How Sid Caesar Learned Double-Talk

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Feb. 14 2014 9:47 AM

How Sid Caesar Learned Double-Talk

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The great Sid Caesar in 2006.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The obituaries for the great comic Sid Caesar invariably mention his proficiency in "double-talk," mimicking the sounds (but not the sense) of foreign languages. It turns out that this was a talent Caesar had cultivated ever since he was a boy clearing tables at his father's restaurant in multi-ethnic Yonkers.

The New York Times:

He could seem eloquent even when his words were total gibberish: Among his gifts was the ability to mimic the sounds and cadences of foreign languages he didn’t actually speak.
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Some of Caesar's most popular bits were built around pompous or outlandish characters—such as Professor von Votsisnehm—in which he spoke in a thick accent or mimicked foreign languages in comic but convincing gibberish.
"He was the ultimate, he was the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed," [Carl] Reiner said of his friend. "His ability to double talk every language known to man was impeccable."

One of his virtuosic double-talk performances is captured on YouTube—in the space of five minutes he moves from fake French to fake German to fake Italian to fake Japanese:

So how did Caesar get to be so good at double-talk? He goes into great detail in his memoir, Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter:

caesar1_1
caesar2_1
caesar3_1

While I greatly admired Caesar's chops in double-talk, I always felt he was at his funniest when he said hardly anything at all.

A version of this post appeared on Language Log.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer for Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

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