I just learned a useful term from Wikipedia: “An anti-language or cant is the language of a social group which develops as a means of preventing people from outside the group understanding it. […] Examples of anti-languages include cockney rhyming slang, CB slang, the grypsera of Polish prisons, thieves’ cant, Polari, and possibly Bangime. The concept was studied by the linguist M. A. K. Halliday who used the term for the lingua franca of an anti-society which is set up within another society, as a conscious alternative to it, and which indicates linguistic accomplishments of the users in action.” My problem is that I’m not sure how it’s supposed to differ from a cryptolect. Is anyone familiar enough with this stuff to clarify (if indeed there is a significant difference)?

(By the way, we discussed Polari back in 2003.)


  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    I have trouble imagining anyone arguing in indignant or triumphant tones that “Xish isn’t a cryptolect, it’s an anti-language!” Or vice versa. Obviously the different terms might be suitable for different registers or contexts.

  2. And gorse is furze and furze is gorse and they, or it, belong to the genus Ulex, also known as whin in Scotland.

  3. I don’t think that CB slang was intended to prevent people from understanding it. It is a means of indicating membership in a group. Polari seems to be along much the same lines.

    CB slang isn’t even that difficult to understand once you catch on to a few basic concepts.

    Backslang, on the other hand, was created specifically to prevent other people from understanding, in that it allowed the sellers of fruits, vegetables and the like to do deals among themselves without the regular customers, who would have been standing about, being able to understand the deals and prices they were negotiating. Thieves’ cant would allow people in a public place to discuss committing crimes without giving away their plans.

    These are two different purposes but it’s easy for them to blend together.

  4. Wikipedia’s opening sentence is from a BBC article rather than Halliday’s 1976 paper.. The latter is on JSTOR and states “while secrecy is a necessary strategic property of anti-languages, it is unlikely to be the major cause of their existence”.

    When was “cryptolect” coined? Few works seem to use both “cryptolect” and “anti-language”. Peter Burke’s introduction to “Languages and jargons: contributions to a social history of language” apparently describes cryptolects as the “anti-language of a counter-culture, or a marginal language for marginal people”.

  5. Jim (another one) says:

    “I don’t think that CB slang was intended to prevent people from understanding it. It is a means of indicating membership in a group. Polari seems to be along much the same lines.”

    Actually Polari served both purposes but both served essentially the same purpose – operational security. Using Polari identified you as a fellow gay man in a time when that was illegal and had to be kept secret. Polari also served as a cryptolect by allowing gay men to make a comment here and there in a conversation where straight people were present.

    An example of this, and it’s not Polari, is the use of the word “family”. “Do you think he’s family?” “It’s a family kind of place” are about the person or place being gay, though they would almost certainly not be interpreted that way by the straight people present. I think the Polari equivalent would be “musical.” Both are innocuous words that can be misunderstood and that misunderstanding is the cover they provide.

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