Nonsense Language in Children’s Fiction


51-yvglu2bolI had a spare hour in London, and found myself in the Tate Modern Bookshop. As you do. They have the most wonderful selection of picture books, chosen for artistic merit. One which is now top of my wishlist is Du Iz Tak? It features a series of vignettes about the lives of insects. A grasshopper plays the violin. A spider builds a nest. The insects talk to each other in dialogue. What makes this book remarkable, aside from its illustations, is that the insects talk in a nonsense language. 

Du Iz Tak? 

What is that? 

How is it possible that we know what those insects are saying. Visual information provides us with context, but even without those images, most people would come to the same conclusion. This is about language conventions. It is the same formula which makes Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky so appealing. We know which words represent nouns, which represent adjectives. Slithy – adjective. Wabe – noun. gyre – verb. Gimble? You get the jist. 

Isn’t every word, after all, a made up word? 

Here are some examples of made-up language in children’s literature and culture:


Perhaps the most famous example of nonsense language in children’s culture, The Jabberwocky tells the story of a young knight who goes out on a quest to slay the fearsome Jabberwock. 


Edward Lear:

A runcible spoon is a three-pronged fork which curves like a spoon, but this is not thought to be what Lear had in mind when he wrote The Owl And The Pussycat. The world ‘runcible’ appears in different contexts throughout his work. 



Eh-oh! This simple greeting caused outrage when the Teletubbies hit our screens in the mid-90s. Children would imitate it! They might never learn to speak! It was infantile! Guess what? The programme was aimed at children who spoke in babble, and a word, after all is a sound which denotes meaning. 


The Sims:

The Sims was at peak-popularity when I was 12 or 13. A school-friend and I spent a happy year getting hyper over Sim language. Whole websites are dedicated to translating Sim language, presumably so you can understand phrases like ‘why did I let the fireworks off indoors?’ or ‘I swear this pool had steps two minutes ago’. 




Furbies – first generation, 90s-kid Furbies – were programmed to begin life speaking entirely in Furbish, and gradually learn the chosen language as they worked through their electronic cycle. The adverts promised children that Furbies were clever creatures who learned via imitation. Happy hours were spent by circles of preteens swearing and their Furbies, and listening with bated breath for imitation. (Our childhoods were simple but fulfilling, folks.)  Unfortunately, the same promise caused people to think Furbies were picking up language, and they were actually banned by American intelligence agencies. Really? Toys which spy on their owners? Not back in 1999 … 


Louise Nettleton

Du Iz Tak is published by Walker Books UK.


4 thoughts on “Nonsense Language in Children’s Fiction

    1. That sounds fascinating! I’m not a linguist but I find language conventions interesting, and literature is a wonderful way in. 🙂 I love The Sims too, although I’ve not played in a couple of years.


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