THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

24 August 2017

Made-up words and coded sweet-talk

Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

When cataloguing the Evolving English WordBank, we often come across speakers donating words which they have invented themselves. This privileged access to speakers’ privately meaningful coinages is not only fun, but also a great reminder of how creative we can be with language when words fail us.

Usually, made-up words come from children’s early experiments with speaking; words invented at home – often to name new and unfamiliar objects – which have stuck as humorous and often quite useful family vocab. In the following recording, one visitor to the exhibition describes some of her own family terms:

C1442 Nonce-Words (female b.1960)

Another speaker discusses a personal nonsense word ‘amaluvaya,’ which she explains is used solely between herself and her partner in order to express affection secretly, meaning ‘I’m in love with you.’

C1442 Amaluvaya (female b.1953)

Like a lot of home-grown linguistic innovations, the idea behind ‘amaluvaya’ is to allow the speaker and hearer to communicate a message in public, but privately. Another example of a coded speech strategy is ‘Pig Latin,’ a pseudo-language with rules for re-arranging syllables, often used by school-children to conspire without their parents overhearing – or sometimes the other way around!

Occasionally, secret languages are needed for more serious purposes; being able to communicate covertly can of course be a matter of life and death, freedom and persecution. Polari, a form of cant slang used in gay sub-culture at the turn of the century, offered gay men a means of conversing without running the risk of arrest or abuse. A number of our Spoken English collections include fascinating discussions of Polari; you can listen to them here and here.

You can find out more about Polari at the current Gay UK exhibition, and in Paul Baker’s Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (2002)

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