The Null Device

Language turned convict

An interesting article on cryptolects, secret group languages whose purpose is to conceal meaning from outsiders:
Incomprehension breeds fear. A secret language can be a threat: signifier has no need of signified in order to pack a punch. Hearing a conversation in a language we don’t speak, we wonder whether we’re being mocked. The klezmer-loshn spoken by Jewish musicians allowed them to talk about the families and wedding guests without being overheard. Germanía and Grypsera are prison languages designed to keep information from guards – the first in sixteenth-century Spain, the second in today’s Polish jails. The same logic shows how a secret language need not be the tongue of a minority or an oppressed group: given the right circumstances, even a national language can turn cryptolect. In 1680, as Moroccan troops besieged the short-lived British city of Tangier, Irish soldiers manning the walls resorted to speaking as Gaeilge, in Irish, for fear of being understood by English-born renegades in the Sultan’s armies. To this day, the Irish abroad use the same tactic in discussing what should go unheard, whether bargaining tactics or conversations about taxi-drivers’ haircuts. The same logic lay behind North African slave-masters’ insistence that their charges use the Lingua Franca (a pidgin based on Italian and Spanish and used by traders and slaves in the early modern Mediterranean) so that plots of escape or revolt would not go unheard. A Flemish captive, Emanuel d’Aranda, said that on one slave-galley alone, he heard ‘the Turkish, the Arabian, Lingua Franca, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English’. On his arrival at Algiers, his closest companion was an Icelander. In such a multilingual environment, the Lingua Franca didn’t just serve for giving orders, but as a means of restricting chatter and intrigue between slaves. If the key element of the secret language is that it obscures the understandings of outsiders, a national tongue can serve just as well as an argot.
The article goes on to mention polari, which originated as a travelling entertainers' argot and ended up being a cryptolect used by gay men in 20th-century Britain, becoming largely obsolescent after homosexuality was decriminalised, surviving as a piece of period colour in artefacts like Morrissey's song Piccadilly Palare.
With its roots in Yiddish, cant, Romani, and Lingua Franca, Polari was a meeting-place for languages of those who were too often forced to hit the road; groups who, however chatty, tend to remain silent in traditional historical accounts. Today, the spirit of Polari might be said to live on in Pajubá (or Bajubá), a contact language used in Brazil’s LGBT community, which draws its vocabulary from West African languages – testimony to the hybrid, polyvocal processes through which a cryptolect finds voice.
Of course, as the whole point of a cryptolect is to conceal meaning, as soon as some helpful soul compiles a crib sheet, they kill that particular version of the language as surely as a butterfly collector with a killing jar. (An example of this that has become a comedic trope is parents, politicians and other grown-ups trying to be hip to the groovy lingo of teenagers and falling flat.)
The work of the chronicler of cryptolect must always end in failure. These are languages which need to do more than keep up with current usage: they have to stay ahead of it, burning bridges where the vernacular has come too close; keeping their distance from the clear, the comprehensible. When Harman returned to the subject of pedlars’ French, his promises of understanding came with a new caveat: ‘as [the canting crew] have begun of late to devise some newe tearmes for certaine things: so will they in time alter this, and devise as evill or worse’. We can’t write working dictionaries of secret languages, any more than we can preserve a childhood or catch a star.
Not all cryptolects belong to marginalised, disempowered or nefarious outsider groups (say, itinerant thieves, galley slaves, sexual minorities or minors under the totalitarian regime of parental authority); various technical jargons have something of the cryptolect about them where they avoid using laypersons' terminology in favour of synonymous terms specific to their subcultures. This could be argued to be a good thing, as confusion can occur when words have both technical and vernacular meanings (take for example the word “energy” as used by physicists and New Age mystics). Indeed, whether, say, International Art English is a cryptolect could come down to whether it serves to actually communicate to an in-group or just as a form of ritual display.

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