5 Secret Languages That Stuck It to the Man
If you think about it, every group sort of has its own language -- even a bunch of dudes who hang out in college develop their own inside jokes and nicknames that sound like nonsense to the outside world. Show up to a new Internet forum and you'll be lost in all of their memes and jargon. But there have been times and places throughout history where people have literally developed an entirely new language that only their group spoke, like the old-time criminals who invented a bunch of the slang you use today. But they were hardly the only ones ...
Vietnam War POWs Communicated by Tapping
Prisoners of war tend to have a language barrier with their captors, so it's par for the course that guards in POW camps will try to prevent their prisoners from speaking to each other, since you just can't tell whether they're complimenting each other's haircuts or discussing which guard to shank first. This is what happened to American prisoners during the Vietnam War, so the prisoners had to come up with a way to talk without even letting their captors realize that they were talking at all.
"HEY, MIKE! OUR ESCAPE ATTEMPT IS TONIGHT AT SIX! SCREAM BACK IF YOU UNDERSTAND!"
How Did They Do It?
So they came up with a tap code. The basic idea is that you tap out your message using a specific pattern. It's kind of like Morse code, only simpler, because you can't make a dash sound by tapping your fingers.
The tap code works by putting all of the letters of the alphabet on a 5-by-5 grid. (Well, 25 of them -- to make it fit, they had to cut out "K" and use "C" instead.) For each letter, you first tap the row and then the column -- so to tap out the letter "H," you'd tap twice for the row, then three more times for the letter. There's a decoder here, but unfortunately the prisoners didn't have access to one of these, so they had to do it all mentally.
And thus was born the first troll, tapping out "dongs" over and over again throughout the night.
Of course, once you're condemned to silence, it's kind of impossible to teach a code to someone unless, you know, they already understand the code you're using. So, as soon as his team was captured and he realized that they were about to be separated, Captain Carlyle "Smitty" Harris recalled being taught about the tap code by an Air Force instructor in his youth and quickly taught it to the three guys next to him, who in turn taught it to every prisoner they came into contact with. The result was that "the building sounded like a den of runaway woodpeckers," all of whom were tapping out carefully coded fuck yous to the Vietnamese.
The prisoners quickly used the code to re-establish the chain of command, direct medical aid and their rations to the most severely injured inmates, keep stories straight and, most adorably, say goodnight to each other. Considering the amount of time it took (and the number of calluses one developed) to tap out a single word, you really have to respect that.
Flowers Were Once a Secret Love Code
Every man knows that if you can't afford to get your girl a red rose on Valentine's Day, you might as well be punching her in the face. But why is that? Who decided that a rose should be the symbol for love, and not a sunflower? Or a turd?
What you may not have realized is that virtually every single flower has a meaning attached to it. In Victorian times, any verbal or written expression even hinting that there was such a thing as sex was hugely frowned upon. But behind closed doors, there was fortunately still such a thing as fucking, so people had to get creative with how they expressed affection (or lack of).
"What's it mean when you get a bouquet of cranberries and your son's head?"
So they communicated with flowers instead. The rose we mentioned earlier is a holdover from what used to be a giant, complex flower code.
How Did They Do It?
They had worked it out so that everything from the type of flower to the hand with which you presented it had meaning. You could ask a girl to marry you with a flower and she could turn you down just by taking it with her left hand. Flowers weren't the only things taken into account, either -- herbs, spices and even fruits and freaking vegetables had meaning. There's a full list here if you want to revive the age-old tradition of telling people to go fuck themselves with flowers.
"Hey Mom ... Dad said to give you this and tell you he's fucking your sister."
Although the tradition of attaching meanings to flowers dates back much earlier in time, it was the famously prudish Victorians who made the most use of it. Since it wasn't civilized to communicate feelings or flirt openly, small bouquets called tussie-mussies were the best way to indicate that you wanted to do the horizontal hug. Even whole arguments could be contained entirely within the exchange of flowers or plants. Although we can't help but feel that slapping someone in the dome with a cucumber would be far more insulting than giving them some seasoning.
Fans and Kimonos Were Used as a Code
We guess you could say that there's always a message hidden in the way you dress. A suit and tie means that you're on your way to either a well-paying job or a court hearing, while a Che Guevara T-shirt means that you are in favor of the downfall of capitalism, and also of girls with dreadlocks admiring your guitar playing. But in the past, some cultures actually had a language built into their clothing. For example, the way the Japanese wore a kimono in the 10th century could replace whole paragraphs of conversation about their mood and interests, enabling them to skip the first hour or so of a first date.
And if you've ever seen pictures of women from Victorian England or pre-revolutionary France, you probably noticed that they used to carry fans around everywhere. It's not that they had a problem with blistering year-round heat waves -- the way they carried those fans was part of a complicated visual language that women used to communicate without having to worry about gossip.
"Did she just call me a fan-sniffing bitch? I'll kill her!"
How Did They Do It?
Fan language was pretty much as complex as sign language, with dozens of different signals conveyed by the opening or closing of the fan, the speed of fluttering and where it was held in relation to the body. A woman could indicate how she felt about someone, whether she and her companion were being watched or whether or not her companion was allowed to kiss her. She could even indicate the hour at which a secret meeting could take place by opening a certain number of slats on the fan.
"So, 67 o'clock, then? Or how does that work? I'm not good with math."
This was really beneficial in an age before text messaging. People could communicate across a crowded room without having to shout, and they could share messages without everyone in the district knowing the ins and outs of their conversation. On the other hand, it would suck if you were just fanning yourself because you happened to be hot and accidentally proposed to some random dude by doing so.
As for kimonos, the length of the sleeves, how open the neckline was and the method by which the sash was tied all gave off different meanings. The images used in the kimono's patterns were also meaningful, indicating various moods and seasons and even literary references. In other words, the pattern of cloth you were wearing could show off your favorite book, making Japan possibly the earliest known producer of the geek T-shirt.
The Chinese Women-Only Language
It wasn't that fun to be a woman in 19th century China. Foot binding (the art of smashing your feet in the name of fashion) was extremely common, and girls were often confined to hobbling around single rooms on the upper story of their house. To add to the other difficulties associated with basically being Rapunzel, women couldn't even pass the time with a dog-eared copy of 50 Shades of Grey, being that nobody ever bothered to teach them how to read. In the Jiangyong Province, women reacted to this situation by simply creating their own written language.
"I'd say thank you to your wife, but I don't speak woman."
How Did They Do It?
Nushu, or "women's language," was a women-only alphabet handed down from mother to daughter. The most common form of nushu was the "third day" letter, which women sent to each other after a bride moved into her husband's home after marriage. These letters, understandably, usually contained words of consolation for the sorrowful new bride before she was to spend the rest of her life in Smashed Foot Tower.
The alphabet was often embroidered into cloth or painted on fans, which were then exchanged between female relatives and friends. Many nushu characters (there are about 1,000 in all) come from embroidery patterns, along with a few elements of Chinese characters probably picked up from watching boys take lessons.
Which is why so many of these look like doodles of dicks.
In regular Chinese, each character is kind of its own word, representing a whole concept. But nushu characters are more like English letters, representing sounds. So the languages were different enough that Chinese women could exchange letters and erotic fiction without their husbands knowing what they were up to, kind of like how spammers started spelling "porn" as "p0rn" with a zero to get around word filters.
The language was stamped out in the 20th century when the Communists decided that they didn't like it, and women started being allowed to learn to read in their native language -- in 2002, it was believed that only one woman alive still knew how to write it.
And no one has any idea what she's saying.
The U.S. Town With Its Own Language
Boontling is a language that's only spoken in one small town on Earth. It's not some remote African tribe, though -- we're talking about Boonville, Northern California. Back in the 1800s, farming families settled in the Anderson Valley of California and took up rural pursuits like logging and fishing. For reasons that are now lost to the sands of time, the residents of Boonville started to make up new words for things so that people from outside the town couldn't understand what they were saying.
Whether it started as a harmless prank or small-town paranoia, Boontling eventually grew into its own bona fide language, and Boonville became the only place on Earth where you can find signs like this:
It means exactly what you ... think it ... means?
How Did They Do It?
As time marched on, like with many languages, Boontling leaked and mixed with the native speakers' English, becoming part of the town's natural way of speaking. Fascinated linguists have composed lists of the hundreds of unique words in Boontling, and they get pretty bizarre -- a "great beer" in Boonville is "aplenty bahl steinber horn," and if your horse has a particularly comfortable saddle, you might be heard to quip "It's a slow lope'n a beeson tree." No, we don't get it either, but it wouldn't be a very good secret language if we did.
Since the language is considered a valuable part of American history, there is some concern that it's beginning to die out. However, the few remaining speakers of it seem intent on keeping it alive -- to sell beer. And judging by how much they drink, it's likely that most people who come into contact with it just assume that the entirety of the town is too shitfaced to speak properly.
For more reasons Webster should let us write dictionaries, check out 6 Words That Need to Be Banned from the English Language and The 10 Coolest Foreign Words The English Language Needs.