Friday, 15 July 2011

nuh-nuh

Children in England have a paralinguistic way of crowing ‘you can’t catch me’ and showing defiance or provocation. It is to sing ˈnɜːˈnɜːnəˈnɜːˈnɜː to this tune. (Midi sound clip here.)

The vowel may also be rather opener, ranging over or nɑː.

I don’t know of any established way of spelling this interjection, but nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh or na-na-na-na-na would perhaps do.

I have never seen any discussion of this item in the literature of paralanguage (but perhaps a reader knows better).

It was in my active repertoire when I was a child and — as far as I know — children in England still use it today. Is it also to be heard in other parts of the UK? And in north America and elsewhere? Is it international? Do French children and Japanese children do the same thing?

I raise this issue to celebrate my having at last learnt how to produce musical notation at will for the computer screen. (Some of you may have been familiar with this method for ages, but it is new to me.) The ABC system makes it very easy to write down the score you want. My source file for the above read simply
X:1reference number
L:1/16unit note length
K:Ckey
G3 E2A G3 E3tune body
Then free software converts it into standard musical notation and generates a sound clip. (I used the convenient facility on the concertina.net website.)

43 comments:

  1. German kids do it as well!
    And thanks for posting links to the musical notation tools. Must try them out.

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  2. And you can just say nɜː.

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  3. That tune was used again and again by my prissy cousins -or by me and my siblings when mocking them (Early seventies, Southern Spain). The spelling was ñaa-ña-ña-ñaa-ña (ñ= palatal nasal, I think its name is, and the vowel was very much like the one in "bag"). I haven't heard it live for years.

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  4. In the Netherlands children use the same tune, and say /nanananana/ or /nɑnɑnɑnɑnɑ/ or something in between. I had it in my active repertoire, and so did probably all of my classmates.

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  5. (Strictly you're in 12/8 rather than 4/4 :-))

    When I've written it I've gone for ner ner na ner ner (though it doesn't come up that often in my line of work).

    I think Americans say neener neener; at least, that's how Dave Barry writes it.

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  6. Like in Spain, we use the palatal nasal too (Serbia). I *think* we uses the tune as well, at least when I was a kid, but I can't be 100% sure.

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  7. English speakers in Australia can use the palatal nasal too - nyah nyah. How widespread is the tune? Does it always contain five nyahs? Is it a universal musical catchprhase?

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  8. In American English this is usually næː næ næ næː næ(ː) or ɲæː ɲæ ɲæ ɲæː ɲæ(ː). Sometimes with æ̃. Orthographically this is nyah nyah-nyah nyah nyah whether with ɲ or not. I've never heard or nɑː with this.

    Neener neener isn't used in America or at least not where I grew up; I've heard it used for European police sirens though.

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  9. It certainly has been worked into music, and the "answering" phrase somewhat offers itself, but I suspect this is secondary.

    A variant is, using the key above, G-G-A-A-G-(G)-E. Both often come with more text, too, don't they, starting with boy's-name-and-girl's-name or boy's-name-loves-girl's-name, or child's-name-is-stu-pid and the like.

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  10. In Slovenia: Same tune, but usually pronounced /njenenenene/. :)

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  11. I think in some versions the last two notes are different - F-sharp and D maybe?

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  12. Martin - Thanks for this. I did write it at first with 6/8 time, but that made the software put in bar lines, which didn't seem altogether appropriate. So I removed the M field entirely, with the 4/4 result you see. (I must learn more musical theory.)

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  13. Scottish kids say /na na na na na/ (with the same vowel as in 'hat').

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  14. Michael Everson and I are in complete agreement.

    I have never heard "neener-neener," though I have seen it written. It does put me in mind of sirens, too. I don't know what part of America - if any - "neener neener" hails from, and it clearly doesn't fit the melody. Perhaps it fits the shorter variant: "nyah-nyah" [ɲæː ɲæː], which corresponds to the first two (or last two) notes, but drawn out.

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  15. boy's-name-loves-girl's-name:

    Spanish children would say (more or less): "LIPman QUIE- (three middle pitched syllables) -re a (one, not two, high pitched syllable: -reá) LO- (one stretched middle-pitched syllable) -la (low-pitched)."
    That was "¡Lipman quiere a Lola!".

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  16. This looks like the variant I meant above. And ¡no es verdad!

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  17. On reflection I realize that in English too this melody can be used for teasing words, e.g.
    ˈJim's ˌgot a ˈgirlˌfriend!
    ˈMary's ˌgot her ˈhair ˌwet!

    - and the accents come on the first and fourth syllables.

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  18. @JW:

    Thanks for finding this tool! In the past I've used LilyPond (http://lilypond.org/) for such purposes, but this looks better for quick and dirty purposes.


    @Martin, @JW:

    It should actually be 12/16, not 12/8 or 4/4.


    @Dibcik, @Michael Everson:

    Surely not a true palatal nasal? That is not a sound in the inventories of most English speakers, and I would be surprised to hear it even in paralinguistic usage like this one. I would expect a cluster /nj/ instead.

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  19. In Denmark and Iceland children also use the same tune (I used it in Danish when I was a child and worked in a kindergarten in Reykjavík), both with low unrounded vowels – in Danish there seems to be free variation between [æ] and (centralised) [ɑ].

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  20. @vp: Oops, yes, 12/16. Whatever.

    Here's a canonical Dave Barry neener neener neener. I thought I remembered two neeners rather than three, but perhaps I'm wrong.

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  21. In Canada, we sang this all the time, usually with [æ]. I also remember:
    "[næ næ næ bu bu]
    You can't catch me!"
    (with "can't" stretched through both notes of beat 2.)

    @Professor Wells: if you're in 4:4, you need to get rid of those dotted quavers on beats 1, 2, and 3. They should instead be simple crotchets. On beat two, you need a dotted quaver on the E, and a semiquaver on the A.

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  22. I think I've heard the 'neener' version here in the U.S., but not nearly as much as the 'na na' version. I never used it much myself, although we did use that melody for teasing words pretty often. I'm surprised that it's so widespread - I'd never thought about it being used outside the States.

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  23. Oh yeah, in Denmark it's also common to sing "Du kan ikke fange mig" like that Canadian "you can't catch me"

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  24. confirming nedecky's comment. I grew up in multiple parts of Canada and this was in use everywhere, or at least, I used it everywhere I was and other kids understood me :)

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  25. Shemp Howard demonstrates the two-syllable version of this taunt in this video beginning around 4:35. Curiously, he says ɲæ: næ:, with the first "n" palatal and the second one alveolar.

    By the way, in contrast to Michael Everson and Amy Stoller, the spelling that is familiar to me is "nyaa" rather than "nyah." The latter would better represent ɲɑ: than ɲæ:.

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  26. John W

    in English too this melody can be used for teasing words, e.g.
    ˈJim's ˌgot a ˈgirlˌfriend!
    ˈMary's ˌgot her ˈhair ˌwet!


    And for the stanzaic:

    Cowardy, cowardy custard!
    You can't fight for mustard!

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  27. We can add Polish to the list too.

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  28. I don't think I've ever heard it in Danish, but the version in my head has six beats rather than just five, but I know too little to reproduce it.

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  29. "Research seems to indicate that this exact constellation of two notes [viz., a falling minor third] (and its three-note variant) is the same all over the world, wherever children tease each other, on every continent and in every culture" (Leonard Bernstein, The Unanswered Question, lecture 1, "Musical Phonology"; starting at 27:00 in this video). Bernstein returns to the example in lecture 3, "The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity" (at 08:45 in this video), where he attributes the prevalence of the pattern to its tonal ambiguity.

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    Replies
    1. Mexico uses a different melody for its taunt. Words: Lero, lero. Melody: AA G E, with quarter notes for the As and half notes for the G and E. As would be pick-up notes, with the 4/4 bar beginning on the G.

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  30. We used to say [næni næni buːbuː] where I grew up to the same tune.

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  31. Surely there must be some link with the very similar tune of the nursery rhyme "Bye Baby Bunting".

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  32. Yes, it's basically the same on the third instead of on the dominant.

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  33. For me the tunes are identical. E C-F E C.

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  34. As Lipman says. So the question is, are there multilingual versions of Bye Baby Bunting as there are of the taunting tune? Until they launch Google Melody Search, it's not easy to know.

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  35. There are several such search engines, eg melodycatcher, where I'm now going to try it. Here's a more comprehensive list. I suppose they're all not too strong on nursery rhymes of Albania or Papua New Guinea.

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  36. @ John Wells, I think the true palatal nasal as an allophone of nj does turn up, especially in the context of nasalized æ̃.

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  37. In France, the taunting goes :

    na-na-nèr-euh
    and there's also a longer version

    [na-na]-na-na-nèr-euh
    ...that ends the same as the shorter version.

    The notes are similar to the midi file on the blog entry, but in French, I'd personally have not 5 notes, but rather 6 (that can be shortened to the last 4 of them), since I would split the long initial note of the English tune and get a pair of short identical [na-na].

    The "nananère" spelling is wildly recognized and used (I had no trouble finding it in Wikipedia):

    http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanan%C3%A8re

    The vowel phonemes used are those of French words "patte", then "mère", then the French rounded schwa of the article "le".

    Jérôme Poirrier

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  38. A bit late, but I can report an analogous taunt from Korean which takes the form of the non-sense words 얼레리 꼴레리 /ʌl.le.ɾi k͈ol.le.ɾi/, repeated twice in the following tune:
    AAGA-AG-----
    EEDE-ED-----

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  39. In Sweden, children sing this melody as well, and just as in Denmark, they sing "du kan inte ta mig" (you can't catch me). A common song is one which begins: "Skvallerbytta bing bång/går i alla gårdar/slickar alla skålar" where "skvallerbytta" means 'someone who goes around telling secrets', and the last two lines go 'goes in all the houses, licking all the bowls'.

    I'm not sure how old that song is, but it's noteworthy that it would have rhymed originally: both "gård" and "skål" would in most Swedish dialects have been pronounced not with a voiced retroflex plosive ('retroflex d') as in modern-day Swedish, but with a retroflex flap, a so-called 'thick l'. I think it's probably safe to assign a 19th century date at the latest.

    As Swedish Wikipedia points out, the tune is also used in Robyn's "Do you really want me"...

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  40. I found this 5 years old blog post while I was trying to find out how universal this tune is. I just want to add that the same tune is also used by children here in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

    Maybe it emigrated with human beings from our origins in Africa and is the oldest tune in the world? :-)

    It would be fun to know if it is also used in Africa, Asia (Russia was confirmed, but other parts), Australia and South America. Research has probably been done (referred to in http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3HLqCHO08s around 27 minutes in), but it is kind of hard to search for research on a tune without a name, so I can't find any research. Anyone knows if the tune has a name used in research and what it is?

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  41. Not sure about the Korean example, but is there any relevance that all the rest are Indo-European offshoots? Are there any examples from China, Japan, or the like?

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