Anti-languages and argots

June 20, 2022 by Alison Tunley

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Anti-languages and argotsThis blog recently delved into Polari, a form of slang used as a kind of secret language by people working in theatres, fairgrounds and markets and subsequently adopted by some gay people in the early to mid-20th century. This kind of jargon associated with a particular group is sometimes referred to as an argot or cant. The term argot, in particular, is often used to describe the highly specialised vocabulary associated with a particular field of expertise. Doctors are often said to speak in a form of code, incorporating abbreviations, acronyms, technical colloquialisms and other everyday slang (including the infamous ‘brats and twats’ for ‘obstetrics and gynaecology’ from the recent BBC drama This is Going to Hurt).

Strictly speaking, an argot is a proper language with its own grammatical system, but in practice this kind of complete language is rare and an argot simply offers lexical alternatives to a main, shared language. Sometimes people can become so immersed in an argot, they find it difficult to shift to more standard language use. Lawyers have a reputation for clinging unnecessarily to legalese, sprinkling ‘hereinafter’, ‘forthwith’ and ‘insofar as’ into their everyday communications.

In 1978, linguist Michael Halliday identified a particular type of slang that is specifically used by ostracised social groups or communities that have set themselves up with an alternative philosophy to society at large. He named this anti-language. Halliday drew on the sociological concept of an anti-society, which is a society set up within another society as a conscious alternative to it. He referenced work by Adam Podgórecki, who described an anti-society of Polish prisoners and their elaborated anti-language called Grypsera, and he referenced Bhaktiprasad Mallik’s 1972 book Language of the Underworld of West Bengal. Halliday also described contemporary accounts of criminal populations in Elizabethan England who “had their own tongue”, commonly referred to as thieves’ cant or peddler’s French.

Halliday emphasised the importance of the anti-language to the culture of the in-group, mentioning its role in resocialisation and emphasising its fundamental contribution to the group’s ethos. He borrowed the term ‘second life’ from Adam Podgorecki to describe the subculture within these groups, which is fortified by the group jargon. Halliday also emphasised the way anti-languages reconstruct reality according to the values of the group. Linguist Paul Baker suggests Polari fits well within this definition of an anti-language in the way it allowed gay men to mock and demean mainstream society. Favoured Polari terms for the much-loathed police focused heavily on feminising descriptions that now seem quaintly sexist: “Betty bracelets”, “lily law”, “Hilda handcuffs”, “orderly daughters”.

Language loss in the case of anti-languages often seems to arise when the stigmatised sub-group becomes more mainstream. In the case of Polari this came through the change in cultural attitudes to sexual orientation in the late 1960s and 1970s. For the anti-language among Polish prisoners, by contrast, the factors that led to the emergence of Grypsera are as relevant as ever and this argot is described as lexically rich with multiple sub-varieties focused on individual prisons.

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