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Not Nonsense

June 16, 2017

When I was a kid, my mother taught us a number of songs that had been popular when she was younger. I still sing them sometimes.

We gotta get goin, where we goin,
What are we gonna do?
We’re on our way to nowhere,
The three of us and you.

We sang this one whenever we all needed to get going somewhere, or get going on some project like cleaning the house. I thought of it as a fun, silly song that had a nonsense-syllable refrain.

What’ll we see there, who will be there
What’ll be the great surprise?
There may be senoritas
With dark and flashing eyes!

So I was singing this the other day, as I was putting on my shoes and getting ready to head out for an errand….

We’re on our way
Pack up our pack
And if we stay
We won’t be back
How can we go
We haven’t got a dime
But we’re goin’,
and we’re gonna have a happy time! Sooo…

…when I realized, while singing the first syllable of the refrain that I’d sung dozens of times before, that it wasn’t nonsense after all!

¿Cuánta le gusta, le gusta, le gusta,
le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta?
¿Cuánta le gusta, le gusta, le gusta,
le gusta, le gusta, le gusta, le gusta?

It was wild: the syllables left my mouth differently, now that I understood that I was singing Spanish. There were breaks between the words now, and I knew roughly what they meant (“How much do you like?”). And they were spelled differently: I’d learned the refrain phonetically as


I’ve been gradually learning Spanish using Duolingo for a few weeks (I’m on a 21 day streak, but I had a broken streak before that), and these “(pronoun) gusta” phrases have been used a lot. (I took a year of Spanish in 8th grade, but I don’t remember learning that idiom then. Hermana Carmen was teaching us Castilian, not Latin American Spanish, though; maybe it’s not a common idiom in Spain? Or maybe it just didn’t stick, since the French that I’d studied for longer, and was much more common in the community, had no similar construction.) And I’d hit the “cuanto, cuando, cual” question words a few lessons back. So I had all the pieces at hand to recognize what I was singing.

At present, my mental map of the phrase is still flexible: I can go back and forth between “Cuanta le gusta” and “Quan-tolly-goose-ta” depending on which I fix in my mind before I start to sing. But if I stick to my Spanish lessons as I plan to, I expect I’ll lose the gooses after a while.

To finish this post off, I figured I’d find and include a recording of this piece. When I searched for it, I discovered that the words vary a bit from what I recall, and also from recording to recording. I think the version I learned may have been a combination of the Andrews Sisters (“the three of us”) and Eddie Cantor (“senoritas”). Here they both are:




both of whom are apparently covering the original by Carmen Miranda, in the 1948 musical “A Date with Judy”.



I must say, the most fun and surprising part of the video search was the discovery that caballeros are available as an alternative to senoritas! 🙂

I hope you enjoyed this story of nonsense transforming into language as much as I did while it was happening.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2017 4:38 pm

    What fun! Your hearing Spanish differently, as Spanish, reminded me of this Far Side comic:


    (I just starting in on trying to learn some Spanish using Duolingo. Want to compare notes there? Enter in my email in the Search at the home page under Leaderboard. I’ve been studying as an English speaker learning espanol and as a Spanish speaker learning ingles. It’s a little different Spanish depending on which language is the first one.)

  2. June 20, 2017 10:07 pm

    Tee hee! Love the cartoon. It reminds me of the very first French phrase that I ever learned, on my first day of school in fifth grade. We had moved over the summer to a traditionally Francophone town, in which Catholic schools taught French right along with English from first grade up.

    So when I got to French class on the first day, I saw there was a line and Sr Bernadette was waiting at the door to greet each student. When it was my turn, she said something incomprehensible to me.

    I just looked at her.

    She said something else incomprehensible.

    I looked confused.

    She said, “You don’t understand?”
    I said “No, Sister.”
    She patted my cheek, smiled at me, said something else incomprehensible, and let me into the classroom.

    That first day, we spent French class in what seemed like a very traditional vocabulary-refreshing-after-the-summer exercise. Sister would point to something in the room, and say something — the same phrase every time — and the class would chorus back a phrase that always began the same but had a different ending.

    I came home that day proud that I had learned my first French phrase, meaning “What is that?”:

    Case Cassette?

    Tee hee! I remember so clearly practicing it as “Case Cassette” that afternoon. It was at least a week before I found out that “Case Cassette” was mysteriously spelled with a great deal more complexity than was actually pronounced:

    Qu’est-ce que c’est?

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