Whether it qualifies as a fully fledged language is very doubtful. It may be a lexicon, but that doesn’t really give it the full sense of social gravitas it deserves. It’s not really a dialect, a pidgin or a creole. To call it a jargon would imply that it was a technical or professional form, so we should probably refer to it as an argot.
So what is it?
Polari was a language spoken predominantly by gay men in the earlier part of the twentieth century. A mixture of Italian, backslang, Pig Latin and who knows what else, it had its roots in the slang of outcasts through history, from theatre, from the circus and from the criminal underground – linked especially to the actors form Parlyaree, and Cant, an underground language of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used to obscure meaning and cover up illegal activity from the general public. Of course, homosexuality was illegal for many years too, and dropping the occasional Polari word or expression into a conversation was a great way to tell if a new face was trade or naff. Polari was popularized by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as the two out of work actors Julian and Sandy in the 1960’s.
But almost as soon as Polari entered the mainstream, it died. Partly because it had entered the mainstream – a savage blow for any slang. And partly, too, because it was no longer necessary – once homosexuality was legalised there was a movement in the community to take pride in one’s sexuality, and to shun the camp language of Polari (and the figure of ridicule represented by mainstream media).
What is interesting about Polari is that it served to both declare and obscure the user’s membership of a tribe. It acts as a particular reminder of the way in which language is selected for an audience, to ingratiate or distance ourselves from a listener, and that a single word can convey an entire biography for the astute listener.
As English teachers we often ask ourselves what motivates our learners. One classic understanding is the integrative / instrumental paradigm, which sees the learners orientation towards the target language group as important. I imagine that, as a proportion of learners worldwide, those who have a particular desire to join a native speaker group, and thus need to attain certain native speaker norms in order to gain entry to such groups, are limited. Even amongst ESOL students there may be a stronger desire to succeed in everyday transactions (instrumental motivation) than to become a member of the local English speaking society. In language learners studying in their home countries, with little likelihood of extended stays in English speaking countries, integrative motivation will probably be non-existent.
I know a number of students who, having spent parts of their childhood in English-speaking countries, retain native-like pronunciation. Yet when talking to another student, their English becomes thickly Japanese – membership of the group they are with is more important at that moment than displaying their ‘true’ English voices. Many students will choose to retain or emphasise linguistic elements from their local context, phonological, grammatical or lexical. So are these learners failures, or merely asserting their pride in their own biographies?
This post leans heavily on Paul Baker’s work, particularly his book…
Baker, P. (2002) Polari – The Lost Language of Gay Men. London: Routledge
…which I stumbled across whilst trolling around the basement of the university library, snuggled up next to ‘Negro Orators and their Speeches’. How lucky I am to work here! You can see an interview with Dr. Baker here, and read an article of his on the topic here.
I also read Quentin Crisp’s well known biographical work ‘The Naked Civil Servant’ recently. You can see Britain’s stately homo here, in an interview which helps one understand, perhaps, why Polari was swept away as a reminder of a time when homosexuality was even more of a dirty secret than it is now. The title of this post means ‘How lovely to see your pretty face again’ … or something like that, anyway!