Secret Anti-Languages Of Underworlds

Did you know that there are secret anti-languages that have popped up for centuries in order to confuse authorities?  These offshoots of their original languages have been around since at least the Elizabethan times in merry olde England, and were often a way for criminals and thieves to talk about their plans without tipping off the public or the authorities.  Some terms for these slang dialects are Thieves Cant, Polari, and yes… Gobbledygook.  Yep.  Gobbledygook is actually a dialect from old English that vagrants used in order to talk among themselves.

In a recent and very good BBC article, here are a few examples of these underground languages:

Could you erectify a luxurimole flackoblots? Have you hidden your chocolate cake from Penelope? Or maybe you’re just going to vada thebona omi?


Byng we to Rome vyle to nyp a bounge, so shall we have lower for the bowsing ken (Thieves’ Cant)

Jonathon Green, a researcher and linguist as well as author of the the book Language: 500 Years Of The Vulgar Tongue, says that many of these alternative dialects tend to spring up around our basest pasttimes – crime, sex, fears and anger, and self-esteem.  Things that humans tend to be obsessed about, but don’t like to talk about in plain terms.

In the 16th century a man named Thomas Harman documented much of the then known sub-dialects in England, offering food and money to beggars in return for “words” or lessons in the sub-dialects.  You can actually read his old book A Caveat Or Warning For Common Cursitors where he documents much of the lexicon of these slang languages. (Nevermind the foreign spelling of almost every English word in that tome!  Spelling was actually not a virtue back then, believe it or not.)  Go down to page 79 for a good glossary.

More recently, the British Michael Halliday has been studying more recent examples of these sub dialects.  For example, the slang spoken in Calcutta as well as Polish prisoner slang known as “Grypserka”.  He found notable similarities between these and the older grandfathers of these dialects.

Even more useful than perhaps mystifying the public as well as law enforcement, these languages also help achieve a sort of hierarchy within these subcultures.  Knowing and speaking the languages is requirement for membership, and the more you know, the higher up you are.  Refusing or not knowing would designate you as a bottom rung member, bound to have a very hard time.

Even non-criminal subcultures often have their own slang that designates a sort of hierarchy.  Take surfing or skateboarding for example – although you could potentially use any action sport.  The number of slang terms involved is extensive.  Outsiders would have no knowledge of what it would mean to “tre flip crook the hubba”.  It’s a slang of membership with indecipherable terms to achieve a sort of specialized membership.  New slang arises all the time in these subcultures just to ensure members are paying attention and are still part of the crew.

Do you know of any slang subcultures that you interact with or even participate in?  Leave a comment below!