by Craig Evans
The glaring question that faces anyone researching secret languages is: do ‘secret languages’ actually exist? The description seems to present something of a paradox, in that language facilitates communication whereas a secret is about resisting communication. How would a ‘secret language’ survive in a time when open, well-documented languages are continuously dying out? Furthermore, how would it come into being in the first place? The world’s languages have evolved over time and consist of a set of internal rules that native speakers learn from a very early age. In contrast, the need for secrecy is a cultural phenomenon that occurs after language has already been acquired.
The fact is, a truly secret language probably doesn’t exist. When we use the term ‘secret language’, we actually mean the secret adaptation of known languages. Alternatively, the expression might be applied to new mixed languages or unfamiliar slangs or jargons, when they are used or perceived to be used for purposes of concealment.
With this in mind, I should probably clarify what I mean by the above title. So here are, in no particular order, my top 10 choices of linguistic-based forms of secret communication:
1. Verlan: French Back Slang
While for many it may seem that Verlan is a relatively recent linguistic phenomenon, the subversive lingo of a disconnected youth that emerged in the 1980s, this French form of back slang has actually been around for centuries. Verlan is formed through the inversion of syllables or letters, sometimes with the addition or deletion of sounds to aid pronunciation. Some claim that the French writer and historian, François-Marie Arouet, created his famous pseudonym in such a fashion by inverting the syllables of ‘Airvault’, the name of a family chateau, to make ‘Voltaire’. However, by the latter part of the 20th century Verlan had ceased to simply refer to word play, and acquired a new cultural significance as the coded street slang of young people living on the fringes of society.
Verlan, itself a word created from the inversion of the syllables in l’envers (‘the other way round’), is believed to have first gained popularity as a slang form in La Zone, ‘the working class, immigrant-populated northern suburbs of Paris’ (Lefkowitz 1989). Among criminals it was used as a code. For alienated young people in general, particularly the children of immigrants who were unable to identify with standard French or their parents’ tongue, it provided the means for a cultural expression that was uniquely their own. Verlan has since been adopted by people from all sections of French society as a way of expressing awareness of, and sometimes affiliation with, the youth subculture it represents.
2. Polari: Out of the Closet in a Disguise
Polari is a slang lexicon that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s among London’s marginalised male gay community. It provided members of the emerging gay subculture with a way to communicate covertly in a period when homosexuality still remained illegal in Britain and was often met with hostility. Despite its limited vocabulary of a few hundred words and phrases, and far fewer in regular use, Polari could be used to formulate sentences and sustain conversations. This would usually occur in combination with English vocabulary, particularly function words, as part of English grammatical structures. The effectiveness of Polari as a means of communication was also due to the relevance of the words’ meanings to the interests and practices of those who used them.
The origins of Polari can be traced back to Mediterranean Lingua Franca, used from the 11th to 19th century. Heavily influenced by Italian, traces of this trade pidgin can be found in Polari with words like dona meaning ‘woman’ (from Italian donna) and vada meaning ‘to look’ (from Venetian vardar). It is believed that sailors who used the lingua franca introduced it, when back on shore, to circuses and travelling fairs where their ‘skills at climbing to precarious heights were much in demand’ (Green 1997, p128). Eventually, acquiring new words from contact with other languages, it would develop into Polari, a slang used in show business spheres. This would go on to be adopted by members of the gay community working in show business, who would claim it as their own.
3. Boontling: The Very Local Tongue
The invention of a new lexicon is something that might be expected of an imaginative writer, who themselves would probably be channelling a childhood habit of language play. Perhaps they would create words that capture the world as they see it, so that ‘shoveltooth’ would come to mean ‘doctor’ because their own doctor has protruding teeth, or ‘high pockety’ would refer to someone who is wealthy, because the wealthiest person they ever knew happened to be exceedingly tall. In fact, this word play did not come from the pen of a novelist, but the mouths of the children who lived in the small town of Boonville, North California, in the 1890s.
Boontling (a blend of ‘Boonville’ and the word ‘lingo’) was the product of a game played by children to disguise the meaning of their talk in the presence of adults. A secret jargon often based on words that relate to local peculiarities, Boontling was carried into adulthood by its originators and passed on to the next generation. Over the years, the lexicon developed to about 1,500 words and phrases in size, and consisted of words from a number of different sources. These included sobriquets, such as ‘jenny beck’ to mean ‘tattle tale’, named after a local gossip; onomatopoeia (e.g. ‘kelockity’ for the sound a train makes); and borrowings from Scottish-Irish dialects introduced by settlers, such as ‘kimmie’ to mean ‘man’. In more recent times, Boontling has fallen out of use, and now mostly remains as a cultural curiosity promoted by the local brewing industry for tourism purposes.
4. Nüshu: The Secret Script of Women in China
Despite a history that many believe may stretch back a thousand years, Nüshu was on the verge of extinction when it was rediscovered in 1982. Only a handful of people remained who still used Nüshu, the syllabic script that was long ago created by peasant women from the Xiaojiang River valley in Hunan Province, China. Based on a local dialect, Nüshu (which translates as ‘women’s writing’ in Chinese) consists of over a thousand characters. It is a cross between ‘Chinese characters and Japanese kana’ typologically, and has a ‘visual aspect’ that relates to the domestic crafts – such as ‘weaving, embroidery, and paper cutting’ – of the women who created it (Zhao 1998).
The most striking thing about Nüshu, however, is that it was a language used and understood only by women. For centuries in China, women had a subordinate role in a male-dominated society. They were expected to be illiterate, and to exist primarily for the purpose of bearing children and uniting families through marriage. However, with Nüshu, they developed a secret means of writing poetry, expressing their joys and woes, and for married women it was a way to keep in contact with their female relatives. Nüshu was also used in chants and songs, and in many ways it was a ‘secret language’ hidden in plain sight, for while men knew of its existence, they did not understand its meaning or know about its capacity to empower the women who used it.
5. L33t sp34k (also known as 1337-speak)
Leet-speak is a spelling code, based on the English language, that substitutes characters of the Roman alphabet with graphemes that are typically either similar in appearance or represent similar sounds. It was created in the 1980s by users of bulletin board systems, precursors to the Internet, to evade content filters and what many believed to be the monitoring of keywords by the government. The name, derived from the word ‘elite’, refers to the in-group nature of the code, where proficient users would identify themselves as having higher status in opposition to anyone else.
In the age of the internet and SMS messaging, leet-speak has become widely recognisable, particularly through common features such as the substitution of /eɪt/ with the number 8 in words like gr8 and h8. Nevertheless, the script continues to be associated with covert prestige in the world of online gaming, where it is used ironically to expose uninitiated gamers attempting to seek acceptance.
6. Leopard’s Growl: The Abakua Language
Abakua is the ceremonial language of the Abakua secret society, an Afro-Cuban fraternity whose roots trace back to the Cross River region that crosses the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. The all-male society, established in Cuba in 1836, continued many of the traditions of African secret societies, which had made their way to the Caribbean through the slave trade. As a society, Abakua was set up with the purpose of encouraging mutual aid and providing a test of the manliness of its members. The symbol of the leopard has an important role in rituals, as do dancing, drumming and chanting. As for the language, it is believed to be a mixture of Efik, Spanish, several Bantu languages, and other ‘initiation dialects’ (Miller 2000). Abakua mostly consists of fixed expressions that members memorise and then recall as part of an interactive performance. This is to test, through ‘call-and-response recitations’, members’ knowledge of these expressions and, by implication, their claim to leadership (Miller 2000).
7. Shelta: The Secret Language of Irish Travellers?
Shelta, known as Gammon to its estimated 6000 native speakers in Ireland, is a language spoken by Irish travellers that established its reputation as a ‘secret language’ through its vocabulary. The lexicon of Shelta consists of numerous items that are altered versions of English or Irish words, while many others are archaic Irish words. These include words where the initial consonants have been inverted, such as lakin, derived from the Irish word cailín (‘girl’); words where initial consonants have been substituted, as in srish derived from the English word dish; and obsolete Irish words that have been resurrected, such as karb meaning ‘grandmother’ (Binchy 2008).
Shelta’s coded vocabulary forms part of a register used by Irish travellers to talk within their own group while excluding outsiders. It is said to have developed from its speakers’ nomadic way of life and their detachment from mainstream society. While Shelta has traditionally been associated with concealing business transactions and criminal activities, more recent research highlights a range of other social functions. For example, it might be used to discuss private health matters or to ‘disguise public arguments among Travellers from settled people who might hear’ (Binchy 2008).
8. Cockney Rhyming Slang
From one community to the next, generation after generation, there has been a long tradition of people subverting the prescribed norms of standard language usage. The innate need of individuals and groups to assert their identity and distinguish themselves from others has given rise to a wide variety of slangs. However, few slang varieties can match the renown and longevity of Cockney rhyming slang, a system developed in the London East End for creating phrases to disguise the meaning of the words they denote.
While the exact origins of rhyming slang are not known, some researchers claim that it was first used by ‘patterers’ – ‘street-seller[s] of ballads, dying speeches and melodramatic reports of major events’ (Green 2003, p222) – in the early part of the 19th century. The method for producing the slang involves the creation of phrases, usually two to three words long, where the last word rhymes with the word that the slang represents. For example, the phrase ‘butcher’s hook’ means ‘to look’. Over time, as the rhyming slang spread and was adopted by market traders and the criminal classes, the rhyming word would be dropped to disguise the origin of the expression. So, ‘butchers’ would become a synonym for ‘look’. This provided a means of collusion for both traders and criminals without customers or the police being able to understand what they were saying.
9. Nadsat – Anthony Burgess’s Fictional Argot
Nadsat, the invention of author Anthony Burgess, is an Anglo-Russian slang used in the novella A Clockwork Orange (1962) by the protagonist, Alex, and his ‘droogs’ (‘friends’), who are all members of a violent youth gang. Although the product of a writer’s imagination, Nadsat nevertheless reflects similar qualities to other argots featured on this list. It consists of a lexicon that promotes in-group solidarity between those who use it, and has the effect of compounding the ‘us and them’ separation between the members of the group and established society. The words themselves consist of invented slang, such as ‘golly’ to denote a unit of money (probably from the English slang word ‘lolly’, meaning money); borrowings or adaptations of Russian words, such as ‘nozh’, the Russian for ‘knife’; rhyming slang, such as ‘hound-and-horny’ to mean ‘corny’; as well as some borrowings from Malay, French and German.
10. Mexican-American Caló (also known as Pachuco or pachuquismo)
Caló was a Spanish-based slang used by Mexican-American members of the subculture known as pachuco, which thrived in the 1940s and 1950s, first in Mexico and Texas and then later in Los Angeles. It incorporated features from several sources, including Spanish Gypsy Caló, American English, Mexican Spanish, and American-based Spanish dialects. Speakers of Caló, the pachucos, were known for their flamboyant behaviour: they would wear zoot suits in a style imitative of Chicago gangsters, form street gangs, and generally project a playboy lifestyle. This ostentation was also reflected in their creative use of language, which included code mixing, word play, and the frequent tendency to use simile, metaphor, and exaggeration. However, despite their flamboyance, the pachucos spoke a language that most people outside their group did not understand. This helped to bind the pachucos together as a cultural group, while allowing them to talk freely without outsiders understanding their conversations.
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