Argots and Ludlings
October 25, 2015 3:40 PM   Subscribe

"Though there appears to be no definitive research on gender and gibberish, it became clear to me that girls are drawn to gibberish and the dozens of other secret languages and language games, also called argots and ludlings, because using them builds social bonds." Jessica Weiss, "The Secret Linguistic Life of Girls: Why Girls Speak Gibberish." posted by MonkeyToes (58 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 


Interesting post! Although my friends and I didn't speak a secret language at school, I'd totally forgotten that we had a written code (basically like the backwards alphabet except it started two thirds through) that we wrote all our notes in and we were totally fluent in so we could write it without thinking. Thanks for bringing that memory back! It was definitely a bonding thing, that sense that anyone could find our messages but no one would understand them but us. I love that this is something that crosses cultures and language. Gtcwd cznv!
posted by billiebee at 4:20 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


As a kid I was obsessed with the book "The Secret Language" by Ursula Nordstrom, and wanted to have a secret language with a friend too! I never did, but did send coded messages back and forth with girlfriends, and tried to construct a written language that people couldn't decipher. Really interesting.
posted by OolooKitty at 4:30 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


My girlfriends and I also went in bigger for secret written languages than spoken ... my BFF and I in junior high wrote all our notes in futhark runes replacing English letters. And in junior high all the girls used the ASL finger alphabet to "talk" during class, usually saying mean things about our horrible teachers. (Which, in retrospect, they could probably understood.)

A couple years ago I was at a chaotic event with a bunch of parents and very small children, and a little 5-year-old girl tugged on my shirt and started frantically finger-spelling. "C-A-R-L-A, you're Carla? Oh, sorry, CarLY?" and she nodded vigorously and then signed urgently, "Where M-O-M? Where M-O-M?" I said, "You need help finding your mom?" BIG NOD. "HEY IS CARLY'S MOM HERE?" I shouted, and frantic Carly's Mom came shoving through the crowd from across the room. Turned out Carly had selective mutism and was often unable to speak at all in groups of more than four or five people, and in all the chaos, all the other adults she'd been finger-spelling at had just told her to run along because they thought she was just goofing around. I was like "YESSSSSS, SEVENTH GRADE FINALLY PAYS OFF!"

Anyway, I fully expect one day I will save the world by being able to read futhark transcriptions of English, or else through mediocre ability to speak ithig. "DON'T WORRY, MADAME PRESIDENT, I CAN TRANSLATE FOR THE ITHIG-SPEAKING ALIENS."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:33 PM on October 25, 2015 [103 favorites]


My late gma taught me the language [game] that she and my aunt used to communicate without my dad knowing what they were saying, but I had no idea it was A Thing. Fascinating.
posted by frijole at 4:48 PM on October 25, 2015


I recommend in no uncertain terms the book mentioned early on, Daniel Heller-Roazen's Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers. While it doesn't touch on gender, it does touch on damn near everything else.
posted by Bromius at 4:48 PM on October 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


My family still does this! Ours is "I-B" and sounds like "thy-bis ibis thyba sybacrybet lyban gwybage!"
The third generation has learned it (it started with my mother, who learned it from a friend) and it can still drive all the non-speakers crazy. Adults still sometimes use it to speak without being understood by the uninitiated.
It's a very strange thing--once you catch the "trick" it just rolls out as if it was regular language.
posted by librosegretti at 4:52 PM on October 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


I have a fond memory of a conversation I had with a friend in middle school that was (a) in Spanish, but (b) fingerspelled using the ASL manual alphabet, because we had one set of friends in the room who were in our Spanish class and one set of friends in the room who knew a smidge of ASL but we were the only people in the intersection of the two sets.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:09 PM on October 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


…and I'm taking an ASL class now as an adult, and it's been surreal remembering the half-dozen or so signs that we used regularly in that group of friends (OK, NO, WHO, NOW, WANT, AGAIN, YOU-TWO/US-TWO, maybe a few others).

Some of them, I'd honestly even forgotten that they were words in a proper language — I just thought of them as part of this funny bunch of in-group gestures I used with the other girls I hung out with, and it's so very strange having it sink in now that for thousands of people these are just everyday non-secret words in an everyday non-secret language.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:16 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Yitha goo mithagean thithagis lithaganguithagage?

There is always pig Latin with a heavy Swedish accent.
posted by Oyéah at 5:21 PM on October 25, 2015


And in Queens, New York, a 13-year-old Elena Hecht, now 28, locked herself in the bathroom with her seven-year-old sister, Ava, declaring: “We can't leave the bathroom until you can speak Ubbi Dubbi fast enough so that mom and dad won't be able to understand us.”

I also grew up in Queens and learned about Ubbi Dubbi! (Although it was just a novelty, not something we used for regular communication.) I wonder how regional these secret languages are? They're all based on inserting a constant syllable between meaningful syllables (idig, op, ub), and/or rearranging the meaningful syllables like Pig Latin. Probably they don't remain truly "secret", confined to a small group of siblings and friends, but spread out through their social network, just like rumors or slang or jokes.
posted by Rangi at 5:29 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Nifty article. I'm also reminded of Boudledidge, the secret language of the Mitford children.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 5:40 PM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


I find it really interesting to hear this as being a kid thing. My parents did this when I was a kid, as did all my aunt's an uncles and grandparents. It was a way for adults to say things they didn't want the kids hearing. Lots of my cousins learned to do it/understand it as they grew older, thus keeping adult topics from their own kids, but I've never learned it. I mean I've always known how it works, and how to do it in theory, but I can't produce it on the fly or pick up more than a word or two when it's spoken at full speed.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:47 PM on October 25, 2015


Some girls. Maybe. Not all the girls...
posted by Vaike at 5:58 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh right, there was an awkwardly written scene in Y: The Last Man with this. I haven't seen this in real life, but I do notice a lot of my female friends make cat noises.
posted by Apocryphon at 6:23 PM on October 25, 2015


Wow, librosegretti.

When I was very small, my parents spoke a variant of I-B called 'Uvvaguv' - "duvagoo yuvagoo thivagink yuvagoo cavagan guevagess huvagow ivagit wuvagerked?" They only ever used it for things they very obviously Didn't Want Us To Understand, so we were... motivated, shall we say... to figure it out.

And annoyingly for them, my sister and I did; we'd cracked it by the time we were not so very small and they stopped using it entirely.

I wonder where that came from.
posted by motty at 6:24 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


For us it was the "op" language. I hopatopedop itop.
posted by aclevername at 6:32 PM on October 25, 2015


Like a lot of 1970s kids, I learned Ubbi Dubbi from ZOOM! on PBS (link is from the later ZOOM! reboot, not the original 70s version, but the Ubbi Dubbi is exactly the same).
posted by briank at 7:04 PM on October 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


As a child, I had a written code I used for writing notes (mostly to myself) as well. There core of it was fairly basic; essentially the ordinal values of the letters converted into binary and mapped onto a grid (based on the 7-segment numeral display), with some extra elements for disambiguation and breaking up patterns. Sometime after that, I started adding an ideographic code to that, though I no longer remember the details of that.
posted by acb at 7:05 PM on October 25, 2015


When I was eleven, my best friends and I wrote everything to each other using Elvish runes. (One of them was obsessed with Lord of the Rings. Despite not making it through the books, the alphabet was totally fun to learn.) The runes look a lot like the futhark runes Eyebrows McGee used. (So maybe you're one of the few people who could read my diary from that era -- I don't think I even can anymore.) I really liked how the runes didn't map exactly to the alphabet -- some of the runes represented sounds that English used two letters for.

I also remember one of our favorite activities was sitting off by ourselves and basically talking through an elaborate story we made up a bit more of each recess. I was really fascinated to see, over the past year, my daughter create her own world with a good friend, including some of the language. (And yes, they do tell it to each other as a story, that they each continue out loud.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:00 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Eyebrows McGee I had forgotten finger-spelling! I can still do that too. Yes, seventh grade!!!
posted by OolooKitty at 8:05 PM on October 25, 2015


Three girls in my 7th grade art class spoke "gibberish" - what one of them called it. This was ca. 1971. "Are you cutting 6th period?" could be expressed as "to-the-gar to-the-goo to-the-go to-the-ging to-the-goo to-the-gut to-the-gixth to-the-ger to-the-gi to-the-gud." So it was "to the" + g + one syllable. I never got the hang of it. But they did.

Why yes, I still remember their names. Hm.
posted by datawrangler at 8:13 PM on October 25, 2015


As a kid I was fascinated by constructed languages and alternate scripts. I invented several of each, with vary degrees of success. I went so far as to keep some journals in them: books that that I now cannot read, and they have proved impervious to attempts on my part to decipher them (and presumably I should have an advantage over anyone else, as they were my work in the first place). So there you go: I have a couple of books in a language with zero speakers worldwide.

I wonder if this how the Voynich Manuscript author started off.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:27 PM on October 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


Beloved Partner once walked into the kitchen and found my 10-year-old niece and I singing "Little Bunny Foo Foo", only in I-B language (niece had figured it out). Beloved Partner paused, then just shook her head, turned and left the room.
posted by librosegretti at 8:42 PM on October 25, 2015


I had no idea this was a thing. Neat. Is this a thing mostly girls with sisters do? How common is it?
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:01 PM on October 25, 2015


Anyway, I fully expect one day I will save the world by being able to read futhark transcriptions of English

The only runes I see routinely are white power tattoos; it would be a fantastic dystopian novel that hinged on being the one person who could read and transcribe the tattoos.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:08 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Is this really as gendered as the article says? I think I mostly came across Pig Latin in books about schoolboys (Jennings, Billy Bunter etc). I never thought of it as gendered, but if it was I would have assumed it was masculine.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:21 PM on October 25, 2015


Serpentese (snake language) whitch sounded like addind S A at random intervals. I never mastered it.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 10:38 PM on October 25, 2015


My best friend in Year 8 and I passed notes to each other in a variant of pigpen cipher. I was fascinated by codes, ciphers, made-up alphabets and any form of secret writing, but as far as I remember that was the only situation where I used them with anyone else. I also wouldn't have thought of it as gendered behaviour, but then I went to a single-sex school so I wouldn't have known if the boys were doing it too.
posted by daisyk at 11:59 PM on October 25, 2015


This was very definitely A Thing with girls when I was growing up (90s). My groups of friends switched between a modified pig latin, a variation of the insert-a-sound code, and elvish, once we got old enough for Tolkien. I always associated my fascination with secret languages with my fascination with caves, hollow trees, hidden spaces under floorboards, talking animals in Narnia, The Redwall books. I wonder if there is a correlation between girls who were into secret languges and girls who read a lot?
posted by lollymccatburglar at 2:53 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


All these different forms of code are so interesting -- Aymay endsfray onlyay okespay Igpay Atinlay.
posted by Gordafarin at 2:55 AM on October 26, 2015


Serpentese (snake language) whitch sounded like addind S A at random intervals. I never mastered it.

Apparently all the young people are speaking it these days.
posted by acb at 3:32 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh good, finger spelling counts, that was a big thing in my circle of girls as nineties things. If I am reading the comments here right it sounds like guys might use code in more solitary/isolated ways and girls more interpersonally? Traditionally I imagine boys who wanted to talk privately might go to their tree-house or other unsupervised space, whereas girls may have hid in plain sight, talking "nonsense" as they did their cross-stitch with the governess?
posted by Iteki at 6:10 AM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I wonder if there is a correlation between girls who were into secret languges and girls who read a lot?

Maybe... I didn't do anything like this, but was a very early and relentless reader. Not so hot on Narnia etc., though, got into bits and bobs, whatever was around. (I liked world folktales, Grimms' fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen stories, whatever I could find on my mom's bookshelf, regardless of how age- or theme-inappropriate [Jane Eyre was a fave; stuff by Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie; the odd Jackie Collins, ha], and especially the encyclopedia. Some YA stuff - Judy Blume, etc. VC Andrews. Nothing involving unicorns, really - maybe the content of books read matters?)

I suspect the communicative aspect (having an interested and similarly minded interlocutor) is important. I found most other girls confusing.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:29 AM on October 26, 2015


Oh I forgot about finger talking too. If anyone hasn't seen the movie the article mentions, Slums of Beverly Hills, there's some really sweet and tender uses of the characters' secret language. There's a scene in the bathroom where they argue as they slip in and out of it. It's wonderfully charming and makes the scene so much more emotionally raw and sweet . I'm going to have to watch it again soon just thinking about it. One of my favorite movie scenes I've remembered and thought about here and there for years.
posted by dog food sugar at 7:55 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Anyway, I fully expect one day I will save the world by being able to read futhark transcriptions of English

I will be your backup.

After my early cracks at invented languages and writing forms (above), I actual began more formal language study and reckoned at one point that a useful cipher against casual prying eyes was one language written in the script of another unrelated one, especially where neither of the two are languages that the likely prying eyes are familiar with. Somewhere I likely have notes jotted in phonetic Japanese written in Cyrillic, or in Latvian transliterated into Greek.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:55 AM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


This is something you need to have had friends as a kid to understand, right?
posted by OverlappingElvis at 8:14 AM on October 26, 2015


This is something you need to have had friends as a kid to understand, right?

Not really! I was a weirdo (that past tense is definitely legitimate and not all in my mind) in fourth grade and I went through a period of time where I largely spoke Pig Latin which, like, didn't help my social standing at all (I am shocked too). I had daydreams of a new kid coming to our school who, somehow, only spoke Pig Latin (totally likely -- probably there are monolingual Pig Latin-speaking towns all over the northeast) and she'd HAVE to be friends with me because she wouldn't be able to talk to anyone else and I'd help her get around and translate for her and we'd be best best best friends and everyone would be jealous because we'd giggle together and no one would get our jokes. This, perplexingly, did not come to pass but it's totally possible to be into secret languages without having friends!

I hadn't thought about this in a long time and wow is it depressing but I'm really glad I'm at a point in my life where I feel secure in some actual friendships instead of being desperate to meet someone I can hold captive through moderate elementary school linguistic prowess.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:23 AM on October 26, 2015 [9 favorites]


A song in Hebrew gibberish won Eurovision in 1978. (Song starts at 1:30.)
posted by Shmuel510 at 8:24 AM on October 26, 2015


[I now see that that was in the second link. Oops. Sorry!]
posted by Shmuel510 at 8:25 AM on October 26, 2015


And this is also sort of a near neighbor to conlanging, which is usually a super-solitary pursuit.

There's probably a ton of stuff to be said about gender and hobbies and why dudes with this same sort of secret-language-making impulse tend to end up into conlanging or cryptography instead of teaching all their dude friends oppish. Because conlanging is so heavily male, and I think it probably connects to the point the article made about boys being taught to prefer activities and making stuff rather than socializing. Like, if what you want from a secret language is for it to be a practical way of sharing secrets with (real or imaginary) friends, you end up with oppish, and if what you want is for it to be a model-airplane–type project that you can toil over in your bedroom, you end up with Quenya. Maybe? And then social pressure ends up channeling girls' linguistic creativity into one of those pathways and boys' linguistic creativity into the other one?
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:59 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


> Although my friends and I didn't speak a secret language at school, I'd totally forgotten that we had a written code [...] that we wrote all our notes in and we were totally fluent in so we could write it without thinking.

My first wife had this too; on one of our first meetings she handed me a note in her secret code and I got major points for figuring it out without help and writing her back in the same code.

> A song in Hebrew gibberish won Eurovision in 1978. [...] [I now see that that was in the second link. Oops. Sorry!]

I clicked on it in the second link and was instantly transported back to the late '70s even though I'd never heard the song or seen the clip before—it was terrifying!
posted by languagehat at 9:35 AM on October 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


I thought I was cool for learning to take notes in rot13 in college, but the stuff y'all have been doing is way cooler.

I always used to fantasize about people reading over my shoulder and being freaked out or something to find me writing in code. the thing I was overlooking is that my handwriting is bad enough to itself serve as a form of encryption.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:52 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


My first wife had this too; on one of our first meetings she handed me a note in her secret code and I got major points for figuring it out without help and writing her back in the same code.

oh my god I love you both so much.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:53 AM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


After learning about Da Vinci's mirror writing I taught myself to do it. It took a few days of not very diligent practice and in the end I came away with a new empathy for lefties.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:47 AM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


After learning about Da Vinci's mirror writing I taught myself to do it. It took a few days of not very diligent practice and in the end I came away with a new empathy for lefties.

I have been there too.

Step 1: mirror writing
Step 2: boustrophedon
Step 3: ????
Step 4: profit

Unfortunately I am still mired in 3.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:57 AM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


After learning about Da Vinci's mirror writing I taught myself to do it. It took a few days of not very diligent practice and in the end I came away with a new empathy for lefties.

For a while in college I took all my notes this way because I kind of felt like it? I don't know. I'm on medicine now. I also, in fourth grade (same year I spoke so much Pig Latin), decided that I would learn to think in new and interesting ways if I literally changed my perspective so for a few months I read all my books upside down (and I read a LOT). It turns out it's not that bad once you get used to it but I cannot produce any concrete evidence that it improved my overall cognition. It's almost hard to believe people thought I was odd.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:04 AM on October 26, 2015 [10 favorites]


I also, in fourth grade (same year I spoke so much Pig Latin), decided that I would learn to think in new and interesting ways if I literally changed my perspective so for a few months I read all my books upside down. [...] It's almost hard to believe people thought I was odd.

You are Luna Lovegood and I claim my £5.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:13 AM on October 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


You are Luna Lovegood and I claim my £5.

...oh shit I might be. Oh Jesus.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:14 AM on October 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


ahh my friends and i in high school would pass notes to each other written in the greek alphabet, but we used whichever greek letter looked most similar to the roman alphabet letter we needed so tbh it wasn't even really a code that needed to be deciphered, but it was more fun to write than just a boring normal note. i think i still have a big stack of them somewhere in a box and now i kind of want to go dig them up
posted by burgerrr at 11:17 AM on October 26, 2015


Dang! My highschool friend and I (who both knew some Greek) used to pass notes to each other written with Greek letters spelling out english words phonetically!
posted by Greg Nog at 11:50 AM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Once on a middle school beach trip my friends and I decided to talk about an attractive lifeguard in Latin, only I don't think you needed to speak Latin to get the general gist and he definitely understood us. Traumatic! We should have had a secret hieroglyphics club for important matters like that.
posted by jetlagaddict at 12:12 PM on October 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I know of a professor of ancient Near Eastern studies, now deceased, who thought there was evidence of a special women's language among the Israelites, but he didn't publish anything about it as far as I'm aware, and I have no idea what the evidence was.
posted by jamjam at 4:49 PM on October 26, 2015


Yep, my best friends and I had a code that we used for the notes which were then intricately folded and passed during class, or left on the appropriate chair for the person in the next class. As well as normal 7th grade girl gossip, we made elaborate plans for a biodome which we would build in Antarctica, and then melt the ice caps and live in our now-underground biodome. This followed through to our economics class in high school where we had to design a product and a marketing campaign. We developed the Biodome In A Box and marketed it in Supervillains Today (which was a fake magazine for which we also wrote a bunch of articles because we were That Kind of high school student). We also had a jingle, which we performed in class during our pitch to the investors (our economics teacher). It went "We'll make your foes wallow in freakish misery. We're Biodome In A Box - OUR PLAN ROCKS."

It's a good thing the three of us found each other amusing, or it would have been a very lonely middle and high school existence.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:04 PM on October 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


jamjam: " who thought there was evidence of a special women's language among the Israelites"

I don't know about the Israelites, but Nushu is a women's language written and embroidered by the clositered, home-bound women of the Hunan province of China, into goods they sent as gifts to other women -- relatives, best friends -- who were cloistered in male relatives' homes elsewhere, so they were unable to visit and gossip easily.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:14 PM on October 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


girls are drawn to gibberish and the dozens of other secret languages and language games, also called argots and ludlings, because using them builds social bonds

That's so fetch.
posted by flabdablet at 2:19 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


My experience with gibberish in middle school was that it was how the popular girls cut themselves off from the rest of us. :/
posted by like_neon at 6:16 AM on October 27, 2015


welp now i'm all smitten with mrs. pterodactyl
posted by palomar at 11:29 AM on November 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


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