Universality of Sing-Songing "I Know Something You Don't Know"?
November 22, 2004 7:57 PM   Subscribe

DiscourseAnalysisFilter: That I know something you don't know sing-song voice... how universal is that? Is it specific to North America? Do non-North American English-speaking kids know the tune for that phrase or others like "Iiiiii'm better than yoooouuuuu are" or "nyah nyah nyah nyah boo boo"? If not, is there another sing-song phrase they use for teasing? And how would one go about publishing their findings on such a question?
posted by heatherann to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I could swear I saw on some PBS show years ago that the tune you're describing is the one tune that is used and recognized across all known cultures. I wish I could think where I heard that, but I'm afraid it was too long ago so I can't verify it.
posted by cali at 8:19 PM on November 22, 2004

Back from one of my threads in the "Good ol' days of Metafilter" where all threads were joyous is this comment by yhbc:

I've actually done a lot of thinking about the "nyaah, nyaah" chant. Not to say anything bad about the post, Stan, but you left out a "nyaah" - the classic taunt always has five distinct "nyaah's". The article gets it right.

I remember hearing once that Chris Butler, of the Waitresses, wrote the unforgettable "I Know What Boys Like" specifically to use the familiar taunt; however, I think he got it wrong, too. The song, catchy as it is, has only one stressed syllable: Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah, NYAAH, nyaah. This works better for the song, because it's easier to repeatedly sing, but IMO the actual taunt has two distinct stresses, and the second and third syllables are joined together, as follows: NYAAH, nyaah-nyaah, NYAAH, nyaah. To my knowledge, this is a spontaneously-generated human chant that is instantly recognizable across cultures as a "childish, but spectacularly annoying, taunt", and cannot be traced back to any single author. Jung would have loved it.

In this respect, the taunt is similar to the also untraceable "air ball" chant that spontaneously erupts at basketball games, which Dave Barry noted always ends up being sung in perfect pitch - on the notes F and D.

And yes, this is the kind of stuff that gets real interesting late in the afternoon after you've been writing By-Laws all day.

posted by Stan Chin at 8:20 PM on November 22, 2004

Most everything I've turned up is useless, but this page has a midi of the tune.
posted by quasistoic at 9:04 PM on November 22, 2004

cali, PBS was probably quoting Charles Ives. Unfortunately, I can't find a link to anything on the web. I do have a ditto from high school of one of his articles, but that isn't exactly authoritative. It was something to the effect of the 'nyah nyah' taunt being the only universal tune.

I didn't hear it when I lived in India. Perhaps my fellow students were too polite to taunt the silly USian exchange student.

As for publishing, I'd think a lit search would be the first step. Ask your local academic reference librarian. UT (if that is where you are, heatherann) has some excellent ones.
posted by QIbHom at 9:39 PM on November 22, 2004

For what it's worth, Stravinsky's Les Noces has what I've called the "Universal Mocking Song". That's 1923, although I bet it goes back many decades before that. That's the earliest reference I have for it. I do not have any leads on its connotation in this example with regard to Russian cultural history.

On a side note, he set it as "nah-nah nahhh,nah-nah nahhh" (one-and two,one-and two)
posted by mblandi at 9:40 PM on November 22, 2004

I suspect its universality is an urban legend. I don't remember ever hearing this taunt growing up in Mexico. Children do taunt and they do do it in a sign-songy way but the melody and rhythm always seemed to vary.

I think it might be a more recent cultural thing confined to English though I don't know the origin. Probably the musical equivalent of a nursery rhyme.
posted by vacapinta at 9:52 PM on November 22, 2004

After hitting post, one taunt did suddenly come back into my head. It goes: nah-nah nah-NAH-nah. As in: juan es un TONto.

But I still think its just children riffing on a few basic notes.
posted by vacapinta at 9:57 PM on November 22, 2004

mblandi, isn't Ring Around The Rosy sung to the same tune? In which case it would go back to the Middle Ages at least.
posted by cali at 10:21 PM on November 22, 2004

Best answer: I join the chorus of those who claim to vaguely recall hearing somewhere that the Nyeah-Nyeah Song is universal.

I once worked with a man who knew the song from his own childhood in Jordan. As he sang it, he made a gesture with two hands: left hand palm-up with the right hand curled into a fist and resting on it (like the stone in roh-sham-po); the fist hand makes a small circle on the left palm. When I asked my friend what this gesture meant, he looked incredulous that I didn't know. "It's for kids, you know," he said. "I'm stirring something that you don't have."
posted by squirrel at 10:51 PM on November 22, 2004 [1 favorite]

If you're thinking "Ring Around the Rosy" goes back to the Middle Ages because of the Black Plague and all that crap, then have I got a myth-buster for you. It's false.

Do not accept received wisdom at face value.
posted by Mo Nickels at 2:56 AM on November 23, 2004

Best answer: Do non-North American English-speaking kids know the tune for that phrase

Yup, in UK at least. The tune is also found in the following, where each line is a single rendition of the tune (i.e. the tune is repeated four times). The syncopation is a little complex, but I have put the approximate on-beat in bold, where this corresponds to:

nah nah nah nah nah:

It's raining, it's pouring,
The old man is snoring,
He went to bed and bumped his head,
And couldn't get up in the morning.

Great q, btw.
posted by carter at 6:57 AM on November 23, 2004

My Japanese colleagues concur that they have no idea what I'm talking about when I ask this question, so it does not appear to be common in Japan.
posted by Bugbread at 9:17 AM on November 23, 2004

Best answer: > It's raining, it's pouring,


A tisket a tasket
A green and yellow basket,
I wrote a letter to my love
And on the way I dropped it.

I dropped it, I dropped it
And on the way I dropped it.
A little girlie picked it up
And put it in her pocket.
posted by jfuller at 11:19 AM on November 23, 2004

bugread: in Okinawa, children sometimes use "a kam be" as a singsongy taunt. It doesn't have the same rhythm, and I'm not sure if this happens elsewhere in Japan.
posted by jeffmshaw at 11:39 AM on November 23, 2004

i just asked a colleague who says "nah na-na nah nah" (my version of what i think we're discussing) is common in chile (as i was surprised by vacapinta's comment, although i agree there's little reason for it to be completely universal).
posted by andrew cooke at 1:21 PM on November 23, 2004

Jeffmshaw: "Akan be" is pretty darn universal in Japan. It's accompanied by pulling down on one lower eyelid, which I think is pretty damn cool. Different rhythm and melody than "nanny nanny boo-boo, stick your head in doo-doo" / "ring around the rosie" / "A tisket a tasket" / "Naah nah nah naah nah".
posted by Bugbread at 3:27 PM on November 23, 2004

Response by poster: I started wondering about it a few weeks ago, because my Discourse Analysis class this term has gotten me to wondering about tons of things like this, and then I asked one of my coworkers (from Guyana) if she knew this tune, and she said she didn't. However, I think I asked by singing "I know something you don't know," maybe I should have just sang the tune.

So, yes for Chile, Jordan, the UK, Canada, the USA, and Mexico, questionable for Russia, Guyana, and India, and no for Japan. Since European culture spread to all of those places except Japan (until much later), could it be a European (British? Spanish?) thing that got imported elsewhere?

Very interesting that it matches "ring around the rosie" and "a tisket a tasket," I hadn't thought of that at all.
posted by heatherann at 7:25 PM on November 23, 2004

Vacapinta, doesn't "lero-lero" sound like "nyah nyah - nyah nyah"?
posted by golo at 7:43 AM on November 25, 2004

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