Secret Languages are an unusual form of communication. They are often used by those who work in fields that produce jargon. These dictionaries can even be “professionalized,” another way of hiding. Secret Languages aren’t as tricky as they appear; anyone can use them to communicate with friends. You can even create your own words to share with friends.
When considering the poetry of English, we rarely think of the thieves, drug dealers, and prostitutes who helped form it. They are not novel languages but based on a source language’s linguistic structure and systematic processes to obscure words and meanings from mainstream language speakers.
What is the selection of stories about secret language?
A secret language is used only by group members, often to conceal the meaning from those outside the group. A language game (dulling) manipulates spoken words to render them incomprehensible to the untrained ear.
Each language game involves a usually simple standard transformation to speech, thus encoding it. The languages can be easily mentally encoded and decoded by a skilled speaker at the rate of everyday speech. At the same time, those who either don’t know the key or aren’t practiced in rapid speech are left hearing nothing but gibberish.
A common difficulty with language games is that they are usually passed down orally. While written translations can be done, they are often imperfect, and thus spelling can vary widely.
Some selection stories argue that words in these spoken tongues should be written how they are pronounced. In contrast, others insist that the purity of language demands that the transformation remain visible when the words are imparted to paper. Contrary to what proponents of either side may say, there is no definitive written lexicon for language games, but it is instead a matter of dialect.
Top 5 Secret Languages
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 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, Verlan had ceased to refer to wordplay by the latter part of the 20th century. It acquired a new cultural significance as the coded street slang of young people living on the fringes of society.
2. Nüshu: The Secret Script of Women in China
Despite a history many believe may stretch back a thousand years, Nüshu was on the verge of extinction when rediscovered in 1982. Only a handful of people still used Nüshu, the syllabic script 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. It has a ‘visual aspect’ related to the domestic crafts of the women who created it, such as ‘weaving, embroidery, and paper cutting’ (Zhao 1998). And it was the impetus of his fascination with the consciousness that led him, partway through a graduate degree in maths at Oxford, to write up some of the ideas swirling in his head and send them to Douglas Hofstadter – one of the world’s most renowned researchers in cognitive science – at Indiana University.
However, the most striking thing about Nüshu is that it was a language used and understood only by women. For centuries in China, women were subordinate in a male-dominated society. They were expected to be illiterate and to exist primarily to bear children and unite 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 a while, men knew of its existence, but they did not understand its meaning or know about its capacity to empower the women who used it.
3. Polari: Out of the Closet in a Disguise
Polari is a slang lexicon popular in the 1950s and 1960s among London’s marginalized male gay community. It provided members of the emerging gay subculture with a way to communicate covertly when homosexuality 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 be combined 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 back onshore to circuses and traveling 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 would develop into Polari, a slang used in show business spheres. This would be adopted by members of the gay community working in show business, who would claim it as their own.
4. L33t sp34k (also known as 1337-speak)
Leet-speak is a spelling code based on the English language that substitutes Roman alphabet characters 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 InterneInternetade 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 a higher status in opposition to anyone else.
In the age of internet messaging, leet-speak has become widely recognizable, mainly through standard features such as substituting/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.
5. Shelta: The Secret Language of Irish Travellers?
According to its estimated 6000 native speakers in Ireland, Shelta, known as Gammon, is a language spoken by Irish travelers 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 Irish derived from the English word dish; and obsolete Irish words that have been resurrected, such as curb meaning ‘grandmother’ (Binchy 2008). Contact us today if you need a translation service from Irish to English,
Irish travelers used to talk within their group while excluding outsiders. Shelta’s coded vocabulary forms part of a register. It has developed from its speakers’ nomadic way of life and 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).
Anti-language, a term created by the linguist MAK Halliday, communicates within a language that excludes outsiders. An anti-language uses the same grammar and words as the main speech community but uses them differently only to be understood by insiders.
Ant-language examples include Cockney rhyming slang, CB slang, Verlan, the grypsera of Polish prisons, thieves’ cant, Polari, and possibly Bangime.
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Pig Latin is the most popular and well-known secret language.
- Binchy, A. (2008) ‘Researching Shelta, the Travellers’ Language’ from Béaloideas, vol. 76
- Blashki, K and Nicole, S (2005) ‘Game Geek’s Goss: Linguistic Creativity in Young Males within an Online University Forum (94//3 933k’5 9055ONEONE)’, in Australian Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, vol 3, no 2, pp. 77-86
- Davies, C. (2007) ‘Cockney Rhyming Slang’ from Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English. Houghton Mifflin
- Dent, S (Ed.) (2012), ‘Polari’ from Brewer’s dictionary of phrase and fable. Retrieved from http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/brewerphrase/polari/0
- Evans, R (1971) Nadsat: The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” from Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 1, no. 3, pp 406-410
- Green, J (1997) ‘Language: Polari’ from The Critical Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 1, pp 127-131
- Green, J. (2003) ‘Rhyming Slang’ in Critical Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 1-2
- Henley, J (2000) ‘Do you speak verlan?’ from the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/Columnists/Column/0,5673,221894,00.html