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Secret Languages, Discreet Loves: How Does Queer Slang Differ Around The World?

Throughout the world, queer people have developed forms of communication with one another that outsiders can't understand. What are these secret languages like?

Illustration by Jana Walczyk

You know those people with whom you share lots of inside jokes and references? To the point where outsiders barely understand anything when you talk? This almost telepathic form of communication, apart from being fun, has its advantages. After all, sometimes we really feel like making a comment, but we have to hold our tongues because of the other people around us.

It’s not just with friends that we share a unique form of communication. Some slangs, for example, are typical of a specific generation, profession, region, etc. Some groups, however, use such a distinctive language that it practically becomes a "secret" language, which no outsider can understand. This type of language has a name — argot (pronunciation: ar-go).

Just between the two of us…

One of the many groups that have an argot of their own is the queer community — that is, people who don’t identify with norms of gender identity and/or the way they express their affection. This comes as no surprise if we think about the discrimination and marginalization that the LGBTQ community have suffered and still suffer today. After all, when you don’t have the freedom to talk about your identity and your forms of affection everywhere, you need to come up with an "alternative" language to communicate with those who feel the same way. The interesting thing is that this is not only restricted to your circle of friends. Throwing around argot words during a conversation with strangers and seeing how they react can be a subtle way to find out if they are understood as well… which can be the beginning of a friendship or even a romance.

We talked about argots here before and mentioned polari, a queer argot spoken in England. How about having a look at argots from other countries?

Brazil

The Brazilian queer argot is called pajubá, or bajubá . It is spoken throughout practically the whole country, with a few regional variations. Despite being heavily based on Portuguese, it incorporates several elements of the Yoruba languages. The reason being that some Afro-Brazilian religions, strongly influenced by Yoruba culture, are relatively open to queer people, offering a space where this community can express itself more freely.

Some of these words are known to most Brazilians, such as erê, which means child. Other words are less obvious, such as aqué (money) and alibã (policeman). Another striking feature is the frequent use of female names. Dar a Elsa (lit. Give to Elsa), for example, means to steal. These names are inspired by soap operas, famous singers, actresses, etc. Some pajubá words and expressions have become more and more popular outside the queer community due to it’s use in the media and to the growth of academic research about it. There is even a pajubá dictionary. It’s called Aurélia, a joke based on the name of the famous dictionary, Aurélio.

Turkey

Like pajubá, lubunca — the queer argot spoken in Turkey — has also been spreading more and more outside the queer community. This argot is based on many of the minority languages spoken in the country, such as Greek, Kurdish, and Bulgarian. However, the vast majority of the words come from Romani, a language spoken by one of the most marginalized communities in and outside of Turkey, the Roma. The influence of the Romani language can be explained, on the one hand, by the experience of marginalization common to both groups. This proximity ends up showing itself through words. On the other hand, it does not always make sense to speak about two separate groups, since many people are both Romani and queer. After all, being part of a minority does not disqualify you from being part of another one too, right?

South Africa

The queer argots are not completely different from the majority language of the place where they are spoken. On the contrary, although it makes use of terms from other languages, the grammar is usually the same as the one used by the "official" language. What happens, then, in countries where there are several official languages? A good example is South Africa, which, in addition to being the first African country (and one of the first in the world) to legalize same-sex marriage, has no less than eleven official languages. Don’t worry, there aren’t eleven different queer argots there. There are, however, two — a reflection of the country’s historical racial divisions.

Gayle emerged in the 1950s and is spoken mostly by the white and mixed ancestry communities. It is based on English and Afrikaans and incorporates various terms derived from British polari and American queer slang. What is interesting about gayle is that, like in pajubá, many words are actually women’s names. In some cases, these names are very similar to the English terms they represent. Monica, for example, comes from money; Priscilla, from policeman; and Jessica, from jewelry. The term gail, however, which is where the argot derives from, means chat.

The black South African community also has its own argot: the isiNgqumo. This name comes from an argot term and means decisions. The isiNgqumo is based on some nguni languages, a branch of the bantu languages. Compared to gayle, however, it hasn’t been studied or documented that much. This difference between the two South African argots thus reflects the racial tensions present in the country’s history, which unfortunately seem to be stronger than the experience shared by queer people.

Indonesia

If in South Africa they have eleven official languages and two argots, how do things work in Indonesia, where literally hundreds of languages are spoken? Strangely enough, they only have one big queer argot there called bahasa gay. Or bahasa banci. Or bahasa bengcong. Or bahasa binan. The complication with the name of the language reveals a bit of the process of creating new words in this argot. A very common way, for example, is simply to add -ong to the end of a word. This way, "banci", which means trans woman, becomes "bancong." Hence the name "bahasa bengcong" (Ok, the spelling changes a little). Another way to form words is to add -in- between the syllables, kind of like the “P language,"commonly used in Brazil and Portugal. "Banci" — following the same example — becomes "Binancin" (yeah, it sounds like some kind of medicine). From the simplified version of "binancin" comes another argot word: bahasa binan. If you’re really confused right now, don’t worry. After all, argots are meant to confuse those on the outside, right?

To separate or unite?

By sharing a language and cultural references, queer people end up feeling closer, more united. Therefore, it can be said that argots are used to unite those who know it. On the other hand, if everyone understood everything, it would not be an argot anymore, would it? After all, argots exist precisely to separate a group from the rest of society and create a private space. As argots become more popular — also because of articles like this — there’s one unavoidable question to be answered: is this disclosure really desirable? On the one hand, argots are a gateway to an extremely rich social and cultural universe. It is understandable that other groups also want to access all of this. On the other hand, the acceptance of certain words or phrases is faster to obtain than the acceptance of the way of life of those who originally created them. In the end, argots are not only fun, they are, in a way, necessary for those suffering from discrimination. What’s the way out? To share or not to share, to document or not to document? This issue is far from having a simple solution. Also because some write dictionaries, while others invent new words.

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