Playing with nonsense is important to language learning, critical thinking and creativity...aside from just being so much fun!
Whether playing with nonsense words (as in Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky) or nonsense ideas, places, and things (Edward Lear's The Owl and the Pussycat or Dr. Seuss' The Lorax), the author invites the reader to:
- play with language - in terms of phonics and vocabulary;
- play with language - in terms of allegory, and metaphor;
- play with concepts - considering greater depth, inference, detail, fun and surprises as they pop up in the reading journey; and
- play with reading making it more active and interactive as author and reader play with words, sounds, and sentence structure.
Shakespeare, Carroll, Lear, Dr. Seuss are just a few authors well-known for their integrating nonsense words, verse, and ideas in their writing.
Shakespeare created his 'words' combining alliteration, onomatopoeia, and word play as he took two unrelated words and combined them to express some often-foul-filled image such as "boil-brained" to create a new, scathing curse or slam [Here is a link to create your own slams from Shakespeare's word lexicon].
Lewis Carroll used nonsense words to play with the sound and structure of language. He also integrated sound, onomatopoeia, illusion and alliteration and, in the case of Jabberwocky, was more inventive in terms of words /word choices (go to: for complete text):
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Yet, even with Carroll's truly nonsensical words, given their use and placement in the sentence, the reader can create an image and story. And upon closer examination, many of the nonsensical words are quite similar to ones we might substitute. "Gyre" alludes to gyrate, and "mimsy" is close to whimsy, and whether intentional or not, the reader has fun actively constructing his or her own sense of meaning and intent.
Edward Lear, a third English author also integrated nonsense words with nonsense ideas (an owl marrying a pussycat, and the important thing is a ring?) in his works, often in limericks and songs that he asserted were "nonsense, pure and absolute." His best known songs are probably The Owl and the Pussy-Cat and "The Daddy-Long-Legs and the Fly." [For more, visit Edward Lear Home Page. ]
Owl and the Pussy-Cat Verse II
Pussy said to the Owl, 'You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married!too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.
The Daddy Long-legs and the Fly - Verse 1
Once Mr. Daddy Long-legs,
Dressed in brown and gray,
Walked about upon the sands
Upon a summer's day;
And there among the pebbles,
When the wind was rather cold,
He met with Mr. Floppy Fly,
Add dressed in blue and gold.
And as it was too soon to dine,
They drank some Periwinkle-wine,
And played an hour or two, or more,
At battlecock and shuttledore.
Dr. Seuss' nonsense words were both like Shakespeare's in combining two unrelated words to create a third, and like Lear's and Carroll's in their play on sound, language, and sentence structure (as seen in Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please go Now):
Marvin K. Mooney will you please go now!...
You can go On a Zike-Bike
If you like....
You can go in Crunk-Car
If you wish...
You might like going in a Zumble Zay...
You can go by bumble-boat...or jet
I don't care how you go. Just get!
[For those of you who love political satire, here's a link to Dr. Seuss' play with political satire - as he sent a copy of Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! text to columnist Art Buchwald in July, 1974, with Marvin K. Mooney crossed out and Richard K. Nixon plugged in "Richard M. Nixon Will You Please Go Now!"]
"NONSENSE" in these instances in not nonsense at all - it is, in fact WORD-PLAY and we should be encouraging this with our kids as they learn to read, write, create, and express themselves.
Lanaguage: Playing with nonsense words in rhyme, as Dr. Seuss does, allows young readers and language learners to:
- play with long and short vowel sounds;
- play with consonants, and consonant blends;
- play and experiment with sentence structure (using this along with mapping is integral for verbal and written expression)
- play with vocabualry, alliteration, onomatopoeia (Do you like the "piano tuna" ...create your own with your child!)
Critical thinking: Dr. Seuss, Edward Lear, nursery rhymes and fables all encourage children and readers in general to:
- compare and contrast to distinguish the 'real-life' from the fantastical fantasy.
- infer - gaining greater understanding and expertise with metaphor, allegory, double/multiple meanings;
- brainstorm and imagine our natural world not just for what it is, but for what it could be or might be.
- create - seeing and reading famous works about nonsensical characters, animals, and places encourages young writers to create their own worlds, to learn to exaggerate, to create and to express humor and metaphor. [Like this greeting "WHISK"ing you a Happy Valentine's Day!...make your own!]
But the most important thing, is that this kind of word play is fun, it is engaging, it creates multiple memory paths and it is incredibly interactive. So have fun with nonsense. Read some of the masters' works and create your own.
In closing - here is a ditty my daughter wrote when she was young - her take on "Oowey Goowey":
My daughter's version:Oowey Goowey was a worm,A gooey worm was he.He sat upon the railroad tracksThe train he did not see....
OOwey goowey was a slug
He was slimy and fat
He crawled upon the railroad tracks...
Chugga, chugga SPLATT!
Please leave some of your fun, nonsensical ideas in the comments so we can all laugh and enjoy!