You may not be aware that there are, out in the world, many private languages – languages that offer speakers and listeners within a particular group or subculture the ability to talk about things that could if said in public cause one or both to be hated, persecuted, prosecuted, or even killed.


The academic literature sometimes call these antilanguages, a term coined by M.A.K. Halliday in 1976 to describe those secret languages used by (what he also named) “anti-societies”, e.g. prisoners, fairground workers, gay men, lesbians, thieves, Voynich researchers ( 😉 ), etc.

For me, I suspect that pitching them as tools of active resocialization formed within consciously-formed alternatives to the mainstream (as Halliday does) is a little bit overreductive: from my point of view, they are necessary parallel forms of language when the use of mainstream language would be personally problematic.

Polari And Its Sisters

This need for ‘privacy in public’ has led to a large number of cant slangs, such as Polari – this is a very old UK cant slang used by many subcultures (fairground people, Punch & Judy men, gay people, etc). Even though there are two fairly recent books on it (both by Paul Baker), this private language first came to wider public attention (a linguistic paradox if ever I heard one) thanks to the 1960s radio programme “Round the Horne” and its two Polari ‘homy polones’, Julian and Sandy.

Even though Polari seems – in my opinion – to have a closer historical connection to Punch and Judy performers than anything else, it has become best known (thanks to Julian and Sandy, arguably the first “celebrity gay couple”, as one programme put it) as a gay cant slang.

Yet even if it was culturally appropriated in this way, Polari is far from the only gay subculture language. One could quickly point to Bahasa Binan in Indonesia, Gayle and IsiNgqumo in South Africa, and Swardspeak / Bekimon (short for “Baklang Jejemon”) in the Philippines, all countries where verbally displaying as gay can be physically perilous in the extreme.

It’s a fascinating linguistic area, for sure.

Calabar Lesbian Cryptic Languages

Now adding to this existing array of public/private languages is Nigerian researcher Waliya Yohanna Joseph at the University of Calabar. Calabar is a port city, capital of Cross River State on the Nigerian border with Cameroon: incidentally, it’s a part of Nigeria I happen to have an (indirect) connection with.

Waliya’s article (which appears in Anna Odrowaz-Coates & Sribas Goswami (2017) Symbolic violence in social contexts. A post-colonial critique.) is called “Calabar Lesbian Cryptic Languages”, and is downloadable on ResearchGate.

As you would expect, using this cryptic language yields the speakers “emotional and sexual liberation, as well as anthropological security”, because “Lesbians preferred not to be known by the general public in Nigerian society.”

Though the basic form is numbers, there are also enciphered forms. One ciphertext is quoted:

Ba1baya ga3rala, 3 la4va2 5. 5 1ra2 sa4 ba215ta3fa5la. 3 na22da 5 3na maya la3fa2.
Wa3lala 5 la4va2 ta4 ba2 maya fara32nada? 3 para4ma3sa2 ta4 la4va2 5 1nada 5 1la4na2.
Ra2palaya !

The paper goes on to say that “violence against the female child among other things are also very prevalent in Single public schools where Senior students and self-declared school mothers force, entice and cajole the juniors in the hostels to practice lesbianism, abortion and prostitution.” It makes for uncomfortable reading at times.

At the same time, it has to be said that the author’s position seems to be perhaps a little overfocused on Calabar: the idea that lesbianism is perilous in Africa in general, even more so in Nigeria, and yet more so in Calabar doesn’t really do the paper justice. There also seems to be a moralistic tightrope being patrolled here, when the paper pitches itself as being…

of help especially to parents, teachers, lecturers, matrons, guardians and care givers who may wish to protect their wards from strange sexual orientations such as same sex relationships.

Still, it is a bold and interesting piece of work, shining a light not only on the edges of language and cipher, but also on the sharp differences between the specific mores of Calabar and those generally of “post-colonial” societies – particularly of those people reading the paper.

2 thoughts on “Antilanguages, and Calabar lesbian cryptic languages…

  1. Mark Knowles on December 12, 2017 at 8:16 pm said:

    I guess an obvious example would be something like Cockney Rhyming Slang which was originally used, if my memory is correct, as a private language between East-End market traders.

  2. Koen Gheuens on December 13, 2017 at 4:49 am said:

    There used to be an entry in the Dutch wiki that a group of transvestites in Jakarta uses Dutch – the language of the former colonist – as a secret language. The entry was gone last time I checked though, and at the time I was unable to find any source confirming the story.

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