Musing on Secret Languages

This is really interesting. It starts by talking about a “cant” dictionary of 16th-century thieves’ argot, and ends up talking about secret languages in general.

Incomprehension breeds fear. A secret language can be a threat: signifier has no need of signified in order to pack a punch. Hearing a conversation in a language we don’t speak, we wonder whether we’re being mocked. The klezmer-loshn spoken by Jewish musicians allowed them to talk about the families and wedding guests without being overheard. Germanía and Grypsera are prison languages designed to keep information from guards—the first in sixteenth-century Spain, the second in today’s Polish jails. The same logic shows how a secret language need not be the tongue of a minority or an oppressed group: given the right circumstances, even a national language can turn cryptolect. In 1680, as Moroccan troops besieged the short-lived British city of Tangier, Irish soldiers manning the walls resorted to speaking as Gaeilge, in Irish, for fear of being understood by English-born renegades in the Sultan’s armies. To this day, the Irish abroad use the same tactic in discussing what should go unheard, whether bargaining tactics or conversations about taxi-drivers’ haircuts. The same logic lay behind North African slave-masters’ insistence that their charges use the Lingua Franca (a pidgin based on Italian and Spanish and used by traders and slaves in the early modern Mediterranean) so that plots of escape or revolt would not go unheard. A Flemish captive, Emanuel d’Aranda, said that on one slave-galley alone, he heard “the Turkish, the Arabian, Lingua Franca, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English.” On his arrival at Algiers, his closest companion was an Icelander. In such a multilingual environment, the Lingua Franca didn’t just serve for giving orders, but as a means of restricting chatter and intrigue between slaves. If the key element of the secret language is that it obscures the understandings of outsiders, a national tongue can serve just as well as an argot.

Posted on July 10, 2013 at 5:55 AM25 Comments


Jurgen van der Vlugt July 10, 2013 7:06 AM

But how is this special? My buddy in mil service spoke a dialect from his (small!) village with friends when among Frisians because even Frisians wouldn’t understand. Frisian already being just a local dialect/language; restricted use within what would hardly be an US county by geography…
On the other hand: Your mileage may vary; he could speak (slowly) with the outlandish-for-Indogermans Finnish.

So; you see a future for Basque ..?

Jurgen van der Vlugt July 10, 2013 8:14 AM

Jan Willem, was dat niet ook gebruikt in die film Windtalkers…? [To demonstrate to the US folks how it would work…]

jones July 10, 2013 9:14 AM

This is really just another reason why metadata is more useful than content.

If you intercept a phone call, the content can be highly equivocal: callers — especially if they’re plotting something — may speak in multiple languages, cant, slang, dialect, personal idioms, or indirectly about past exchanges in person.

The conviction for the “Detroit Sleeper Cell” was overturned in part because the prosecution’s argument read like a paranoid screed.

They alleged these were such radical Muslims that they couldn’t be identified as radical because they drank booze and never prayed. Doodles in a day planner were secret maps of targets. The prosecution alleged that innocuous references to tourist sites on a home video, like “look how long the line is for that ride” were detailed instructions for how to carry out attacks.

Metadata, by contrast, is always unequivocal.

Jan Willem de Vries July 10, 2013 9:22 AM

Jurgen, jammer alleen dat Google Translate dit wel kan vertalen, maar niet dat taaltje van de Indianen. (To our US folks: a pity for us that Google Translate can more or less interpret our language and not that language of the Indians)…

Simon July 10, 2013 10:19 AM

Didn’t you write something yourself once, along these lines, about youth speak intended to hide meaning from adults. Not sure.

Duncan Kinder July 10, 2013 10:27 AM

Remember the WWII Navajo radio operators in the Pacific, whose messages the Japanese could not understand even if they could decode them.

Consider also the Albanian mafia, who cannot effectively be wiretapped because, not only do they speak Albanian, but an obscure northern dialect which even other Albanians can’t understand.

Nick P July 10, 2013 10:59 AM

“To this day, the Irish abroad use the same tactic in discussing what should go unheard, whether bargaining tactics or conversations about taxi-drivers’ haircuts.”

Many immigrants in my area do this all the time. From hispanic laborers to middle eastern store owners, they often lower their voice slightly and speak in their own language right in front of us in midconversation to prevent our understanding. Spanish still makes a decent secret language despite Rosetta Stone’s efforts. 😉

stvs July 10, 2013 11:25 AM

prison languages designed to keep information from guards

Diaconis, “The Markov chain Monte Carlo revolution

Stanford’s Statistics Department has a drop-in consulting service. One day, a psychologist from the state prison system showed up with a collection of coded messages. … Students are usually able to successfully decrypt messages from fairly short texts; in the prison example, about a page of code was available.
The algorithm was run on the prison text. I like this example because a) it is real, b) there is no question the algorithm found the correct answer, and c) the procedure works despite the implausible underlying assumptions. In fact, the message is in a mix of English, Spanish and prison jargon.

Joe July 10, 2013 11:33 AM

Has there been any work done on linguistic steganography? That is, instead of being incomprehensible, it is comprehensible on the ordinary listeners’ level but can be decoded with new meaning by participants. Euphemisms perform this function, it seems. Indexicals can also be used as well – conversations in “The Sopranos” have this quality, especially when discussing less than legal activities (“What happened with that thing you were doing with that guy?”). Could be a useful tool in these times of folks listening in on conversations.

Bill July 10, 2013 12:38 PM

“Didn’t you write something yourself once, along these lines, about youth speak intended to hide meaning from adults. Not sure.”

dana boyd did a write up on this in her blog back in August 2010, titled: “Social Steganography: Learning to Hide in Plain Sight”

David July 10, 2013 1:00 PM

I remember a Welsh colleague telling how (some 40+ years ago) when he was in Russia, and had managed to arrange a precious telephone call to home; he was interrupted by Russian monitor of the call and asked to speak in English

Gordon S July 10, 2013 1:20 PM

I’m Scottish and use the same tactic when haggling abroad, speaking ‘gye coorse’ doric with my wife so nobody else can understand us 🙂

Jim July 10, 2013 1:49 PM

Jesus used code to talk to his apostles. The early christians used forms of graffiti for communication, of course.

Jesus actually literally taught the apostles to effectively speak and listen in code.

Which is the sort of code I usually see used most today. Break things down into equivalent metaphor. The two parties have to understand what the main points in the metaphor are, eg, “who are the birds” in the parable of the seeds.

And so, today’s literature has a substantial amount of this. There are a number of famous stories which are political, of course, Animal Farm is a popular example.

I have seen and have used this manner of talking almost to the degree that I would say it is an alternate language. Same words, same nouns — but to an outside observer they would have no idea of what is being said.

To a certain degree you can also see this kind of language in intimate relationships. Where context – meaning of words – is defined by years of relationship.

Simply explain as how a song may be just a song, or may be rich in meaning as “your” song.

Robert Smart July 10, 2013 4:02 PM

So why isn’t sign language more popular? Since light waves move in narrower channels. You could even talk over a video link without the people around you overhearing.

There are lots of good reasons why children should be taught sign language(s). To make communication with the deaf easier. And you might go deaf yourself, and it is hard to learn a language later in life. But security seems a good one. Hmm, maybe that’s why it isn’t taught…

Dirk Praet July 10, 2013 6:50 PM

I recommend using Klingon for secret communications. The Bing translator at kinda sucks like an Electrolux.

Example: “Me and my fellow terrorists used to communicate in Klingon so the NSA got fed up and asked Microsoft to produce a translator”

Translates to:

wej puQ ‘ej microsoft mughwI’ lIng ghel jIH SoHvaN noN veqlargh terrorists qa’majvaD nsa tlhIngan vaj yIlo’

which when run in reverse reveals:

“I have not yet fed up, and the microsoft translator, I am asked what is your produce non our spirits to Satan, terrorists and therefore cause the Klingons nsa”

On a related sidenote, a recently published study is suggesting that the Voynich manuscript may hold a genuine message after all. ( ).

Douglas Kastle July 10, 2013 7:11 PM

I am Irish and can verify that Irish (the English word for Gaeilge, you don’t use Deutsch or Español in English) is used a lot abroad because English is the number one foreign language taught. It is a two way problem, they can have an advantage as they speak English, but also their own foreign language, which you may not speak. I was having a conversation with a few Germans and a Swedish guy about the Irish tendency to do this, they were backpackers travelling the east coast of Australia. The Swedish guy then pulled me up and said it wasn’t necessary to speak Irish because even when we spoke English our accent was so strong, for them, he still couldn’t barely understand us. I wasn’t too sure if that was a compliment.

Nick P July 10, 2013 9:36 PM

Obfuscating Delivery of Message > Secret Language

I recommend whispering the secrets into the other party’s ear with a casual posture and relaxed body. The posture should keep observers from worrying too much, the relaxed mind reduce the chance of body language giving something away, and the lowered voice allowing the use of native language in full. And whispering secrets is a natural process many people have previous experience in.

Note: The cupping of the hand around the ear, tilting away the head at an angle, and maintaining a certain conversational distance are said to benefit the act of whispering. I’ll let others experiment with these to test their effectiveness.

Wesley Parish July 11, 2013 4:49 AM

I would recommend reading Maurice Shadbolt’s New Zealand Wars trilogy, 2005, ISBN 0908990995, for a lesson in the use of allusion and elliptical speech. None of the main Maori characters in any of the three books ever comes straight out and states his case in plain language. It is always stated elliptically, relying on the listener understanding what is being said.

Ross July 11, 2013 7:23 AM

@Jurgen & @Jan Willem re:
Jurgen, jammer alleen dat Google Translate dit wel kan vertalen

Not only is your language “vulnerable” to translation by google, but Danes and Norwegians (perhaps to a slightly lesser extent Swedes) can understand a lot of written Dutch. Of course Afrikaners would find it even easier.

However, if you speak your language rather than write it then depending on your dialect, it may well be impenetrable to outsiders (and more difficult to feed to Google).

Jurgen van der Vlugt July 11, 2013 9:05 AM

@Jan Willem and @Ross: Yeah, I know, as I wrote I already put it out for demonstration purposes. But would you seriously think Google will ever translate (spoken) Hindeloopens ..!? Frisian maybe. I might add Weststellingwerfs…

Figureitout July 11, 2013 3:04 PM

“What happened with that thing you were doing with that guy?”
–Also makes for extremely irritating eavesdropping when they can’t figure it out b/c they can’t. As well as making all comms potentially an activation sequence for a switch, paranoia much?

braff July 12, 2013 7:22 AM

This is done in sports too. I follow roller derby in Europe, my home team is Swedish and we play against Finnish teams sometimes. I think that Finnish is perhaps one of the most obscure national languages there is, having a lot in common with only one more language, Estonian, and a thin relationship to Hungarian. The Finns otoh learn Swedish in school, less than they used to but still.

TRX July 15, 2013 6:17 AM

I dunno… I still get email that’s theoretically in English, but might as well be random words and characters. Some of it is spam, but one occasional correspondent is both a native English speaker and has a baccalaureate degree in English.

Some of this stuff comes in from clients or co-workers, and is little better than a signal for “you need to initiate the voicemail tag game to find out what I want.”

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