Exploring languages and cultures
Exploring languages and cultures

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Exploring languages and cultures

3.2.2 Polari, argot and Lunfardo

You will now listen to three audio clips in which members of the Open University’s Department of Languages talk about slang used in three different cultures: English Polari, Argentinian Lunfardo and French argot.

As you listen, it is worth bearing in mind that the origins of particular varieties of language are never easy to date with any precision, especially as they often evolve from the language environment around them.

Activity 18

Listen to the following audios and try to identify the main similarities and differences between these three sociolects. As you listen you may find it helpful to focus on the following aspects:

  • how they originated: who spoke them and why
  • how words and expressions are formed
  • attitudes of mainstream society/culture towards their use
  • present usage.
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Polari
Skip transcript: Polari

Transcript: Polari

Interviewer:
Fernando, what is Polari?
Fernando Rosell Aguilar:
Well, Polari was a sort of slang that originated among gay men to communicate without being understood kind of in the same way that, you know, Cockney rhyming slang did and, and other similar dialects and slang types.
Interviewer:
How did it originate?
Fernando Rosell Aguilar:
Well, it was mostly a language around the beginning of the twentieth century, 1920s, ’30s, that kind of started being used in, in what the equivalent of nowadays would be a gay bar, so establishments where gay people would go, um, the theatre and also the merchant navy, where a lot of gay men kind of enrolled to sort of escape the places where they were.
Interviewer:
And what was the function of, er, Polari?
Fernando Rosell Aguilar:
Well it was sort of, it was a code, so it protected you from being understood by others, and we have to remember that in those times and for many years after, homosexuality was a crime. So, you needed to make sure that you were speaking to people who would understand you but also that others wouldn’t understand you when you were making references to something that was illegal.
Interviewer:
What kinds of words did they use then?
Fernando Rosell Aguilar:
Well, a lot of them seemed to come from Italian or from Romany culture, because, you know, the kind of, the theatre environment was also often linked to the circus. Some of them have made it to the mainstream, so words like ‘bitch’, ‘camp’, er, ‘drag’, ‘naff’, all those were words that originated in Polari, and actually the word ‘Polari’ is kind of an interpretation of the word parlare in Italian. So, a lot of those would now be understood in the mainstream.
Some other words like, um, cottage or cottaging to refer to sex in a public toilet, or zhoosh for ‘style’, dinari for, um, to mean ‘money’, have remained less commonly known.
Interviewer:
So they would use a combination of words from other languages and words from English but with a different meaning?
Fernando Rosell Aguilar:
That’s right. There’s also a lot of, er, Yiddish that was incorporated in to it as well.
Interviewer:
What were the attitudes of society at large towards, um, Polari and have these changed over time?
Fernando Rosell Aguilar:
Well, at first, basically society was not aware of Polari. That’s the whole point of a code, that it’s meant to be a secret. It really kind of became prominent with the, er, Julian and Sandy sketches in the ’60s with Kenneth Williams, and so it, it sort of did two things. It brought it fame, so to speak, and made it popular but at the same time, because people outside of that code could suddenly understand these words, the code lost its functionality.
You also have to take into consideration that homosexuality was decriminalised in England in the, in 1967. So, a lot of the reasons for using it sort of went away, at least in legal terms. Obviously it has taken society a lot longer to adapt to that and obviously there are still kind of issues around it and battles to be fought in that, in that sense, but also what happened was that among the gay, um, community, population, it also became sort of a bit not necessarily, old fashioned to a certain extent, but also kind of regarded in a less positive way. Because it was being used by perhaps very camp, very theatrical people, other members of, of the gay population who didn’t identify with those people who were using it rejected it.
Interviewer:
Who use it these days?
Fernando Rosell Aguilar:
Nowadays it’s not really used as a code. Er, in the 1990s there was a bit of an effort to kind of revitalise it, and it sort of, it was targeted as an endangered language. Nowadays it’s mostly entertainers who use it, you know, people like Julian Clary, Paul O’Grady, Matt Lucas, you know, for sketches and in comedy.
Interviewer:
Fernando, you’re Spanish. Is there a similar phenomenon in Spain?
Fernando Rosell Aguilar:
I think most languages have some sort of code that gay people have used to keep what was a clandestine thing secret from others. American English had a similar code, er, Japanese also had a gay code, er, and in Spain, yes, um, a lot of it now is old-fashioned and a lot of the words that were originally used as a secret code are now in the mainstream, as has happened with Polari. But there’s words like entender, literally ‘to understand’. So, if you said of someone, ‘Oh, does he understand?’ what you were asking really is, ‘Is he gay?’ Then words like tener pluma, um, literally, ‘to have a feather’ signified being quite camp or effeminate, and words like reina, ‘queen’ or loca, um, ‘crazy woman’, referred to, to gay men … mostly affectionately: there are plenty of words in every language that are disrespectful to gay men and lesbians, and, um, those were kind of terms of endearment really. Um, people call each other hermana, ‘sister’, or prima, ‘cousin’, mari, which is actually short for maricón which is the word, you know, negative words for, for gay and, um, it’s kind of been adopted and turned around to say ‘actually I will accept the word’.
Then there’s, there’s some funny words that haven’t really made it so much to the mainstream, like buga to refer to a heterosexual person; Elvis was, um, someone who was bisexual; and, um, you talk about someone being ‘in the opposite side of the sidewalk’ en la acera de enfrente, and combinations of these like, for example, loca is quite a well-known expression to refer to a, to a gay man. Um, you can also have variants like musculoca, which is basically a ‘muscle Mary’, as you would say it in English.
Interviewer:
Well, it’s interesting because it looks like all these groups that have their own code also have a term to describe the, the people who are not members of the group.
Fernando Rosell Aguilar:
That’s right, yes. Obviously to, sort of, as a warning you may want to use it and say, oh, people around you may not want to identify with. I think that the clandestine nature of it is, is what’s been particularly interesting about these types of codes, and in a way, nowadays it’s a bit of a double-edged thing isn’t it, because it’s sad that this type of use of language is, is dying. At the same time, at least in many societies nowadays, it means that there’s no need for it and that, you know, gay people don’t have to, to hide and use secret codes because there’s nothing illegal or shameful about it. That is great, but again it’s a little bit sad in the sense that this richness of the language is disappearing.
There are still many places in the world where being gay is illegal, punishable by even death, and as long as there are places like that, codes similar to Polari will be required and in use.
End transcript: Polari
Polari
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Lunfardo
Skip transcript: Lunfardo

Transcript: Lunfardo

Interviewer:
What is Lunfardo?
Cecilia Garrido:
Lunfardo is slang with a vocabulary of around 6000 words which emerged among the lower class in Buenos Aires around the second half of the nineteenth century. Its name comes from Lombardo [Lombardy], the Italian region, and it is associated with the tango culture which followed a similar process of going from dark origins to being accepted as part of the Argentinean culture.
Lunfardo has its origins among the lower-class immigrant population arriving in Buenos Aires from Europe and particularly from Italy, and some of these immigrants found themselves quite lost in, in this new city and became involved in criminal activities. Therefore, Lunfardo had two main purposes: one, communication across different languages, and two, the development of some sort of code that would allow them to have something in common that would prevent the police to know about their illicit activities.
Interviewer:
Can you give us a few examples of, um, Lunfardo words?
Cecilia Garrido:
Well, according to José Gobello, who is the president of the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo, the lexicon of Lunfardo came from, in three different ways. One was loans from other languages, so from Italian for instance, so, um, you will have gamba, which is ‘leg’ in Italian. Also, bouillon, from French, which is ‘soup’, um, but also there were redefinition of existing vocabularies. So, for instance quemar, which in Spanish means ‘burn’, was used as meaning ‘killing with a firearm’, so that was kind of using, you know, the words in a different way, but perhaps the more creative way, um, of words … coming in to Lunfardo was the, um, making up of new words by distorting existing words. So for, instance, the word vesre, which is changing the order of existing words, the word revés became vesre in Lunfardo.
Interviewer:
So, it’s said backwards, isn’t it?
Cecilia Garrido:
It says … Well, it’s changing the orders because this is not the, exactly backwards but it’s changing the orders, and others were kind of mutilated. So, for instance, the word comissario became sario. And other things like, for instance, garpar came from pagar. So, it’s, it was changing, you know, playing with the existing words.
Interviewer:
What did society at large think of, er, Lunfardo?
Cecilia Garrido:
Well, the reputation of Lunfardo has undergone the same change as tango, which basically from being not acceptable and very low reputation to become something that is part of the cultural identity, the Argentinean cultural identity. At the beginning, because it was limited to the underclasses, it was not accepted, and when it changed then it became more acceptable and tango became part of the entertainment in Europe and then regained some kind of prestige and became prestigious in Argentina. Similarly, Lunfardo has, has had the same evolution.
Interviewer:
Is it used these days?
Cecilia Garrido:
Well, despite its dark origin some words and expressions have actually entered the mainstream language but only in a colloquial manner, and it is accepted, and the fact that it’s been studied, and that there is literature and its manifestations in poetry are kind of becoming known, it’s given it a different life, and this academy of, that studies Lunfardo looks after not only studying it but looking at its preservation for the future.
Interviewer:
So, there’s actually an ‘academy of Lunfardo’?
Cecilia Garrido:
Yes, the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo, created in 1962, actually devotes its work to studying and looking for the preservation of Lunfardo for the future.
End transcript: Lunfardo
Lunfardo
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Argot
Skip transcript: Argot

Transcript: Argot

Elodie Vialleton:
Argot is the French word that refers to slang. It’s a word that first appeared in the French language in the sixteenth century, and in those days it referred to the community of beggars and their way of speaking. Of course, it’s evolved through the ages. One of the main meanings of the language is the type of language that the community of thieves used to speak in the nineteenth century. The reason thieves were using their own language was that they did not want to be understood by the police. So, for them argot was a kind of code.
Interviewer:
Was that the only function of argot?
Elodie Vialleton:
There aren’t too many functions of argot. First, it’s a type of language that a community is using so as not to be understood by the rest of the population, or it’s a type of language that a community creates to strengthen the feeling of community, so to make the language their own.
Interviewer:
Can you give us a few examples of how the words enter argot?
Elodie Vialleton:
There are two main ways words enter argot, at least in the French language. The first one is new words or borrowed words. An example of a new word that was formed by a community is the verb cambrioler, ‘to burgle’. That was a fully new created word used by thieves who did not want to be understood by the police.
A second way new words can enter argot is borrowed words. So, particular communities might bring in words from other languages into French argot, especially nowadays the argot spoken in the outskirts of Paris incorporates a lot of Arabic words because the population in that area that speaks that type of language is mainly from Arabic origin.
An example of that would be the word casbah, which is Arabic for ‘house’ [citadel] and which is used instead of maison in French. Or the word maboul also an Arabic word meaning ‘mad’ and that is commonly used to refer to mad people instead of fou in French. That’s an interesting one because it’s become a colloquial word in French that is used by a lot of people.
Another way words are created and become argot is by modifying existing words. So, one very, very well-known example of that is le verlan, which is words used back to front [backslang]. Le verlan means envers in French, it’s back to front, and envers means ‘back to front’. There are many examples of that, for example, le féca, which means le café [coffee], or le tromé, which mean le métro [the underground].
Words can also be modified by adding suffixes to them. So, for example, the suffix -ard produces lots of words in argot. One example is the word costume, which means a suit, becoming un costard in argot and then now used in colloquial French. Another example is -oche. La cantine [canteen] becomes la cantoche. Or –os: le matériel [equipment/material(s)/gear] becomes le matos. Somebody who likes music is called a musiquos.
Many words get shortened in argot, so, for example, un problème becomes un blème, un sandwich becomes un dwich, la prison becomes la zon.
What’s also interesting is that some words get created that have gone through more than one of those processes, so, for example, le métro, ‘the underground’, has become le tromé by being used back to front, and then it’s been shortened to le trome, so le trome is le métro.
Interviewer:
What are the attitudes of society towards argot? Has it changed over time?
Elodie Vialleton:
I think people’s attitudes to argot has changed. Initially argot was mainly spoken by sections of the communities that were not well regarded in society. Also, because a lot of argot was created to talk about subjects or notions that were taboo such as talking about sex, talking about drugs, talking about money, which is a topic that people don’t like using in conversations very much in France, many of the words were considered rude and not words that the mainstream population would want to use ever. However, because that language featured in some works of literature, for example, it became more popular. One typical example is the novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, which actually had an entire section dedicated to l’argot, and it also had a character, Gavroche, who spoke that type of language. That made it more popular and that meant that more people wanted to either identify with that use of the language or wanted to borrow from that language, and that is how it started the process of words and structures in argot becoming part of the mainstream language, and that became more and more popular, and there are now numerous words, which initially were argot words, which are now part of the common language and that you would find in any French dictionary.
Interviewer:
Is argot still evolving these days?
Elodie Vialleton:
Argot is still evolving today. One main source of new argot words is the suburbs of big cities, such as Paris and Marseille. There are places where deprived members of the population live and they create a new type of language to appropriate the French language, to make it their own and they certainly consider themselves as a different … as a community within society, and so using common words and common expressions is a way of forging a new identity.
Interviewer:
Does it change very fast?
Elodie Vialleton:
It can change quite fast because as soon as a word becomes mainstream then the community within which it was initially created stops using it because it’s lost its purpose as defining you as a different community. So, it keeps evolving. Some words become mainstream, and some new words are created.
End transcript: Argot
Argot
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1 What similarities were you able to identify between Polari, Lunfardo and argot? Make a note of them in the box below.

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Answer

  • All three evolved, in part, as a secret code for speakers to use as a means of excluding the wider society from their communications. Inevitably, this exclusive function also generated an inclusive one, building a sense of group identity and belonging among users of a particular slang.
  • They were (or are) primarily used by marginalised communities, and also often (but not always) related to criminal or covert activity.
  • They were (or are) not languages as such because they did not evolve their own syntax. They have, however, forged distinct lexicons.
  • Words were (or are) imported from other languages, common words were given new meanings and existing words were transformed by, for example, truncating them and changing the order of the sounds and syllables.
  • Initially, mainstream society was either unaware of these slang varieties or regarded them with disdain, reflecting the low regard with which speakers of these varieities were held in the wider community.
  • Attitudes towards these slang varieties have changed, in part, because they have featured in the arts and media. One of the indicators of the greater acceptance and even embracing of these varieties is that some of the words have entered common usage. This wider exposure undermined one of the main functions of these varieties, to allow speakers to communicate covertly.

2 What differences did you identify between Polari, Lunfardo and argot? Make a note of them in this box.

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Answer

  • There are clear differences in the specifics of the three slang varieties – they originated in different places and among different sections of society. Unsurprisingly, they drew their lexicon from different languages.
  • The main generalisable difference between them seems to lie in their relative vitality. Polari, for example, has now become an interesting footnote in linguistic history in contrast to argot which continues to evolve. A slang variety’s robustness seems to be related to the degree to which sections of the community that use that variety continue to feel suppressed. So, in the UK, generally more liberal attitudes towards the gay community and a radically altered legal status may have contributed to Polari’s demise. On the other hand, the immigrant communities in the suburbs of French cities still largely feel excluded from the mainstream, which is one reason why French argot continues to evolve.
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