The Secret Languages of English Con Men, Parisian Prostitutes, and German Bandits

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 5 2013 7:21 AM

The Tongues of Rogues

How secret languages develop in closed societies.

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Still, reading Dark Tongues, I found myself wishing that Heller-Roazen had been more willing to venture outside the green fields of philology. Literary historical nuggets, such as the troubadours’ practice of not naming their love objects or the Hittites’ habit of assigning multiple names to their deities, can be intriguing, but they distract from the central premise of the book, which is fascinating enough on its own. Not only that: It seems, in a deep way, to be true. Secret languages really are everywhere, and they aren’t just the special domain of vagabonds. They show up in every nation, and they belong to a surprising range of social groups.

Historically, cryptolects have been especially prevalent among service nomads: outsiders who provide settled populations with services they lack but are nonetheless met with hostility and mistrust, such as Gypsy coppersmiths, Irish Travelers, or the Sheikh Mohammadi peddlers of Afghanistan. Merchants the world over have developed their own languages to hide the true nature of their business from others.  Examples include the specialized dialects of Yemeni businessman, Cairene goldsmiths, French butchers, Parisian prostitutes, Irish masons, and Jewish cattle traders, whose specialized dialect, nicknamed Loshen-Koudesh, appears to have persisted into the 20th century in, of all places, Orange County, N.Y

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Courtesy of Zone Books

Sometimes, cants jump between subcultures. Calunga, an Afro-Brazilian cryptolect spoken only by men, preserves a large number of Bantu-derived words brought to Brazil by slaves from Angola. In England, Parlyaree, the language of carnies and fairground showmen, migrated from its original milieu into the merchant marine, eventually turning into Polari, the secret language of English gay men and women until it fell out of use in the 1970s. At other times, cants become almost universal. In a study of a cryptolect spoken on an island off the coast of Panama, the linguist Michael Aceto made a list of occasions when it was used: by children, to exclude their peers; by students, to conceal things from their teachers; by parents, who wanted to communicate privately in front of their children; and by locals, who didn’t want to be understood by outsiders. With so many uses, it seems strange that it could be used to conceal anything from anyone.

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In fact, some secret languages aren’t about secrecy at all. Often, they are products of the marginality of the people who speak them. Every group that is, in some way, set apart from a dominant, settled society because of ethnicity, caste, or profession—whether Jews, Gypsies, tinkers, peddlers, beggars—is liable over time either to retain its original tongue or, by dint of exclusion, to develop a language of its own.   This holds for crooks as well.  David W. Maurer, the 20th century’s leading student of American underworld slang, reported in The Big Con that most of his criminal informants were “amused at the idea that crooks are supposed to deceive people with their lingo.” Maurer spent decades studying the specialized language of pickpockets, con men, drug users, safecrackers, counterfeiters, and moonshiners and found that in most cases their individual cant or argot was simply a mark of their profession, “a union card … which takes several years to acquire and which is difficult to counterfeit.”

Secrecy ends up being something of a blind alley in Dark Tongues. Instead of diving into speculation about the existence of poetic codes, Heller-Roazen might have been better served by paying more attention to the lives of his original protagonists—or even to the poetry inherent in cant itself. After all, the word cant comes from the Latin cantare, “to sing,” and it’s hard to deny the “hesitation between sound and sense” in many of the dialogues recorded by Harman and his followers. Take this sentence: “The jug where his cush is, is an eye gaff, and I’m afraid of Old Poison getting the beef.” What would a trained literary scholar make of that? Unfortunately, we don’t know, because it’s from Maurer’s The Big Con, not Heller-Roazen’s book.

If Heller-Roazen had been interested in the answer, he might have written a less polite book, and one that could live up to the menace of its title. Dark Tongues opens a door, but cant is still waiting for a 21st-century successor to Thomas Harman and David Maurer. Whoever takes up the task ought to be less preoccupied with the words of scholars and more alive to cant’s place in the language we speak every day, as we go about filching loot, wearing duds, drinking pruno, roping marks, and counting our booty, shivs in hand. 

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Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Zone Books.

Jacob Mikanowski is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif.