Clandestine Communications: Cryptolects and Secret Tongues in the English-Speaking World
Isthay essagemay isyay optay ecretsay. Are you familiar with this secret language? If you weren’t able to decrypt its hidden message, allow us to introduce you to Pig Latin. Across the English-speaking world, people have used it to relay secret messages for decades. While it may have become ubiquitous enough to lose some of its secrecy, it is probably the most well-known example of the wealth of “secret languages”—often called cants or cryptolects—that English speakers have created and used. In this instalment of Language Matters, we explore why people create these languages and what they are used for, focusing on a few choice examples.
What Is a Cant?
A cant is any form of jargon or language used by its speakers to avoid being understood by others outside their group. Like all forms of language, a cant is associated with a speech community—the group of people who speak a particular language or language variety. Different speech communities may conceal their conversations for different reasons. Sometimes, they do it out of necessity, to avoid detection or persecution. Other times, cants are part of a community’s regional identity. In all such cases, speakers create and use them to keep their conversations inaccessible to outsiders.
There are many examples of communities using secret forms of communication to avoid detection or persecution by outsiders. Tutnese was created by enslaved African Americans as a way to teach writing and spelling skills during a time when literacy was forbidden among slaves.1 It also allowed its speakers to keep their conversations private by making them unintelligible to those outside their community. To translate an English word into Tutnese, simply spell it out, replacing each consonant with a pre-assigned segment. Different regional varieties of Tutnese used different segments as stand-ins for a given consonant. For example, w may have been pronounced wug in some regions and wax in others. Vowels are pronounced as they would be in standard English. When a letter appears twice consecutively, rather than repeating the same syllable, the word squat is inserted before the letter’s replacement. The following example illustrates how Tutnese works:
Thieves’ Cant was a cryptolect used during the Elizabethan period by criminals, sex workers and other communities who needed to obscure their communications.2 Little is known for certain about the origin of Thieves’ Cant, but it was heavily influenced by Romani and various Romance languages, as well as Yiddish (although this list may have varied depending on the regional variety). Lexicographers began publishing dictionaries of Thieve’ Cant in the 16th century, bringing this cryptolect into the public eye.3 It began to appear in plays and novels to signal a character’s working-class background. Today, fictionalized forms of Thieves’ Cant are used in Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy-themed role-playing games.
Here are some examples of words and phrases in Thieves’ cant:
to heave a booth (to rob a house)
a fence (a person who will purchase stolen goods)
a knuckle (a pickpocket)
Although Thieves’ Cant had largely fallen out of use by the 19th century, it became one of the major influences for another major cryptolect in the English-speaking world: Polari.4 Before homosexuality was accepted in Britain, gay men used Polari, a cant which, like Thieves’ Cant, was influenced by Romance languages (especially Italian, in the case of Polari), Romani and Yiddish. Polari allowed its speakers to communicate freely while avoiding imprisonment.5 After homosexual acts were legalized in the mid-20th century, the language gradually fell out of use. However, it continues to be celebrated and preserved as a major part of queer history in the UK—there is even a Polari translation of the Bible!
Here are some examples of Polari:
How bona to varda your dolly old eek! (How good to see your pretty old face!)
I’ve nanti dinarly for another buvare. (I’ve got no money for another drink.)
Sometimes, cants are used by speakers from regional speech communities. Knowledge of regional cant indicates belonging to a group, in addition to the presence of other dialect features that are specific to a particular language variety. Boontling, a jargon spoken only in Boonville, California, was created by residents of the town during the late 19th century.6 Some say it was created by a group of children who wanted to hide their conversations from nosy adults, others say groups of women invented it in order to gossip in secret, and still others provide different accounts of its creation.7 Today, Bootling has almost died out—only several dozen fluent speakers remain.8
Here are some examples of words and phrases in Boontling:
a downstreamer (an elderly person)
a slib (a little)
to pike to the duties (to pass away)
bihl chiggul and zeese (good food and coffee)
Possibly the most well-known example of a regional cant is Cockney rhyming slang—a clever jargon spoken by speakers of Cockney English that replaces words with expressions whose last word rhymes with the terms they replace. Examples include apples and pears (stairs), Britney Spears (beers), and pork pies (lies).9 Often, the expressions are further shortened, removing the rhyming element entirely. Returning to our previous examples, apples and pears is shortened to apples, Britney Spears to Britneys, and pork pies to porkies. This makes rhyming slang especially difficult to decipher for outsiders!
Although they differ from actual cryptolects, language games are widely known methods of encrypting speech. They aren’t languages in the traditional sense, nor do they have a designated social or regional speech community. However, they are fun manipulations of language, and clever ways to transmit hidden messages!
Language games systematically modify words and phrases to the point of being unrecognizable to speakers who are unfamiliar with their mechanics. The most common example is Pig Latin, in which speakers manipulate English words by moving the initial consonant or consonant cluster to the end of the word, and adding “ay” as the final syllable. Ikelay isthay. A lesser-known, but similar, example of a language game is called Gibberish—not to be confused with the common sense of the word (rapid, meaningless, incomprehensible talk).
Gibberish is a language game that involves adding a designated segment (like idig or ub) before the nucleus (the main vowel sound ) of each syllable. This process is known as iterative infixation. This term might seem technical, but have no fear! The segment is inserted inside the word stem (making it an infix) and this process is repeated for each syllable (making it iterative). There are many variations of Gibberish, each using a different infix. For this reason, people speak of the Gibberish “language family”. Here are some examples:
Don’t tell Sarah about the surprise party!
Didigont tidigell Sidigaridigah idigabidigout thidige sidigurpridigise pidigartidigy!
Dubont tubell Subarubah ubabubout thube suburprubise pubartuby!
(Ubbi Bubbi—“dialect” of Gibberish)
When secrecy is required for whatever reason, people will find ways to communicate inconspicuously. In this article, we’ve explored some of the ways English speakers have pioneered their own forms of clandestine speech across history. The following table summarizes the cants we discussed, providing further examples along with explanations of their mechanics or origins.
|Reason||Name||Example||Main Speech Community||Mechanics/Origins|
|Language Game||Pig Latin||Isthay essagemay isyay optay ecretsay (This message is top secret)||No social/regional speech community; Frequently used by children||If word starts with a consonant: The first consonant or consonant cluster is moved to the end of the word and followed by “ay”; If word starts with a vowel: Add “hay” “way” or “yay” to end of word; If word has more than one syllable, option to displace the first syllable to the end of the word followed by “yay” “hay” or “way”|
|Language Game||Gibberish||Thidig midigessidigage idigis tidigop sidigecridiget (This message is top secret)||No social/regional speech community; Frequently used by children||Add “idig” or similar morpheme before every syllable onset. There are many variations which compose the Gibberish “language family”.|
|Language Game||Ubbi-Dubbi||Thubis mubessubage ubis tubop subecrubet (This message is top secret)||No social/regional speech community; Frequently used by children||Add “ub” before every syllable onset. Part of the Gibberish “language family”.|
|Necessity||Thieves’ Cant||Dunnock (a cow); to click (to snatch); galloot (a soldier); knuckle (a pickpocket)||Criminals, sex workers and other countercultural groups in Britain from the 16th to 19th centuries, roughly||Romani, Romance languages, Yiddish, Latin|
|Necessity||Tutnese||tutodudayum (today)||Enslaved African Americans; Used to teach writing and spelling skills when literacy was forbidden among slaves||Words are spelled out, assigning each consonant a given morpheme.|
|Necessity||Polari||Vada that bona hoofer. (Look at that beautiful dancer)||Members of the LGBTQ community from the 19th century until the legalization of homosexuality in the mid 20th century||Romance languages (esp. Italian), Romani, Yiddish, Thieves' Cant, other forms of slang|
|Regional Identity||Cockney Rhyming Slang||apples and pears (stairs); I’m going up the apples. (I’m going up the stairs)||Speakers of Cockney English||Words are replaced with multiword expressions whose last element rhymes with the original term. Sometimes, the rhyming element is omitted.|
|Regional Identity||Boontling||bahl chiggul and zeese (good food and coffee); to pike to the duties (to go to the graveyard)||Residents of Boonville, California||English, Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Pomoan, Spanish|
Soth, Amelia. “Why Did ‘Thieves' Cant’ Carry an Unshakeable Allure?” JSTOR Daily (2019). ↩
Zarrelli, Natalie. "How a Secret Criminal Language Emerged From the Underworld". Atlas Obscura (2017). ↩
Baker, Paul. “Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language.” Lancaster University. ↩
“Polari: The Code Language Gay Men Used to Survive.” BBC Culture (online). ↩
Sieg, Stina.“Do You Harp a Slib of the Ling? One Small Town’s Opaque Language.” NPR (2015). ↩
Steinmetz, Katy. “Kimmies Harpin’ Boontling: A Dying American Dialect?” Time (2013). ↩
Warren, Jennifer. “A Bright-Lighter? Don’t Be Charlied If You Can’t Speak Boontling.” The Seattle Times (1996). ↩
Follow our Facebook page to see our articles in your news feed.