Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols
Language is itself a code. In its written form it’s an abstract set of signs to represent speech, and in its spoken form an extremely complex set of rules for making intelligent communication using sounds. But if that isn’t complex enough, human beings seem to have a natural tendency to make things even more complicated by inventing all sorts of games, variations, and tricks with language. It’s amazing how far the examples in Barry Blake’s Secret Language go back – certainly to the earliest days of written languages, which have themselves now become a sort of secret code which must be deciphered.
Rather surprisingly, many of the early examples of word squares and double acrostics he discusses come from curse tablets which people believed were effective for anything from defeating fellow athletes in competition, to curing the bite of a rabid dog.
Anagrams, palindromes, acrostics, and riddles all come together in his discussion of the cryptic crossword. These are a surprisingly modern invention, appearing first in 1913, and immediately becoming popular world-wide. There is an entire section devoted to explaining how linguistic tricks inform the setting of clues. He reveals how to interpret them (‘French frock to take off’ = undress) and he throws in some fun examples of word puzzles to solve.
There’s quite a lot on riddles, which are often combined with poetry to create enduring gems such as the Exeter Riddles, and he explains the classic forms of secret codes used by spies and government agents for making messages secure. These are of two types: steganography (which is hiding one text inside another) and cryptography (using a substitution of letters).
Another surprising form of language use he explains is ‘respect language’:
Respect forms of language are often referred.to as ‘mother-in-law languages’, since they are mostly used when a mother-in-law is within earshot. They have the same phonology, morphology, and syntax as the everyday language, but a separate lexicon.
Some people believe that sacred texts contain hidden messages – so when these forms of secret language are used as analytic tools for interpretation of the bible (the Kabbalah) the field is ripe for speculation – though it should be noted that encryption may be suspected more frequently owing to the fact that no vowels were used in classical Hebrew.
Such is belief in the power of words that at its most extreme it takes the form of eating words witten on paper or food – an anthropological form known as ‘contagious magic’. This is still in regular practice of course in the ritual of transubstantiation in the host in Christian churches, where words are transferred (orally) onto wafers for human consumption.
The part of the book I found most entertaining was that on forms of popular secret language – which include rhyming slang, Pig Latin, Polari, back-slang, Tic-Tac, and even L33t – the computer jargon which combines extreme compression, omission, letter substitution, and deliberate mis-spellings.
He concludes with examples of language which are not exactly secret, but in which the communication is not direct – as in the use of irony, euphemism, and deliberate obscurity. These are what he quite rightly puts in the category of ‘everyday oblique’.
And he finishes, logically enough, with instances where language says one thing but references another – as in the use of allusion, quotation, and cultural echoing in which an author or speaker signals a reference to a well known source.
This is a fascinating excursion into an aspect of language studies which includes everything from fun and games to the deadliest forms of subterfuge and political deception.
© Roy Johnson 2010
Barry J. Blake, Secret Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp.328, ISBN: 0199579288