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Why We Sing "Fa La La" Instead of "Fra Spla Spla"

Gretchen McCulloch from All Things Linguistic asks why so many different languages use nonsense syllables such as fa la la.

By
Gretchen McCulloch, read by Mignon Fogarty ,
December 13, 2013
Episode #393

fa la la>

 

Deck the halls / with boughs of holly / fa la la la la / la la la la

Na na na na / na na na na / hey hey hey / goodbye

Wop bada lumop / a wam bam boom

Hickory dickory dock

Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding

High ho, high ho

What do all of these songs have in common? 

They’re all examples of musical nonsense syllables, the technical term for which is non-lexical vocables. Non-lexical, because they don’t have any sort of meaning that you could find in a dictionary or lexicon, and vocables, because they’re things you vocalize. (Lexical vocables, on the other hand, are more commonly known as “words,” although sometimes people call the non-lexical type just “vocables.”)

It’s tempting to ask where non-lexical vocables come from, but unfortunately that’s probably about the same as asking where language or music comes from. In fact, like children who babbles “mamamamama” as they’re learning to speak, it’s quite likely that we made meaningless, rhythmic sounds before we even had specific meanings associated with them, although we can’t know for sure. And if you’ve ever struggled to write a rhyme or to remember the lyrics to a song, you can understand the appeal in singing using low-pressure nonsense syllables, which probably explains why they stuck around even when we started associating words with meanings. 

Many Languages Have Nonsense Syllables

Non-lexical vocables are found in music from a wide variety of cultures and time periods, including Scottish mouth music, Saami joik, Appalachian eefing, Blackfoot chants and other Native American music, Inuit throat-singing, Jewish nigun, Mbenga-Mbuti music, Maldivian music, and others. In English, we have non-lexical vocables from Shakespeare, such as the song “Hey Nonny Nonny” in Much Ado About Nothing, all the way to scat, do-wop, and improvisational jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby McFerrin, and even to modern songs like “What Does the Fox Say?” 

Nonsense Syllables Do Show Patterns

Despite the fact that non-lexical vocables don’t have a particular meaning in themselves, there are a few general patterns that we can notice about them. 

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