Language Turned Convict

Heere I set before thee (good Reader) the lewd lowsie language of these loytering lusks, and laysie lorels, wherewith they buy and sell the common people as they passe through the countrey.

– Thomas Harman, 1573

Around the year 1566, a Kentish gentleman named Thomas Harman became a literary sensation. His Caveat or Warening for Common Cursetors Vulgarely Called Vagabones offered the reader a chance to look into the world of the beggars who walked from town to town seeking alms or shelter and irritating respectable folk. Detailing the dupes and con tricks perpetrated by these vagrants, Harman pointed to a feature that set this community apart: a shared, secret language, known as Pedlars’ French, ‘an unknowne tongue to all but to these bolde beastly bawdy beggers and vaine Vagabonds, beeing halfe mingled with English when it is familiarly talked’. The thieves’ language became famous in the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: more simply, it was known as cant.

Harman’s book went into several editions and his material was shamelessly plagiarized by playwrights like Thomas Dekker and later lexicographers of this illicit cryptolect, or secret language. The ‘canting crew’ fascinated readers, with descriptions of their customs and glossaries of their speech remaining popular for over a century after Harman conducted his first interviews with the vagrants who came begging to his door. Authors titillated their audiences with this otherworldly language, in which ‘a stauling ken’ meant a house that would receive stolen goods, ‘to nyggle’ meant ‘to have to doo with a woman carnally’, and ‘Bene Lightmans to thy quarromes’ served as a greeting. These chronicles of cant offered more than the chance to eavesdrop on an unknown tongue: some knowledge of the language of vagrants could preserve the reader from being conned. A seventeenth-century successor of Harman’s commended his book on the grounds that the reader would learn enough canting vocabulary ‘to understand what [the canting crew] say, and what damn’d designs they are about’. Another was clearer on what the baffled listener risked: his book was ‘Useful for all Sorts of People, (especially Foreigners) to secure their Money and preserve their Lives’. To understand cant could be to save one’s skin.

Ever since I tried, as a desperately un-street seventeen-year-old, to pick up and use a few words of verlan – French backslang – I’ve been a little bit in love with secret languages. I tried desperately to throw in a few words of this forbidden argot into my secondary-school chat: garettes-ci for cigarettes, meuf for femme. I realized soon enough that you can’t elbow your way into a clique with a dictionary under your arm, but the fascination with cryptolects remained. Whether schoolkids or convicts, speakers use them to put up a wall against the wider world, against standards and mutual intelligibility. They can bespeak solidarity within a fragmented community. The secret language, where it survives and can be interpreted, shows the linguistic agency and invention that prevails throughout humanity. Products of contact between languages and between individuals, they exist on the margins, in the territory between elucidation and obfuscation.

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.

‘What is slang?’ asked Victor Hugo. ‘It is at one and the same time, a nation and a dialect; it is theft in its two kinds; people and language.’ Hugo would have recognised Harman’s idea of the language that excludes, the language which deflects attention from villainy and allows for plotting in plain hearing. ‘[Argot] is nothing but a dressing-room where the tongue having some bad action to perform, disguises itself. There it clothes itself in word-masks, in metaphor-rags. In this guise it becomes horrible.’ For Hugo, slang is the language of crime, of poverty, of misery. We don’t need to understand the ‘hideous murmur’ to feel threatened. To listen to a secret language is to overhear another culture, from which one is separated by more than a simply linguistic gulf: ‘When one listens, by the side of honest men, at the portals of society, one overhears the dialogues of those who are on the outside.’ Hugo said that argot is ‘language turned convict’: this is interesting for the idea that the cryptolect is more than simply bad or offensive speech. ‘Turned convict’, the secret language becomes a perversion of language itself, obscene not in its vocabulary but from its rejection of universal clarity.

Hugo understood, at least, that ‘all trades, professions… all the accidents of the social hierarchy and all forms of intelligence, have their own slang’. Like Ben Jonson’s language of alchemy, the words of bankers and Shakespeare scholars can (must?) be far from transparent. For Hugo, however, argot remains sui generis, unique in its malignity. But, he suggests, there may be a cure for the speaker of the language of the streets: all it takes for poor Eponine to abandon the language of her criminal family and their associates is the company of a handsome, rich (of course!) student: ‘It is remarkable,’ writes Hugo, ‘that Eponine did not talk slang. That frightful tongue had become impossible to her since she had known Marius.’ Mere proximity to one’s social betters – with a sprinkling of illicit desire – might suffice for cant to be suppressed. In the midst of last year’s London riots, august historian David Starkey worried about the social decay that came with a ‘wholly false’ language of London youth, a ‘Jamaican patois’ which threatened to eat away at decent middle-class values. Perhaps he needs to spruce up and hit the streets.

Secrecy in language was something of an early modern preoccupation. Diaries, correspondence, and marginalia abound in coded writing of the period. The language of alchemists was impenetrable to all but the initiated, a fact that Ben Jonson’s characters manipulated to their advantage. But for others, one way to keep words secret was to bypass the tongue entirely. John Bulwer’s 1644 Chirologia was concerned with ‘the Art of Manuall Rhetoricke’, or more simply, ‘the Naturall Language of the Hand’. For Bulwer, sign language was not just a means of conveying one’s thoughts, or of allowing deaf and mute people to communicate. It could also be used as a code, and for this purpose he included an alphabet in sign language ‘so ordered to serve for privy cyphers for any secret intimation’.

What ‘intimations’ were secret would depend on time and place. In Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’, the sex and desire of the country dance are sublimated in ‘the half-talk code of mysteries/And the wink-and-elbow language of delight’. The same capacity to express delight but in more difficult circumstances can be seen in Polari, the language used among gay men in the mid-twentieth century. Picked up, it’s thought, from Victorian Punch-and-Judy performers and circus-workers, the language of bona and of naff, of having a vada at your dolly old eek, was particularly needed before homosexuality was legal. It seems to have fallen out of use in part after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, when the need to communicate desires secretly abated (at least somewhat). Still, it can’t have helped that Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams’ popular Julian & Sandy sketches on Round the Horne made the riotously camp Polari-speaking man a mainstay of popular culture. For all that a secret language exists – like any other tongue – to communicate, when it loses its parallel capacity to obfuscate, it can survive as little more than a museum piece: the machinery of subterfuge, preserved in parody or on the page.

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.

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. Only last week, I fumed at an advertisement for a multilingual performance of Shakespeare which warned that ‘languages are subject to change’. All languages are subject to change, and argot more so than any other. But this is why we wonder at it: cryptolects marry the utilitarian and the ephemeral, and avoid capture like some of their most fluent speakers.