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Beggars’ Cant….

By Harriet Staff


…be choosers? Oh no wait, sorry wrong punch-line. In fact, as a recent article in the New York Times reveals, there are numerous ways that one can conceal one’s true[-ish] tongue within the shroud of a secretive language. In fact, numerous poets have already been creators and practitioners of these “new-speaks.”

The great French poet François Villon was so captivated by thieves’ cant that, within decades of the Coquillars’ trial, he composed a set of ballads in the bandits’ tongue. What he meant to hide in them has confounded scholars to this day. And the troubadours of medieval Provence frequently concealed the name of their beloved. “Tristan” hid one lady’s name; “Yes-and-No” disguised another.

The poets of medieval Scandinavia developed a system of naming by circumlocution, or “kennings,” which they could expand to a dizzying degree of complexity. They might call the sea “earth of the fish.” Next, they could replace the word “fish” by the expression “snake of the fjord.” Then, they might substitute for “fjord” the phrase “bench of the ship.” The result was a strange, prolix thing: “earth of the snake of the bench of the ship” — which, of course, simply meant “sea.” But only those familiar with the conceits of poetry would know it.

Whether one looks to Homer or to ancient Sanskrit hymns, to the Druids or to medieval Ireland, one finds that poets, scribes and priests have all laid claim to a godly cant, which they alone master.

Rulers and revolutionaries have employed similar devices. Suetonius tells us that Julius Caesar and Augustus would, in private communications, scramble the letters of words, according to a pattern, lest they be intercepted. Lenin related that, while publishing in czarist Russia, he wrote in an obscure and allegorical “Aesopian language” to avoid state censorship.

The truth is that wherever people speak a language, they find ways to modify it according to set rules. A cryptic idiom may be developed for the purposes of a game, to enable a literary activity, to facilitate a new society or to implement a political project. Its secrets may be innocuous or harmful. What is certain is that speech can always be both a basis of understanding and a means of distortion.

Read more at New York Times.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.