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.

Guest Post

Guest Post: Christmas Around The World


Today’s post is from Christina at Chrikaru. Christina is a special friend. We are bookshelf-twins, and equally obsessed with getting our hands on every book available. Christina’s other interest is language-learning. Her blog is filled with fantastic multi-lingual flash-cards. She speaks four languages fluently, and is learning four others. Her talent has taken her to other countries, and she has spent Christmas around the world. She has shared her experiences of other customs and traditions. A HUGE thank-you Christina, and it is lovely to welcome you to my blog. birdVietnam

This was my first Christmas overseas and away from my family – I was pretty young and me and my roommate had to work as Christmas day is not a holiday in Vietnam. My roommate’s dad and my brother came out to visit us, bringing the essential supplies of crisps and chocolate. Christmas dinner was local crabs and noodle soup, eaten on a rush mat on the floor of our tiny room, followed by a sing-along with several hundred of our students at the university. Bizarre but unique experience!


Cpost1Christmas back home is a three day celebration. Christmas Eve is spent driving around visiting the extended family, drinking lots of tea, catching up and exchanging gifts. Most years we also went to our church for mince pies, carols and midnight service. Presents from friends and extended family go under the tree straight away, but presents for the immediate family are a bit different. Our family tradition is to conceal them in our rooms, then each member of the family has to sneak downstairs and put them under the tree…all without being caught of course! Christmas Day was always Mum, Dad, my brother and me. The day usually starts with getting stockings from the end of bed, then us all coming downstairs and having breakfast (parents are both diabetic so this is an essential!). My job has always been to sort the presents into piles for each person, then we start opening them. My dad usually likes to read the paper in the morning so I normally have to chivvy him to actually open his gifts! After that we all go for a long walk. When we were younger we used to go to a Christmas morning service too. Then a light lunch before the cooking of Christmas dinner begins in earnest. As a kid I always felt very grown up at Christmas because it was my job to get our special tablecloth out and set the table. The tablecloth started off as a plain white linen one, then my mum embroidered it over the years to commemorate special events e.g. when each child was born, trips overseas, etc. It’s lovely to reminisce about these every year at Christmas! Boxing Day is always spent with my sister and her family – usually we go to her house, exchange gifts and have a second Christmas dinner! On the 27th, most years, my family would host a party at our house when anyone was welcome – a chance for me to see my friends before the New Year and to catch up with people that we hadn’t managed to see before Christmas. Is this very different from your traditions?


cpost2I was an exchange student in Japan for a year and celebrated Christmas with a mixture of students from all over the world. It was weird having to go to class on Christmas morning! After that each student cooked a dish from their home country to bring to a party, then we shared Christmas traditions from around the world. This still ranks as one of the achievements I am most proud of – cooking a roast dinner in a portable oven about the size of a small toaster! Strangely for me, Christmas Eve is a much bigger deal than Christmas in Japan – it is seen as a romantic day so you often see couples out and about on Christmas Eve. The second Christmas I spent in Japan was with my boyfriend and we spent the day eating lots of amazing Japanese food and playing in the snow!


Despite being an exchange student in Italy for 5 months, unfortunately I wasn’t there for Christmas. I would really love to spend Christmas there one year, particularly as I love all the stories that surround the holiday there – Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) might bring some presents but the main gift-giving occurs on the Epiphany when La Befana ( a witch) brings presents to children.


I spent 4 Christmases in China. Christmas Eve is much more popular but Christmas Day is a normal working day for most people. In my first year I went to work, then to have burgers with a group of my work colleagues! In the second year, we clubbed together with a group of expat to cook a Christmas dinner in my favourite café, fittingly called the Bookworm (a lending library and restaurant completely walled with books!) In the third year and fourth year my work organised a Christmas party and Christmas Day was a quiet one at home with friends. It felt quite odd as most people in China didn’t even really seem to be aware that it is a special day for anyone. In the four years I spent there I did begin to see a change though; every year the number of shops or businesses with Christmas decorations up increased.

Now I’m back living in the U.K.. This year I am spending Christmas with my partner’s family in Austria where they take Christmas very seriously – so excited to find out some new Christmas traditions! How are you planning to spend Christmas this year? Do your family have any traditions they follow? Would love to hear your thoughts!