That’s not even English! Stories and examples of music’s invented languages
Sure we’re all familiar with scatting and beatboxing, even Do Re Me- common aspects of music that typically act as space holders or rhythm-keepers in popular music. But what about the few brave souls who venture to make their own language, or at least sing their songs in entirety of made-up syllables? It turns out there’s actually a story behind non-lexical vocals in music. It all started with a mystic nun, go figure. Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a popular medieval composer who created roughly 70 compositions. She was a busy gal. Along with various miracles, visions, scientific writings, the usual set of talents, she took the time to develop an alternate Latin alphabet. Why she did this isn’t really known. Some think it was a way to increase solidarity among her nuns. While her language and her songs rarely intersected we know of one piece, O Orzchis Ecclesia, which contains several of her invented words.
Ok, so maybe that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it turns out that these languages are actually much more prevalent in our lives than you would think. Irish singer, Enya, with her ethereal Celtic vocals recorded songs for The Lord of the Rings soundtrack in the Elvish language created by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Check out “May It Be” and sing along to the chorus:
Mornie utulie (Darkness has come)
Believe and you will find your way
Mornie alantie (Darkness has fallen)
A promise lives within you now
Or a song featuring even more of the language: “Aniron"
O mor henion i dhu:
Ely siriar, el sila
Ai! Aniron Undomiel
Tiro! el eria e mor
I 'lir en el luitha 'uren.
Let’s kick it up a notch with the French new-wave band Ekvoa. They are all about made up languages. Their singer, Dierdre Dubois, who originated the name, details the story behind the concept: "Its roots are in echo, and ova, signifying the feminine side. But it's not supposed to have a literal meaning, just a beautiful sound. I wanted a word I'd never heard before.” They take their word play seriously; literally all of their songs are a conglomeration of syllables and sounds. Check out “Siip Siie"
Maybe this is all a bit too gentle for your taste and you’re searching for a little nonsensical suspense. Good thing there’s Magma!
Honestly, something about their video seems like a Saturday Night Live sketch but the story of how they came about using their language is surprisingly well documented. Most of their lyrics are sung in Kobaïan which was developed by the band’s drummer Christian Vander. Vander describes it as a "phonetic language made by elements of the Slavonic and Germanic languages to be able to express some things musically. The language has of course a content, but not word by word.” This tongue has been ascribed to convey the feelings of residents of a planet who are ever at odds with Earthlings…totally normal.
But if you’re looking for something to actually put on your iPod then let’s talk about Sigur Ros.
Sigur Rós is by far dedicated to their craft, naming their language Vonlenska. The English translation means Hopelandic. Often times these tongues will make their way into many of the bands songs, adding to their mystical feel, but in 2002 they dedicated an entire album ( ) [yes that’s the name of the album, think “artist formally known as Prince”] to their language. The band’s page discusses their story, which makes more sense than you’d expect.
All of the vocals on ( ) are in hopelandic. hopelandic (vonlenska in icelandic) is the 'invented language' in which jónsi sings before lyrics are written to the vocals. it's of course not an actual language by definition (no vocabulary, grammar, etc.), it's rather a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument. Jónsi likens it with what singers sometimes do when they've decided on the melody but haven't written the lyrics yet. Many languages were considered to be used on ( ), including English, but they decided on hopelandic. hopelandic (vonlenska) got its name from first song which jónsi sang it on, hope (von). tracks 7-9 on takk are in hopelandic.”
Get a feel for it by listening to Untitled 8 from the ( ) album. What? Did you expect them to name their songs too? (PS Start at 1:51 for vocals)
Believe it or not the list goes on of the numerous artists who use these sorts of lyrical techniques to create a dreamy effect. Cocteau Twins are one example. The fact that some even dedicate their time to creating full languages in which devoted fans create glossaries and dictionaries is fascinating. Does singing in tongues take away from the value of lyrics, or does it add a new dimension to the art? But hey, since its been around since the 12 century, its gotta be pretty cool!