Sheez Parniing dhee Omiz (“It’s raining men”):
The codification of Polari, a gay lingo; with standardised orthography and a proposed extension of the lexicon
by Javant Biarujia
Jean Cocteau could have been writing about Polari, when he wrote in Maalesh: “What is really new is the written language.[…] The new phonetic language is designed purely for the ear, and side-tracks sounds which are difficult to pronounce. The eyes feel surprised by it. No doubt this surprise will yield a rich harvest. It will give young writers the opportunity of doing fresh things with a language which had formerly to be treated with great respect, and which can now be used as disrespectfully as they like” (86). Cocteau was writing about the changes Atatürk brought to Turkish during his revolution in the early part of last century, when he abolished the Arabic script for the Roman alphabet, but his words could equally apply to Polari and its matrix language, English (except, perhaps, the bit about respect, for English has endured at least a century of disrespect and experimentation, from writers as illustrious as James Joyce, in his two masterpieces, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, to anonymous shrews and queens with sharp tongues).
Polari is a lingo or jargon whose heyday was pre–Gay Liberation England, when there was a need not only for a gay slang, which has always existed in English, whether it be British, American or Australian, but for a disguised language which could fool straight — that is, those who were not the intended audience — eavesdroppers into thinking they were hearing a foreign language. (And what usually happens when monoglots hear a string of words they cannot make head nor tail of? They often dismiss it is gibberish and pay no further attention, thereby giving the Polari speaker the cover that he — and I suspect it was for the most part “he”, even though “she” was the requisite and ubiquitous pronoun used; more on that later — that he so desired.) The ironical thing about such jargons and Cant is that it is usually understood not only by the members of its loose-knit group but also by its enemies, a very tight-knit organisation called the police. Remember: Polari proliferated at a time when homosexuality was illegal. A common form of entrapment used by the “Jennifer Justice” was to use a jargon word during questioning, to see if the suspect understood. If he did, he stood condemned by his own understanding. (“Jennifer Justice”, “Betty Bracelets”, “Hilda Handcuffs” and “orderly daughters” are all gay slang words for the police; however, charpering omi, or its variant, sharpering omi, often abbreviated to just sharpa, is the true Polari word for policeman.)
Slang is never far from Polari, even when it has nothing to do with homosexuality. Certain Polari characteristics seem to come “naturally” to slang, such as when Mr Cassidy in Psycho (1960) tells Marian Crane’s boss, “Larry, I’m dying of thirsteroni” (spelled here as Polari, for I have no idea how “thirsteroni” was spelled in Hitchcock’s script). Such “augmented” words belong to the category that includes “switcheroony”, from switch, and “smackeroony”, from smacker, slang for a dollar or pound. It is quite common to hear people add a mock Italian “o”, “oni” or “ooni” to the end of English words, to spice up their speech, as Mr Cassidy did. (See joynto in the Vocabulary.) Some people, not to mention multinationals, unaware of their own xenophobia, have even made the feeble joke that to be understood in Italy (or anywhere on the Continent), all one need do is add an “o” to the end of all the important words (“How mucho is a bottle-o of vino?”; cf., a well-known brand of pasta sauce out of a bottle marketed as “authentico”, which is neither fish nor fowl, linguistically speaking). Then there is a short Australian children’s film about a cross-dressing boy, that scooped an award at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, titled Franswa Sharl, almost perfect Polari (I would have written Franswar, with the emphasis on the final syllable).
Polari is just one of a number of lingos to proliferate in English, itself coming from an older such lingo called Parlyaree, the language of travelling theatre and carnival folk (“carnies”), circus performers and the like. “Kennick”, listed in Chambers dictionary (neither Polari nor Parlyaree is), is tantalisingly defined as “the jargon of tramping tinkers”, but without any elaboration, examples or etymology. What a pity! I would have loved to sample a little of the jargon or just some tidbit more on the subject, as Chambers does under the fourth entry for “bat”, which is defined as a “spoken language of India or farther east”, and then gives the verb phrase “sling the bat”, meaning to speak such a language. (It is obvious I am a fan of Chambers English Dictionary, but I also checked the treasury of Anglo-Indian, Hobson-Jobson, for more on the subject, without success.)
What I am proposing as Polari orthography seems to come naturally to a lot of native English speakers. Poets have been known to tinker with spelling, especially of the “little words” and verbal terminations in their poems for various reasons (e.g., Robert Duncan, Thom Gunn, the Beat Poets, the 1960s generation, etc.). An example of this is Australian poet Rob Finlayson’s In th Azure Room ov th Peacock Palace, published in 1987. “The title introduces the reader immediately to a statement on English orthography,” I wrote in a letter to the author at the time. “The weakness of the English alphabet irks you, but how I miss the much maligned mute e! [Some twenty years later, this may go to explain somewhat why the mute “e” is present in my Polari orthography.] On the other hand, I love the strength of V, I love its physical structure […] but poor mute e! I love the mystery of silent letters (my [first] name has a silent final consonant which represents for me that which is not spoken, the taboo of ambisexuality). I love the transfigurations, the vowels shifts, the modulations caused by mute e, but I see you take the matter no further than the definite article” (cf., “azure” and “palace”). Of course, I cannot pass by the mention of “mute e” without referring to “muteness”, silence, holding one’s tongue, which is the lot of an oppressed minority, whether it be pre–Gay Liberation gays or pre–Women’s Liberation females. Or post–, as it turns out: the societal pressure not to speak for oneself, not to speak out.
I have thought about standardising and, perhaps more importantly, codifying Polari’s spelling system for some time (much as I wanted to reform Esperanto orthography as a teenager, not yet aware of Guérard’s assertion that spending time on such an endeavor is nothing but a “nice parlour game”). I abandoned my attempts years ago, just one in a long line of people determined to “improve” Zamenhof’s creation. Perhaps I feel more emboldened with Polari, or, for the purists — or for those who spoke a good deal of Polari in their day — Nu-Polari (what I have done would be unrecognisable to those people), for it does not boast of a “million speakers”, has no academy nor a history of publication behind it; it is not taught in any schools and is probably not even recognised as a language by most people. Because Polari was never written down with any real authority, the spelling is all over the place (and sometimes the pronunciation), with multiple variations on the same word (take the word for shilling, which appears variously in Paul Baker’s Fantabulosa as “beone”, “beyong”, “beyonek”, “bianc”, “bionc”, etc.; I have standardised the word to beeyoni). Even the word for “man”, the most common Polari word, along with bona, “good”, could be written numerous ways (Baker lists seven variations in his Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang: omee, omi, omy, omme, omer, homee, homi; I have settled on omi).
I wanted to rid Polari of such superfluity by standardising and systematising the spelling — and spent six months working out how. At first, I wanted the spelling to be basically English with Italian for flavoring, which is the nature of the patois — and I did not want to have to resort to accented letters. To begin with, I came up with several spelling systems, but not with spelling rules that allowed for no exceptions. (Regularity was one of the pillars of my project. As I wanted my homonyms to have the same spelling, it meant I had to abandon the apostrophe for elision, as mentioned elsewhere.) I tried to apply various English rules for spelling across the board, but always foundered in the end. (I tried writing gajo, outsider, originally a Romany word, as “gagio”, “ghago”, “gadjo”, “gaejo”, “gajoe”, etc., with their systems applying to all the other words in the lexicon, before ending up with the same spelling — but with a rule to back it up — that Baker used.) Eventually, I ended up with the regular, “phonetic” alphabet I have now, without the diacritical marks that mar Esperanto, and with just a few “oddities” for the native English eye. I used Baker’s word “Fantabulosa” as the basis for my regular system; hence, the “u” with the palatal glide and the two uses of “a”. Zamehof would be twirling in his grave at my permissive use of one letter to stand for more than one sound, and vice versa (the schwa — the most common sound in the English language — gave me the most trouble, before I ended up with three ways of representing it, albeit with strict rules), but I am katevva enough to point out that the letters “ĉ” and “ĝ” are actually made up of two sounds, thereby contradicting Article 9 of Zamenhof’s own Sixteen Rules of Esperanto Grammar.
The Polari I am aiming for is not just the kind that has flavored comedians’ routines and occasionally dotted certain memoirs, such as Kenneth Williams’ autobiography, the British television show “Little Britain” or the oft-quoted and award-winning “Round the Horne” radio programme of the 1960s. (In the treatise on camp — no, not Sontag’s — by Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, published in 1968, I expected to find a profusion of Polari, but I was surprised to find none at all.) I call English sprinkled with the odd word of Polari, Paumi Polari (English Polari), such as Carson Kressley’s penchant for jhoojh on the American television show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”. Paumi Polari is little more than word substitution, with English syntax left largely intact. In this way, it could be said to resemble what Étiemble dubbed franglais in his book parlez-vous franglais, published in 1964, although Singaporean English, or “Singlish” as it is known by the locals, is much closer to Paumi Polari than franglais is. Nu-Polari, as I’ve come to call my version (perhaps there is an ad man in me just dying to get out — New and improved Polari), aims to be a complete system grafted on to the matrix language, English. I am obviating the charge that Polari’s raison d’être was to camouflage or obfuscate the speech of, mainly, gay men in a society where homosexual acts were still a crime, for these decades later, I do not see Polari in terms of mystification but potential unification for interested speakers, gay or straight. In other words, a gay-based fashernd language that has gone beyond its sexual roots (“pretersexual”) without sacrificing its homosexual identity. Such potentiality is what is so attractive to me.
Finally, what is a language without apophthegms, I thought (that’s proverbs to you, Mary), so without further ado I came up with, “A shauka mouj iz bonar dhan a kaud sheikel” (a silly hat is better than a bad wig; that is, being silly on occasion, sending oneself up, etc., is better than affectation as a trait, trying to fool others into thinking you still have your own hair, which usually means some pretension to authority, if you are straight; desirability, if you are gay). All the words in my proverb are bona fide Polari, except shauka, which I took from Italian sciocca, silly, in the grammatical feminine, conflating it with the English shocker. (See “Expansion of Vocabulary”, under orthography.)