Gellerese, a Universal “Language” For Your Cold War Schadenfreude Enjoyment

only somewhat travel-related; indulge me!

i recently started watching the original Mission: Impossible (the TV show from the late ’60s and early ’70s) on Netflix. while the production values are a bit lacking (though i suppose par for the course for that era), it’s an enjoyable enough show. the best parts, though, as a linguistics enthusiast — i was a linguistics major in undergrad and did related work in graduate school — is what i have learned is called “Gellerese” (named after Bruce Geller, the man behind the series): an invented set of words that sound foreign but are easily understood by English speakers.

playing up the Cold War zeitgeist, many of the storylines took place in fake Eastern Bloc countries (where else would spies be?). but how could Geller make the locales accessible to the primetime-viewing public? by having signs that read “Priziion Mikitik” instead of, say, “Więzienie Wojskowe” (Polish) or “Militärgefängnis” (German). indeed, “military” and “prison” are words that can ultimately be traced through Romance languages, not Germanic or Slavic! come to think of it, he probably could have just used a variant of Romanian at times, but it probably wouldn’t have sounded “communist” enough? this could even be Prıziion Mılıtık since it looks like there’s a distinction between dotted and dotless i, which would orthographically make this more Turkic — in that case, “askeri cezaevi” (Turkish).

from "Old Man Out"

Priziion Militik from “Old Man Out”

some other great examples, with Google translations of what i think they are trying to convey in a representative actual language. you can easily figure out what the Gellerese means because they are based on English or on very familiar foreign words. just a liberal sprinkling of metal umlauts and harsh consonants and voila! clearly somewhat comical in intent as well, but fascinating nonetheless.

from "Action"

Altik / Zöna Restrik from “Action” (Stop! Ograničena Zona! in Serbian — yes, STOP would have been a more likely candidate since that’s what it is…)

from "The Train". (Begasung in German)

Fumigazön from “The Train” (Dezinfekce Kouřem in Czech)

from "The Train"

Mina Din Steppen from “The Train” (Vorsicht Stufe! in German)

asdfasdfsadf asdf asdf

Emerženc̄iskija from “Operation Heart” (hitan slučaj or hitne službe in Croatian, although given the bad accents, i thought this episode took place in Central America until i saw this sign. it should be noted that according to Wikipedia, there is no such letter in any alphabet as c̄.)

there are some cases where Romance languages were also Gellerized, but for the most part, it was easy enough to use an actual language:


and it’s even grammatically correct! from “Charity”

the signs say "DOUANE / ZOLL" and "DOUANES FRANCAISES"

oddly enough, the signs say “DOUANE / ZOLL” and “DOUANES FRANCAISES” in this country (also from “Charity”) that drives on the left hand side of the road but has steering wheels also on the left. i’m actually quite surprised they didn’t say “COUSTUMES” or something similar.

the anticipation of, and keeping an eye out for more Gellerese is what keeps me watching this show — and Barbara Bain‘s character, Cinnamon.

update: heh i just saw this, from the episode “The Astrologer” where they’re on a plane:


Belten Atachin and Fumin Net (maybe it’s supposedly a country like Belgium, since it’s an odd mix of Romance and Germanic?) French Attachez vos ceintures and Non fumer / Défense de fumer, German Bitte anschnallen and Rauchen verboten, or less common but more similar, Nicht rauchen. The country was described as “Baltic” in the episode though. In Lithuanian: Prisisekite saugos diržus and Nerūkyti.

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