s not very convincing to me. I remain skeptical.

      I don’t deny the “łan tu fri” part is English, just as “ene due” is Italic/Romance in origin (don’t know which particular Romance language – some Italian dialect perhaps?)

      As for the outside influences, what you listed chronologically concerns influences on standard literary Polish. The point is, the “gibberish” nursery rhymes (as opposed to nursery rhymes written in Polish as poems for children) have been passed down orally and belong to a sub-standard “backyard Polish”. The only theory I have with reference to this, is that perhaps the pattern of outside influences in the nursery rhymes lingo would be similar to the pattern of outside influences in thieves’ cant (grypsera) and other ‘secret’ unwritten sub-standard jargons. There, AFAIK, the strongest influences are Russian (standard and sub-standard) and Yiddish, but occasionally even an Oriental borrowing pops-up.

      In any case, many of the words may be just nonce creations – meaningless, vaguely foreign-sounding words created on the spot.

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