Insights July 28, 2021

The weird and wonderful world of secret languages

Living Word
By Living Word

Did you know that secret languages exist all over the world? We journey from France to Bolivia to find out more about this fascinating language phenomenon.

It seems like some languages are meant to be misunderstood – at least considering the sheer amount of secret languages still found today. Also called cryptolects, argots, anti-languages and cants, these secret languages are spoken and understood only by a select number of people in the know. The main reason why these cants exist is maintaining secrecy. We take a look at six fascinating cants from the past and present.

Polari

Originally a form of communication among British sailors in the 19th century, Polari also developed into the unofficial language of British gays between the 1930s and 1960s. During that time, homosexuality was illegal in Britain, so Polari ultimately enabled the community to secretly talk amongst themselves without being found out. A few examples of words: ‘Bona’ meant ‘good’, ‘drag’ stood for ‘clothes’ and ‘dish’ meant ‘gossip’ or ‘attractive’.

Carny

The Carny language is a traditional carnival cant and heavily used by professional wrestlers in front of an audience during mock public wrestling matches. The language combines slang words like ‘Andre shot’ with the addition of ‘eaz’ before the vowel of every syllable.

Verlan

This cant developed in France and is mainly used by adolescents and young adults in the suburbs of Paris, where the majority of immigrants and the working class live. The language uses a mix of inverted words and changed meanings. As an example: ‘Ouf’ means ‘crazy’, which is ‘fou’ in French. However, as a result of some Verlan words becoming too mainstream for the liking of its speakers, a phenomenon called ‘re-verlan’ has taken over, whereby some words are reversed again to keep them interesting and sharp.

Kallawaya

Exclusively spoken by the Kallawaya tribe, which only resides in six villages in Bolivia, this secret language is exclusively for medical healers who use it for healing purposes as well as everyday conversations. While it’s not written down, it is passed down orally to teenagers and adults who want to become traditional healers. Today, fewer than 100 speakers are recorded and the language is quickly disappearing.

Nushu

Translated as ‘women’s writing’, Nushu describes a secret language that was only used by Chinese women. It was developed around 15 BC when women weren’t allowed to get an education in China. Women then formed Nushu to secretly communicate among themselves. The language was only discovered by the West in the 1980s and its last speaker died in 2004.

Thieves’ Cant

Thieves’ Cant was a language used by thieves and beggars to secretly communicate with each other in Anglophone countries, such as the United Kingdom. Even though it’s still used by some gangs in Britain and the United States today, its use has heavily declined. Some word examples: ‘Pigeon’ means ‘victim’ and ‘urtel’ translates to ‘diamond’.