I’ve nanti dinarly; park me some handbag for another buvare!

If you don’t know what the above sentence means, do not worry; it’s Polari, a secret language or ‘cryptolect’, and, as such, it’s not meant to be understood by everyone (it actually means ‘I’ve got no money; give me some money for another drink.’).

Polari is just one of many interesting examples. Throughout history, cryptolects (sometimes also known as ‘argots’ or ‘cants’) have developed as alternative languages for groups who are, to some extent, at odds with mainstream society and seek new forms of identity. Language, then, becomes a powerful way to create an alternative social structure and promote a sense of community among members of the group. Examples range from youth slang, which often emerges in opposition to adulthood and ‘adult speak’, to more subversive cryptolects used by criminal networks who hide from the law. What all these examples have in common is a powerful mix of exclusivity, defiance of norms and a sense of empowerment. So, let’s have a look at two of the most studied examples, before moving on to some slightly different types of cryptolanguages.

Cockney Rhyming Slang and Polari

Secretive languages are a triumph of human creativity. Take, for instance, the Cockney Rhyming Slang, which developed in the 19th century in the East End of London. It was a jargon that would help distinguish members of the in-group from outsiders. The Slang is based on rhyming associations, so, for example, ‘bees and honey’ means ‘money’, ‘apples and pears’ means ‘stairs’, and so on. However, to complicate things, some of these expressions would sometimes be shortened, resulting, for instance, in a word like ‘boat’ meaning ‘face’. That’s because ‘face’ rhymes with ‘boat race’; you then leave ‘race’ out and you only use the first word of that phrase.

Polari, on the other hand, originated as gay men’s cant in 20th-century Britain, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. While generally maintaining an English sentence structure, as my initial quote (‘I’ve nanti dinarly; park me some handbag for another buvare!’) demonstrates, words were formed through a combination of English, Yiddish, Italian and sometimes theatre slang. Polari is a testament to the struggles of a marginalised subculture and its fight to mark its identity, while rejecting traditional and oppressive institutions and reclaiming power. As a language, it’s fun and sassy, and there is also an app now that helps you navigate the most common words and phrases!

"Wouldn't It Be Loverly" is a popular song written for the 1956 Broadway play My Fair Lady. the song lyrics highlight severaal facets of the Cockney accent

The language of cryptocurrencies

It is not uncommon for particular professions or sectors of the economy to develop their own jargons. Recently, I have noticed a similar trend around the so-called ‘cryptocurrencies’ and ‘NFTs’. Like, you know, ‘this artist just sold their art as an NFT and was paid in Ether, while the buyer now owns a unique ID on a blockchain’. What? – you may wonder.

Essentially, digital currencies such as Bitcoin or Ether are called ‘cryptocurrencies’, because they inhabit an unregulated area of the economy. An ‘NFT’ is a non-fungible (i.e., non-replaceable) token and refers to the fact that a digital piece of art can be assigned a unique ID and thus be registered on something resembling a public ledger, the ‘blockchain’. Buying an NFT, then, means acquiring a digital certificate of ownership.

What I find fascinating is that, much in the same way as cryptocurrencies are an expression of decentralised finance, the jargon that has developed around them is very similar to a cryptolect, which adds to the general mystique and helps to consolidate these new practices as an alternative economic structure.

Teenage talk

On a more personal level, I have recently been thinking about my teenage years and the creative lingos that my classmates and I would come up with. Two, in particular, have stuck with me.

The first one was a naming system based on our fathers’ names. Don’t ask me why or how it started. It just did. In this system, for example, I was ‘Sandro’, because that’s my dad’s name. However, there were often variations based on the original name; so, from Sandro, I would also be called ‘Sandokan’, which is the name of a fictional pirate in an Italian novel. Another great example was a guy whose dad’s name was ‘Edoardo’ and, from that, somebody came up with the nickname ‘Dodo’, which started an entire saga with stories, jokes and drawings of this quasi-mythological bird. None of them were particularly funny, when I look back. But what’s interesting is that, now, I can see how these dad-based names were, in essence, ‘patronyms’ , which can be found in something as ancient as Homer’s Iliad, where they indicate the lineage of a hero (e.g., Achilles is sometimes addressed as Πελείδης, or ‘son of Peleus’).

The second cryptolect that I remember (and, between us, still use whenever there’s a reunion) was made of ridiculously random expressions mostly having to do with dating, having a crush on somebody and navigating the uncertainty of all of that. So, for example, if someone you had a crush on entered the room, you would whisper ‘life is strange/horrendous for me right now!’, which would then be shortened to the simple exclamation: ‘Strange! Strange!’. Some expressions were much more colourful (and random) than that; I definitely heard ‘Northern and Southern Iceland!’ or ‘Xena, the warrior princess!’. They all meant the same thing: ‘Oh my god, my crush is here and I’m feeling the butterflies, yet I want to vanish into thin air!’. As I write this, I’m trying to think of a cool linguistic mechanism at play here: nothing. Pure randomness.

Both the patronyms and the dating lingo were completely obscure to outsiders, whether it be our parents or students from outside our class. I believe it was a way to create our own teen subculture, drawing the confines of a sacred space between childhood and adulthood. A safe place where we were all still figuring it out, because we didn’t know who we were or what we wanted, and it was okay not to know.

Funnily enough, the ‘oh-my-god-my-crush-is-here’ lingo seems to be a universal tendency. My partner, who’s from England, tells me that he and his friends from school would stick their tongues out and emit a guttural shriek (something like ‘arghhh’) whenever somebody’s crush was around.

Wrap-up

Cryptolects are a mixture of defiance, creativity and solidarity; their secrecy makes us feel special and powerful. You can start your own with your group of friends: no rule is the rule. Use any wordplay or mish-mash that your mind can think of. You can even push it further and create your own personal language, an idioglossia, inaccessible to anybody else. However, if a summer of love is in the cards, try not to use any random exclamations or guttural shrieks when you’re out with your date. Be your charming self and stick to a language that you both know, and perhaps they will buy you ‘another buvare’. ?

cryptolects, idioglossia