Monday 25 July 2011

nuh-nuh (3)

In response to the postings about the taunting tune there has been no one from China, Japan or Korea who acknowledges it as a tune used by children in those countries in the way it is used in Europe. Bernstein claimed it was universal, found in all cultures; but perhaps he was wrong.

From Japan, Masaki Taniguchi writes
I have been thinking about the teasing melody for a week. I have traced my memory of childhood. Now I clearly remember a teasing melody that my friends and I used to use in the early 1960's, which went |so so mi mi | so mi mi |. I also remember two versions of lyrics to go with this melody…
I have just contacted my childhood friend who used to live in the same town in Nagasaki Prefecture. He says that he vaguely remembers such a melody. He also says that today bullying is considered very inhumane and probably such a song has disappeared.
Nobody else that I have asked knows or remembers such a melody. I have asked a professor of music, and he recommended another who, he said, would be knowledgeable in such matters. I asked her, but she said she knew nothing of the sort, except for /ja:i ja:i/ (pitch: HL HL). This, I am sure, is known to all Japanese. It is certainly used for teasing.
I have also conducted a small survey. In a class with 12 students, I sang the melody you introduced in your blog, using the sounds used there, and told them that it was used among English children. I asked them what kind of impression they perceived and what kind of feeling they thought children would mean to express. Out of the 12, seven said it sounded "lively", four said, "teasing", and one said it sounded like a "lullaby". After that, I showed them your blog and we discussed it.

I think this negative evidence is important, because it tends to show that the claim of universality is false.

Meanwhile, from England, Jill House confirms that the phenomenon is extensively discussed in Mark Liberman’s 1978 dissertation ‘The intonational system of English’ (Indiana University Linguistics Club). She also points out that the tune underlies not only ‘Bye baby bunting’ but also the song for the children’s game ‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses’. That’s true for the version I sang as a child, but — as Wikipedia reveals — there are or were other variants of the tune which differ.
Anyhow, thanks to all correspondents.


  1. I'm from Chile and I've always heard this melody in foreign movies or TV. I don't feel it as native from my country. I'm not sure about the rest of Latinamerica. Maybe it's used everyday in Mexico.

  2. Hi, I realise I'm rather late to this discussion, but in case anyone's interested, the original tune is also very widespread here in Singapore, perhaps due to all the Western influences. I also definitely recall hearing it in a Chinese-language cartoon, most likely from China/Japan.

    Also, /na/ and /la/ (or some hybrid thereof) seem to be used interchangeably here, with a open front vowel. The rhythm is also slightly simpler than originally given, i.e. G1 G1 E1 A1 G2 E2, repeated ad infinitum.

  3. We always sang "Ring Around the Rosie". The Wiki article does mention that title, but I wonder if it is a British/American difference.

  4. Ring Around a Rosy here (NYC, early 1960s). That rosy didn't rhyme with posies didn't bother us at the time.

  5. I am South Korean. So I may contribute to the discussion. I don't think I can easily agree with the universality of the taunting tune. However as to the possibility of the similarity, might be yes.

    In Korean childhood, this is the equivalent expression, '얼레리 꼴레리 in Korean alphabet' 'ulleli koleli'.

    A point worthy of noting is the usage of the expression. In Korean culture, 'ulleli koleli' is normally used in trying to teasing friends most suitably in the situation where children like to humiliate a boy or girl saying the two ikes each other in secrecy. Overall its context is related to the humiliation, mockery and the leg pulling of the targeted children.

    Concerning the melody and rhythem, though I am not a very musical person, it feels to have somewhat considerable similarity to the nuh-nuh tune.

    You can listen to the youtube listing here.
    the first part is the exact tune and the following is the variation of it.

  6. In this discussion, I notice a potential area of confusion that may skew analysis. When we talk of "taunting", we must be sensitive to different cultural attitudes.

    If we're speaking about China, Japan and Korea as a lump, I note that confuscianist moral principles are widespread in those cultures. In such cultures, social hierarchy and order tends to be more important (in comparison to the individualism seen in Europe and North America) and proper respect to others is paramount. So "taunting" (as in hurting others) may be seen as a highly intolerable act. On the other hand, if we define "taunting" as synonymous with mere friendly teasing, then it may not qualify as "taunting" to some. When we use the word "taunting", we should think of a broader spectrum of childish behaviour that accomodates more cooperative societies where, surely, friendly teasing nonetheless must exist.

  7. Ah, yes, of course, it's the tune in 'Ring a ring of roses'. But I'm sure it's now independent of it, and many people here (Singapore) would know the teasing/taunting tune without necessarily knowing the tune for the nursery rhyme. I'm intrigued about the Chinese cartoon mentioned by Yu Han above because I can't imagine fitting Chinese words into the tune.

  8. I think there really ought to be a standardised English spelling of this taunt. I would instinctively use "nur" (being a non-rhotic speaker) but there are other possibilities including your "nuh". It is surely only a matter of time until it gets used on the floor of the House of Commons, at which point Hansard will have to come up with a transcription, which the OED can then quote as attestation. Frankly I'm half surprised it hasn't happened already.

  9. Ah, I see that "ner" is attested in the Grauniad - see end of first para.

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