Concealing by language

In the NYT  on the 19th, “Learn to Talk in Beggars’ Cant” by Daniel Heller-Roazen, beginning:

Rulers have long kept certain powers hidden from their subjects. But this summer’s disclosures concerning the surveillance practices of the National Security Agency have made it clear that today’s freedom of expression comes at the price of a new power: the state’s ability to burrow ever deeper, by technological means, into the private language of ordinary citizens.

… In a time when speech is subjected to unprecedented scrutiny, it is worth recalling that the safest way to express a subversive thought is to clothe it in unfamiliar garb. We can learn how from another motley cast of characters, including children, rebels, beggars and scribes. Long ago, such outsiders and outlaws twisted the languages that they shared with others, making of them new and unheard things: obscure jargons, which allowed them to communicate safely among themselves.

So many ways to conceal what you have say, while still conveying your meaning to some target audience. Allusions and figurative language. Lapsing, in small or in large, into a language that people around you don’t know (as the Navajo code talkers did in World War II). Codes and ciphers. Play languages, like Pig Latin (transforming language so as to make it unintelligible to the uninitiated). And cant, local slang, jargon (replacing familiar content words by unfamiliar ones).

On codes and ciphers, from Wikipedia:

To encipher or encode is to convert information from plain text into cipher or code. In non-technical usage, a ‘cipher’ is the same thing as a ‘code’; however, the concepts are distinct in cryptography. In classical cryptography, ciphers were distinguished from codes.

Codes generally substitute different length strings of characters in the output, whilst ciphers generally substitute the same number of characters as are input.

… Codes work at the level of meaning—that is, words or phrases are converted into something else and this chunking generally shortens the message.

… Ciphers, on the other hand, work at a lower level: the level of individual letters, small groups of letters, or, in modern schemes, individual bits and blocks of bits.

Classically, codes are word-substitution schemes, ciphers are letter-substitution schemes, but things are much more complicated these days.

In any case, encipherment produces something that is obviously not normal text, while word-substitution schemes (including cant) yield material that looks like normal text but nevertheless isn’t intelligible to an outsider.

Heller-Roazen’s conclusion:

The truth is that wherever people speak a language, they find ways to modify it according to set rules. A cryptic idiom may be developed for the purposes of a game, to enable a literary activity, to facilitate a new society or to implement a political project. Its secrets may be innocuous or harmful. What is certain is that speech can always be both a basis of understanding and a means of distortion.

As our government, in the name of security, watches ever more closely what we say and write, it is all the more important for us to recall that if there is a right to free speech, there is also a right to secrecy, to which every speaking subject may lay claim. The art of rogues and riddlers has much to teach us still. It is a reminder that in language, it is possible to speak one’s mind and also hide it — and to miss the crucial message, even when one has just heard it.


One Response to “Concealing by language”

  1. thenakedlistener Says:

    This is what people in mainland China do all the time when they’re discussing their political leaders, important events and other sensitive topics. Even in the supposed safety of the private home, many Chinese will still use a fair amount of this concealed language even between family members … ‘for the walls have ears.’

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