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!

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9 Thoughts on ““bona to vada your dolly old eek” (language and identity)

  1. This is fascinating, Darren. I had never heard of Polari before reading this post!

    And having spent a long time in an EFL context, I can relate to what you have mentioned about the integrative/instrumental paradigm. I’m personally fascinated by something similar now here in Australia, where one might assume — this being an ESL context — that learners are keen to join the native speaking community. I have only found that in roughly half the number of my students here (to be honest, remembering that figure doesn’t come from any deep or reliable research!). The other half want to live in Australia, but learn English for basic survival or instrumental reasons; that is, they are more interested in staying put within their own linguistic and cultural community. And personally, I have no problem with that whatsoever. Most Australians do, however, have problems with that…

    Cheers for one of those completely different and thought-provoking posts!

    – Jason

  2. What an interesting post, to which I would have made more of a comment had Jason not said pretty much everything I wanted to say!

  3. darren on October 19, 2010 at 5:27 pm said:

    Thanks Jason, though it might be something a little bit different for the blogosphere… much as I love a meme, I’m feeling pretty dog-meh about the current flavour of the month. Decided to blog against the tide for a while. How do you fancy ‘All ELT bloggers are liars’? Dare me?

  4. Go on (says the boy, nudging the other boy holding a stick), do it, I dare ya!

  5. Angela Buckingham on October 23, 2010 at 12:42 am said:

    Hey Darren
    Another hugely informative and thought-provoking post. (What else is lurking down there in the library?) Funnily enough we had been talking about Polari in the staffroom last week (I hadn’t heard of it before either) so it was a big surprise to come across all the info here. Thanks for the references too (good to have things to follow up and one of the reasons I enjoy this blog so much).

    As for ‘all ELT bloggers..’ well, that should shake things up a bit, so I’m with Raven on this one- go on..!

  6. Hi Darren, as Jason says, a completely different post, glad I read it, just really interesting to find out about something that I’d never imagined existing, including its demise, but which makes perfect sense once you do.
    David

  7. Fascinating! There seems to be a wonderful example of a discourse community here. For Swales that would mean:
    1. a broadly agreed set of goals and interests
    2. mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
    3. mechanisms for providing information and feedback for survival.
    4. a developed genre to meet its aims.
    5. some specific and specialized terminology
    6. a critical mass of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.
    What I find so curious about Polari users relates to point 6 – critical mass. Here, the community’s growth seems to have led to its expiration.

  8. Swales definition here doesn’t leave much room for identity. I suppose many discourse communities reach a point at which certain aspects become recognised in the mainstream. If the original members of that community feel they are being ridiculed or their once-creative use of language is becoming co-opted, tired, or hackneyed, then they may well cut it out. See the much maligned ‘management speak’, for an example… who ‘runs an idea up the flagpole to see who salutes it’ these days without a wink? Or what about the way that youth speak contantly morphs to stay ahead of the ‘dults?

    What makes (made?) Polari unique was that it was a product of shame and pride at the same time… As well as being an identifier, a badge of pride, Polari represented a time when one’s sexuality had to be hidden. Once homosexuality was decriminalised the shame began to be removed and the pride grew more vigorous, which made the language itself redundant.

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