Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Incarceration is the Mother of Invention

November 26th, 2012 · 13 Comments

There are two things to marvel at in the Texas Prison Gangs Dictionary, which comes to us via the good folks over at Public Intelligence. The first is the incredible effort it took to document 168-pages worth of vocabulary that is expressly designed to be as indecipherable as possible. The second is the sheer linguistic inventiveness of the incarcerated, who essentially commit themselves to learning a second tongue in order to thrive behind bars. I would love to read a learned linguist’s take on whether all languages originate in not-too-dissimilar manners—as efforts to conceal the machinations of one group from those in power. Based on what I know about how English grew out of a vernacular employed by peasants whose masters spoke courtly French, I bet there’s more than a grain of truth to that assumption.


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13 Comments so far ↓

  • scottstev

    The best example I can think of is Cockney Rhyming Slang which was developed to be indecipherable to police.

  • David Moles

    I love that the Woodman State Jail felt compelled to mark this top secret. I guess the word’s out now, and the abejas and the cueteros and the Tony Sanchez will have to invent whole new prensas if they want to keep beating their gums in front of the Roman citizens.

  • Gramsci

    Another example would be pidgin, which in Hawaii sprang up as a way for plantation workers with different native languages to communicate while slithering through overseers’ aural surveillance.

    I also think the fertility of prison language may stem from the disorienting and dehumanizing psychological toll of uniforms, cells, numbing routine, little exposure to outside air and sunlight, and brutal treatment by guards and fellow prisoners alike. As well as a down-and-dirty way to scheme, manipulate, and survive, these innovations are ways to reassert one’s humanity. I’m reminded of some women who survived in the concentration camps, who did not first plead with liberating soldiers for food or water or soap– they asked for lipstick.

  • Lane

    I wouldn’t lean too hard on the idea that English grew out of some “peasant vernacular” out of a desire to avoid understanding by the Norman French overlords. It was the main language of the great majority of the population by 1066, and the Normans were always relatively few. Over the course of a couple of centuries just started speaking English. It was never, to my knowledge, some kind of underworld cant. The development of Middle English from Old English was in large part the leavening of Old English with lots of Norman French words – the opposite of trying to keep the language secret from the Normans.

    There are a lot of examples of special/secret languages; some cultures have a special language to be used around mothers-in-law:


  • Kristin

    Pidgins are bare-bones trade languages, adult-to-adult, with insufficient vocabulary for anything else. Creoles are natural languages, useful for all situations, and linguists have learned quite a lot about how children learn language from studying them. Hawaiian Pidgin is actually a Creole, since it functions quite well alongside English.

    This prison slang is a constructed language, or conlang, such as Cockney Rhyming Slang mentioned above, Thieves’ Cant, and even Hildegard von Bingen’s lingua ignota, which she taught her nuns to speak. It’s different from a Pidgin in that it’s not, say, the Chinese and the British trying to cobble together some common terms but speakers of the same language seeking to disguise their speech somehow. Science fiction writers like Tolkien construct languages like Elvish, though Klingon is likely the best known one. So, not all conlangs are put to nefarious uses.


  • Brendan I. Koerner

    This is slowly turning into the most awesome Microkhan comment thread ever. Thanks to all who have contributed, and apologies for not keeping pace–just absolutely swamped with work. Looking forward to checking out all the links that folks have shared–it’s clear that this post has attracted some exceptionally learned readers.

  • Gramsci

    @Kristin Those are some helpful distinctions. Conlangs are not all con langs, right?

    My knowledge of Hawaiian “pidgin” (creole) is severely limited to friends I have from there, whose stories of subterfuge and machination are, I’m sure, just one slice of the “cobbling together” history you reference.

    But if you think the Klingons aren’t nefarious, well, I don’t know what to tell you.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Lieutenant Worf would like a word with you.

  • Kristin

    @Gramsci The Creoles CAN be used to communicate without outsiders understanding them–Gullah speakers do the same thing. My point is that the Creoles didn’t *emerge* that way. Should have been clear!

    And I should also have distinguished a cryptolect such as the slang in this dictionary from conlangs. Cryptolects are a subset of conlangs in that their function is to obscure meaning. Klingon is therefore a conlang but not a cryptolect.

  • tnfalpha

    There’s also verlans, which is an inversion of the syllables for the french word “l’enverse” (hence the name). Supposedly it was developed by french-speaking Jews to avoid being understood by french-speaking Nazi guards.

  • scottstev

    @Kristin, thank you for your contributions. I hadn’t realized the difference between creole and pidgin before. This has been a great thread, and we haven’t even gotten to the Mandingo Warriors yet.


  • Gramsci

    Agreed, scottstev. Let me take this opportunity, on the topic of prison and language, to recommend this recent release.

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