The secret life and death of secret languages

March 10, 2020


“Yet our language may be at its richest and most powerful when it is driven underground.”

David Robson, BBC.

Linguist Abbie Hantgan was already a long way away from her home in Michigan when she set out from Timbutku. From the capital of Mali, she travelled for days, slowly gaining each of the 250km between her and her destination, fighting flooded roads and all sorts of obstacles. And then, stepping off a bus, she finally arrived at her destination: a cul-de-sac valley deep in Dogon country. She remembers the village of Bounou, “hanging on the cliff side” like “a scene out of time.”

She was going to live there, in Bounou with a reclusive tribe: the Bangande people. The very name of their people reflects their nature: Bangande translates into “The Secret Ones,” or “The Furtive Ones,” or “The Hidden Ones”. You get the point.

The history of the Bangande is as mysterious as they are, but some legends suggest that hundreds of years ago, a group of slaves might have escaped and carved out a life out there on sides of the cliffs. This might explain why they’ve always wanted to lay low, keep to themselves, and why they developed a secret language of their own, literally The Secret Language, Bangime.

Bangime has been described as the most enigmatic language in West Africa. It is spoken by roughly 1500 people spread among seven small villages, and is considered an endangered language.

In an article for the New Scientist, Hantgan recalls how the locals weren’t exactly welcoming to her. They would make fun of her every morning, as they left their homes to tend their fields. They’d see her, and her consultant, sitting inside, with a notebook and a pen, trying to compile a list of all the language’s common words, and they thought this was ridiculous. It wasn’t a way to make a living: farming was survival, and she wasn’t farming.

She found an ally in an unlikely place: the village chief came out to her defense. He explained to the villagers: “She is tending her crops! The pen is her hoe, and the notebook is her field.”

Little by little, she gained their confidence. She eventually made good friends. They shared their language with her — their words and their grammar. But it took years for them to share their secret.

In Bangime, words don’t always mean what they mean. In fact, often they’ll mean exactly the opposite: the meanings of words can be reversed on purpose. You could say “a white tree”, one example tells us, to describe a black tree. It’s like a language turned on its head.

It’s a simple trick, but ingenious, and extremely imaginative. In the days when their lives depended on it, it might have helped the Bagande fool passing traders who could speak the Dogon language of that part of Africa with which Bangime shares so many words. So that even if you were ever able to understand what they were saying, you would never understand what they were talking about.

It’s what makes the Secret Language a secret language, in the first place. What’s more, it makes it the oldest secret language in use right now.

The humble beginnings of Polari

Polari, comes from Parlare, the italian word. It meant to speak, but it’s also the name of a language — a language you’re not likely to know about.

Gay bars have a long history in London. Some evidence suggest the first establishments might have existed as early as in the 1700s: At least throughout the 1800s, you’ll find reference to Molly-houses, pubs and coffee-houses that were also brothels, or motels. And they sound kind of fun, if you take this Vice description as an example: “[they] were spaces for female mimicry; mock marriages and births; of singing, of community and of sex.

But 200 years later, gay people were still being persecuted. Homosexuality was illegal and a criminal activity.

Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who helped the allies win the second world war, developed a chess-program for a computer that didn’t exist, and invented the test still used today to decide if a computer is capable of thinking like a human being, was accused in the 1950s of “gross indecency.” Found guilty, he was chemically castrated as punishment. He would commit suicide just two years later.

If you were a man and tried to seduce the wrong man, you’d still be thrown into jail, possibly charged, probably punished. And that is why Polari started gaining traction in the early 20th century among gay, working class men.

You see, Polari was a language of the underground, a secret known only to a few. If you suspected someone else might be gay, you’d slip in a Polari word into an ordinary conversation. If that other person knew Polari, they’d slip another word back in. You’d know this person was gay. They’d be someone you could be safe with, possibly even flirt with or seduce. And even in a crowded room, or in the middle of a larger conversation, nobody but the two of you would have noticed.

It wasn’t very different to the (ironically) famous secret handshake of the freemasons. As it grew, the code turned into a language. A small one, perhaps: with Professor Paul Baker’s 2002 Polari Dictionary (the only one ever written) recording around 400 words. But still, at its peak, in the 1960s, you’d be able to have a whole conversation in it if you were a fluent Polari speaker.

A Vagabond’s Vocabulary

In the 16th century, a magistrate called Thomas Harman stood at his front door doing something very, very unusual. He was buying words. And from a particular class of people most of his contemporaries wouldn’t normally turn to for lexicon: he wanted to buy words from beggars, and he’d offer them food or money in return for anything they could offer him.

Of course, he didn’t want just any old word. He wanted to buy their words. Their secret language. He wanted a way into what is called Thieves’ Cant (sometimes Cant for short).

In his book on slang, Language: 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue, Jonathon Green describes how Thomas Harman might have wanted an in so badly he threatened some of his potential informers with prison: “He would say ‘either I throw you in prison or you give me your Cant.”

Cant takes on many different names. You might read about it as peddler’s French or see it referred to as Thieves’ Argot. Rogues’ Cant and pelting speech have also been used occasionally.

This need for so many names might have something to do with its murky origins. After all, Cant was a secret language used by those on the edges of British society: by vagabonds and beggars, gypsies and rogues, thieves and conmen alike. Or, as Harman put it, “[by] wretched, wyly, wandering vagabonds calling and naming themselves Egyptians, deeply dissembling and long hyding and covering their deep deceitful practices.”

Cant is considered a Cryptolect, a secret language meant to confuse non-speakers and exclude them from the conversation. Often, it also plays a part in affirming a subculture’s character that finds itself marginalized by the mainstream.

Best guess is that Cant started around 1530, nobody knows exactly why or when or who. The story that Cock Laurel, the King of Gypsies and Victorian England’s “most notorious knave,” first devised it in the Devil’s Arse (a cave in Derbyshire) is probably just that: a myth or legend, if a colorful one at that. But Laurel’s motivation might not be far from the truth: in the story, he wanted a language that would allow him and his allies to talk and make plans freely, out in the open, without fear of being overheard and understood.

George Andrewes opens his “Dictionary of the Slang and Cant Languages” with: “One great misfortune to which the Public are liable, is, that thieves have a language of their own; by which means they associate together in the streets, without fear of being over-heard or understood.” The word associate here is meant to suggest, infer and imply that these criminals and conmen aren’t just than just talking in public. They’re scheming and planning their next hit, maybe even on someone who’s right there listening.

People at the time assumed that if you didn’t want to be understood, you were probably up to no good.

It’s human nature, I suppose, for people to be scared of the different and the other. Scared of those they can’t control and won’t conform. Like vagabonds suddenly speaking to each other and keeping everybody out of their conversation. Or two gay men in a homophobic society, meeting in a pub, just wanting to hook up.

Cant was used for hundreds of years, evolving, adapting. One branch of Cant would later form the roots of the 19th century Parlyaree. As you might have guessed by now, at the turn of the century, Parlyaree would become Polari.

A flamboyant nature and flexibility

As a language, Polari drew from Cant and a number of other influences. It was a product of its working class and alternative culture: the Italian and Yddish of two large, immigrant populations you’d find in early 20th century London (as Peaky Blinders fans would know). It drew from other marginalized cultures, like Romani. It borrowed words from another local, East End working class language, the Cockney Rhyming Slang — another underground language, still used today, that has a reputation for having helped East London gangs stay safe from police).

It drew from the languages like Irish and French that you’d hear spoken in London’s ports, among the dockworkers and sailors. It drew from American airforce slang. And some words were just “backslanging” — reading the word backwords, like riah instead of hair.

All of these words would be thrown in, but the grammar underlying it all was English. The fact that the English language is so flexible might be why it is so accommodating. It is a language that plays the part of Host to many different languages, like Pidgin, Boobslang, Rhyming Slang and Polaris.

And the fact that English was the backbone of Polaris, meant that the language could be spoken in a variety of ways. Just the one word thrown in, as a secret handshake. Throwing in a number of words into a sentence, to add flair and color that was culturally so important for the speakers of Polari. Or whole sentences, whole conversations could be had in Polari.

You can see this evolution for yourself in a short film called Putting On the Dish: two young men sit side by side on a bench. Their first exchanges are tentative: one man throws in a few words to probe or gauge the other’s reaction. He mentions that the book the other one reads, A Clockwork Orange, has a naff ending (bad, no good) and asks him for a cigarette. Seeing that the other man got what he meant, they start having a conversation. Their first sentences use some Polari and then, around the 2:20 minute mark if you’re trying to follow along, they go all in on Polari.

Paul Baker, a linguistics professor and the world’s biggest Polari authority, explained, in an episode of The Allusionist podcast, that: “For most speakers, it wasn’t a full language. It was a vocabulary of mainly nouns, verbs, and adjectives that was based around everyday objects, and people, and body parts and clothing, and things like that. And evaluating everyday objects, people, body parts and clothing.”

One interesting thing about Polari is that because of its flamboyant nature and flexibility, the fact that there were never any written rules and that its only dictionary was published long after it had died down, it was unlike any other language. The best speakers weren’t the ones who knew the most words or followed it perfectly. The best speakers were the ones who could add to the language, who were really great at ad libbing new words and be understood by those around them. They could change existing words to make them even more complicated, more colorful and bright. It relied as much on the speakers’ and the listeners’ imagination as it did on anything else.

As it grew and matured, Polari became as much of a culture as a language. It became a shared identity and shaped its speakers’ worldview. The people who spoke Polari developed an attitude that went along with it: ironic and subversive. It made fun of the police, who was obviously their natural enemy, by calling them “Betty bracelets”, “Lily law”, or “Hilda handcuffs” for example. It helped them make fun of situations like getting arrested or beaten.

This culture, then, became more than an outlet for a lot of what gay men and women needed to otherwise repress on a day to day basis. It became a coping mechanism to deal with repression. That is the true strength of these languages of the marginalized. They give power to the powerless.

Anti-languages and borrowed grammars

This phenomenon was first observed by the linguist Michael Halliday, who coined the term anti-language in 1978 to describe how stigmatized subcultures develop languages that help them to reconstruct reality according to their own values.

Halliday drew from three main languages to reach this conclusion: Thieves’ Cant, the language of the underworld in West Bengal, and a study of Grypserka, the Polish prison slang. And he found that they have a lot of things in common.

Often, for example, the anti-language uses dozens of words that describe a single concept – especially around words that are culturally important to the speakers. This process, called over-lexicalization, is how you would explain that there were so many ways of describing the police in Polari. Similarly, he counted 21 words for bomb in Calcutta and 41 for police. And 20 words for thieves in Cant.

And just like Polari, all the other anti-languages borrow the grammar of the mother language. They then replace key words with those that only in the group know and understand. But, Halliday stresses, anti-languages weren’t just to help keep outsiders out.

They strengthen the bond between the insiders. An anti-language’s main purpose is to construct an alternative reality, with different values from the mainstream society.
“It is a mode of resistance,” Halliday writes. “Resistance which may take the form either of passive symbiosis or of active hostility and even destruction.”

So the more the police tried to clamp down on gay people, the stronger Polari became. The link that bonded its speakers grew stronger, the culture became more important and more lively. The number of Polari speakers multiplied. And even the way that that happened had a cultural aspect to it: many Polari speakers remember being initiated into the language by older, more experienced members of the community. Being given a nom de guerre was a right of passage, and it was normally a feminized version of your name: Paul would become Paulette, for example.

And although the exact number of its speakers is impossible to know, at its peak Polari was shared by tens of thousands of people.

A large number of its speakers had always been in the arts scene. But in the 1960s, as several famous gay entertainers gained the spotlight, in plays and musicals, and then in television and radio, the language started bubbling to the surface.

Like words from alternative cultures today get picked up by the mainstream (think “woke,” borrowed from African Americans), you’d see Polari get used by non-Polari speakers. In one colorful, headline-hitting moment, Princess Anne allegedly told photographers to naff off.

In 1965, Polari started being broadcast to some 20 million people a week in an unlikely media: the BBC. Namely in the hugely popular Radio Show “Round the Horne.” Suddenly, a language that had been created, disseminated, and used to avoid the government was being used in state-owned entertainment.

But even then, it was still subversive. It was used by the actors and comedians of the show to defy the National Viewers and Listeners Association, the association chaired by homophobe and ultra-conservative Mary Whitehouse.

Even as Whitehouse and the NVLA campaigned to clean the BBC of the “filth” that encouraged “a permissive society,” such as swear words, sex scenes, violence (she got Kubrik to withdraw showing Clockwork Orange in Britain) and even slang words like “bloody” or “bum,” the comedians and actors of “Round the Horne” were sneaking dozens of references to sex and the queer culture completely unnoticed.

For some Polari speakers, however, this was off-putting. It’s ironic, to say the least, to see that a language started dying out as it became more popular. It’s ridiculous, almost. But sharing it with millions of “Round the Horne” listeners felt like the show was spilling the secret. Seeing members of the royalty jump on the bandwagon suggested it was time to move on.

And that secrecy element had had a magic of its own. This was a language that depended on exclusivity to survive. Losing it was the first step to its decline.

Later, in 1967, the Sexual Offences Bill was passed into law finally (or partially) decriminalizing homosexuality. All of a sudden, a secret language stopped being necessary.

The law coincided with a growing gay rights movement that was the exact opposite of what Polari stood for. The battle they were fighting was being reframed: it wasn’t about creating a community that could survive a bigger society, it was about not having to in the first place. It was about being accepted just as you were anywhere you went. It was about pride, not secrecy. In the late 1960s, of course, huge cultural changes were happening everywhere. And this was true among LGBT communities too. As they progressed through the 1970s, Polari became more and more unpopular. It was seen as old-fashioned, bordering on the obsolete.

Because it played on camp stereotypes, for example — “camp” is one Polari word that has passed on to current english. And its initiations and informal hierarchy were at odds with how young people wanted to shape the society around them. The way that so much of its language was about objectifying, both the objects of your affection and of your spite, seemed antiquated.

Even the way Polari made fun of the police by casting doubts on their gender orientation and calling them girls’ names started to be seen as an example of how the whole culture might have been based around casual sexism.

This old language, that had seen so many through so much, did not adapt to these new laws, new norms, new cultures, and a growing movement.

The language faded and then died out. I turn to Paul Baker, again, for him to deliver the eulogy:
“I love Polari, but hopefully, the narrow-minded social conditions that led to its creation will never require anything like it to happen in this country again.”

A Jewish resistance armed with language

There aren’t many places on Earth that are so devoid of life as the Dead Sea. Set in the dry and arid Judaean desert, it is almost 10 times saltier than the Ocean. It has so much salt in its water that no animal and no plant can survive it. It is, in its nature, and in its name, dead.

Back in 1947, three Bedouins were herding goats nearby. By chance, they walked into one of thousands of caves on the rock side and came upon a priceless, but unlikely treasure: seven clay jars filled with scrolls. These scrolls happened to be some of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible.

The Bedouins brought them back to their camp, to show to family and friends. For a while, they hung these scrolls from a tent pole while trying to find a buyer. A Jewish antiques dealer in Bethlehem refused to buy them: maybe he thought they were worthless, or maybe he thought they had been stolen from a synagogue.

The scrolls survived changing from hand to hand, sold for small sums of money. They survived the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, having been taken to Beirut for safekeeping. And in 1948, having caught the attention of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), they were announced to the world.

It took two years for archaeologists to rediscover the cave where the scrolls had been found. A war was going on, after all, and it would be impossible to set up a large-scale operation without the support of one of the factions. Archaeologists tried to get the Syrian army to help, but they asked for more money than ASOR could afford.

It was only after Jordan instructed the Arab Legion to search the area that they found the original cave. This was the 28th January, 1949.

Over the coming years, Bedouins and archaeologists would crawl the area. They found 10 more caves, with a grand total of 972 scrolls inside. The 11th, and final cave, was only found in 2017.
Academics have been translating these scrolls ever since, a work that hasn’t yet been finished.
But one of the latest finds suggests that eight of them were written in a dead anti-language of their own.

The scholar who first analyzed them called it Cryptic A script. Now, we know they were written in Qumran Hebrew, in a replacement code. Basically, the scribe who wrote them would replace Hebrew letters with other letters, or special secret signs.

Tel Aviv professor Noam Mizrahi hypothesizes that the esoteric writing had a social function. “It makes one feel very important to read stuff that others can’t.”

Dietmar Neufeld wrote that “the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls had developed the hallmarks of an anti-language, their own linguistic identity that was transparent among them but opaque to outsiders.” William Schniedewind strengthens this case by arguing that this was a deliberate and conscious cultural decision.

And as recently as 2018, one young researcher pieced together 60 tiny fragments of a 2000 year-old scroll to figure out one more piece to this puzzle.

She discovered a footnote scrolling along six different pieces. And she assumed that they would be one continuous line, until they turned unexpectedly in direction. At a temporary loss, a colleague asked her if it was possible that the scribe had just ran out of space. Suddenly, she was able to follow this footnote across the scroll, connecting dozens of pieces together.

The scroll, which turned out to be an annotated calendar, revealed that there was a power struggle going on. The people who lived and hid in the Qumran caves were a sect, refusing the authority of the Second Temple which tried to control Jewish practice everywhere. And this torn calendar was the key to uncovering that.

We already knew from the stories in the Old Testament that the struggle of the oppressed to break free from those in power is a tale as old as time. What we hadn’t known yet is that for as long there has been a culture of resistance, the resistance has armed itself with language.

The true power of languages of resistance

In 2020, Polari is considered by most specialists to be a dead language. But it’s not gone.
Not really.

In fact, it keeps popping up in the unlikeliest of places. In a school in Manchester, for example: as a group of activists highlighting the lack of LGBT inclusivity in education created an exam in LGBT studies in which the language section was all written in Polari.

Or in David Bowie’s final album. On a track called Girl Loves Me, Bowie mixes two anti-languages together: Polari with Nadsat, the fictional cryptolect of A Clockwork Orange.

Vice translates a part of the song:

“Cheena so sound, so titi up this malchick, say party up moodge,” sings Bowie, marrying the two languages to each other. To the uninitiatied, Bowie’s lyrics are nonsensical — but on translation, with “titi” meaning “pretty” in Polari, and “cheena,” “malchick,” and “moodge” meaning “girl”, “boy,” and “man” in Nadsat—they read as ‘Girl so sound, so pretty up this boy, say party up man.’”

“Cheena so sound, so titi up this malchick, say party up moodge,” sings Bowie, marrying the two languages to each other. To the uninitiatied, Bowie’s lyrics are nonsensical — but on translation, with “titi” meaning “pretty” in Polari, and “cheena,” “malchick,” and “moodge” meaning “girl”, “boy,” and “man” in Nadsat—they read as ‘Girl so sound, so pretty up this boy, say party up man.’”

Finally, and perhaps most unlikely of all, Polari made it to Church. A group called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence created a Polari bible by running it through a translation program they developed. The bible is on its 7th edition already and you can access it for free online. It was developed as part of a bigger program to make religion more inclusive. To remind people that you don’t have to be either gay or religious. That there’s space for the LGBTQ people, and its culture, inside every church and temple.

Something that the Church of England College attempted to express, before it was forced to express its regretx. The Church ran a Polari evening prayer, in Cambridge, using the Polari bible, during a service in anticipation of the LGBT History Month. But churchgoers were shocked to be referencing God as Duchess Gloria. Or when, instead of the traditional “Glory be to the father, and to the son, and the Holy Spirit,” the Reverend led the prayer with the words: “Fabeness be to the Auntie, and to the Homie Chavvie, and to the Fantabulosa Fairy”.

The scandal that followed only proved exactly that Polari might be dead, but it still held some of its power. The power to unite. The power to subvert expectations. To start a conversation. More importantly than anything else, the power to shock.

Author’s note:

Many thanks to Paul Baker, for writing the fabulous Fantabulosa: The Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang. This article could not have been made without his extensive research and prolific contributions. He has done more than anybody else to keep the stories of this dead language alive.

I first heard him on Helen Saltzman’s the Allusionist Podcast. If you love languages and words, and the stories and the histories that connect those two, I can’t recommend it enough.

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