Neither Edmund Spenser nor John Milton, for instance, would have found the system I have come up with at all unusual, for their own spellings were quite similar (paysd, ghest, kerve, gole, etc.), not to mention dialectic variants (swayl, etc.). — Yes, I am open to the charge that the spelling system I have devised is a step backwards. Previous generations had no authoritative rule of thumb to go by, which explains why even simple words were spelled differently by different writers of the same era, and sometimes, even by the same writer (what one would now call “sloppiness”). I have tried to keep my spelling system as natural as possible, while maintaining its “phonetic” qualities. The orthography I have settled on has many precedents in showbiz (“biz” is orthographically pure Polari: “Boyzone” [a prescient, if unwitting, Polari pun on boys’ zone and “Boy’s Own”], “Jimi Hendrix”, “Jonzi D.” [i.e., Jonesy, the British hip-hop artist and theatre director], etc. — not to mention Barbra, as in Streisand); commerce (“Kwik Flo”, a local plumbing company, “Pepsi”, “Kleenex”, etc.); indigenous words from American, Indian, Australian, New Zealand, etc., languages (“chintz”, “cheeta[h]”, “cheroot”, etc.); indigenous place-names (“Darjeeling”, “Kilimanjaro”, “Manitoba”, etc.); popular culture, including graffiti (“girlz”, “gangsta rap”, “sez”, etc.) and “Bogan” (in Australia) or “Chav” (in Britain — more Polari!) spellings of boys’ and girls’ names (Jorja, Natarsha, Dani, etc. — American actress Tanjareen Martin is well on her way to Polari orthography!).

Commerce has often been at the forefront of spelling reform in English, if only to get around the law regarding registered trademarks, which is resistant to common nouns (hence, Expozay — perfect Polari — is the spelling given to a local hair salon, Gazoza, a fizzy drink, Flayva, a local chicken outlet’s brand, Mota Frenz, the name of a local gay car club, Orkestra, the name of the band on a local television show, etc.). The recent British film Scor-say-zee, in the tradition of Franswa Sharl, is another example of an attempt to spell phonetically. The quest, it seems in English at least, is to find a copyrightable phonetic spelling of a word easily recognised by the buying public, and only occasionally, we find howlers in the commercial world, as when a well-known food brand called its pasta “authentico”, which is neither English nor Italian.

Place-names based on indigenous words are particularly fraught, for explorers came from different parts of Europe, and even different parts of their respective countries. In my area, for example, only a local knows that Geelong is pronounced “Jelaung” and Nunawading, “Nounewauding” (most English visitors, on their way out to find Ramsay Street, from Neighbours, ask for directions to “Nooner Wading”, much to the puzzlement of many a passer-by!). Even Melbourne is mispronounced by out-of-towners: if they’re from England, they tend to say “Melbirn”, and if they’re from the States, “Melbor’rn” (see Point (b) under “Apostrophes”, below; by the way, your actual Melburnian swallows the second syllable to come up with “Melben”). Americans pronounce Houston in Texas as “Husten”, while Houston Street, in New York City, is pronounced “Heosten”. One English family name that wins the prize for galimatias is Featherstonehaugh, pronounced Fanshaw (“Fanshor”) by the posh (“poshe”).

Standard English itself has, however, many words spelled according to the rules (“sent” but not “scent” or “cent”, “lone” but not “loan”, “tort” but not “torte”, “taught” or “taut”, etc.). Such phonetic standardisation makes for a plethora of homonyms (no pun intended!), but context usually sorts any interpretative problems out. (Mounjariing a “tort” in a karnish-ken nix iz leikimentay tu bee kaunfuzde with a “tort” lukaudi.) My use of “k” in every instance may seem a little odd to some, radical to others (“Amerika” spelt with a “k” was a radical political statement in 1960s American English, but it would be foolish to think “k” belonged to the left exclusively, for “Klan”, as in Ku Klux Klan, is an extreme right-wing case in point), and I did briefly consider “c” before “hard” vowels, but in the end I decided that “one sound, one letter” was the way to go with this velar consonant. Remember, however, when considering the orthography as laid out below, that I am privileging sound over shape.


A) Long Vowels (LVV)


ay /ei:/ (day)                       ar /a:/ (bark) 4                     eo /au:/ (McLeod)

ee /i:/ (week)                       eyr /e:(e)/ (Eyre) 4              oy /oi:/ (boy)

ei /ai:/ (height)                   or /o:/ (order) 4                   ’u /u:/ (mood)5

o /o:/ (home)1                     ir /e:/ (girl) 4                       oo /u/ (look)3

u /ju:/ (new) 2                                                               


  1. The “o” is always a LV. Words ending in “o” and a C or C cluster take on a mute “e” (pelone, bolde). Note that while Baker gives the pronunciation of Polari as “Palari”, in conformity with the ordinary verb palari, to speak, the conventional “o” has been retained here, with the recommended pronunciation adjusted accordingly. Note, too, that while the standard long “o” before some C clusters is pronounced as a short “o” by many native English speakers (i.e., the Australian pronunciation of “cold”), the Polari pronunciation of VV follows “received pronunciation”, as in the English Pronouncing Dictionary by Daniel Jones.)
  2. The “u” is always aLV, with the same modifications as for “o”; see 5.
  3. In some dialects, “oo” may take the place of “ou”.
  4. To restore the short V sound, the “r” is doubled (arris, merri).
  5. The apostrophe represents the elision of the palatal glide found in many English words, which is not found in some dialects or variants of British English, and is routinely missing in American English. The apostrophe is not used before “ch”, “d”, “j”, “jh”, “l”, “r”, “sh” & “w”, for the palatalisation is either absorbed into the preceding consonant or is not found in English pronunciation. (Note that “d” or “t” words with a palatal glide in English are rendered with “j” and “ch” respectively in Polari [ju, dew; chulip, tulip].) Where palatalisation is present following the above consonants, often in exaggerated or very careful speech, a “y” is inserted in order to represent the sound (dyu, dew; tyulip, tulip).


B) Short Vowels


a /ae/ (bat)                          a /schwa/ (coma)7a              e /mute e/ (rove)8

e /e/ (let)6                                                         e /schwa/ (model)7b

i /i/ (ship)*                          er /schwa/ (treatment)5/7c

au /o/ (laurel)

ou /L/ (rough)


* This sound is pronounced as a schwa by many native English speakers in words ending in “-en”, “-ess”, “-et”, etc. (i.e., the Australian pronunciation of “harness”). Also, when found in the final position, this sound may be pronounced /i:/ by many native English speakers, and so is also retained in Polari (barki, omi, Polari, soldi, etc.).


  1. The open “e” must always be followed by a DC (nelli), except in final position in words of a single C (ken). Note that neither “x” nor the digraphs dh, dz, jh, ng, sh, th & tz have a double C form, in which case an “e” is always open.
  2. (a) A schwa at the beginning or end of a word (or as a word in itself) is spelled “a” (aseo, chinka). To restore the SV value of “a”, DCC or C clusters are used (aspro).

      (b) A schwa in all other positions (except C clusters; see next note) is spelled “e”


      (c) A schwa before a C cluster is spelled “er” (armernrauk). Note that when a final

      schwa (“a”) is modified in derivation, this is reflected in the orthography (cf., orda

      > gerund ordering). Note, too, that “er” is used before “j”, “x” or the digraphs dh,

      dz, jh, ng, sh, th & tz (froumerjen).

  1. Mute “e” appears only at the end of words in which the final syllable ending in a consonant contains a long “o” (moge) or “u” (taudichude); see Notes 1 & 2 above, as well as Morphology, below.


C) Vowel Combinations (VC)


eer /i:e/ (peer)                                                               oor /ue/ (poor)  

eir /ai:e/ (fiery)                                                              ur* /ju:e/ (pure)

ayr /ei:e/ (Sayer)                                                           eor /au:e/ (hour)

oyr /oi: e/ (royal)                                                           ’ur / u: e/ (“twoer”)5     


But eirr /ai:r/ (Irish), eorr /au:r/, (dowry) etc. — see Note 4, above.

* Words ending in “ur” take a mute “e” (as in Eng. “pure”).


D) Consonants (CC)


The letters b, d, f, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, v, w & z are pronounced as they are in English:


b /b/ (ball, sob)                   l /l/ (little, pale)                   t /t/ (tab, strut)10

d /d/ (dill, mended)             m /m/ (mummy, ram)      v /v/ (vine, spiv)

f /f/ (fine, puff)                   n /n/ (nut, ran)                    w /w/ (wet, bewail)11

h /h/ (hat, reheat)9/11           p /p/ (pope)                        z /z/ (zero, buzz)

k /k/ (cat, kiss, luck)          r /r/ (ran, furry)14               


The letters g, j, s, x & y are always pronounced as follows:


g /g/ (got, agog)                 s /s/ (sit, rice)                      y /j/ (yet, million)11

j // (just, edge)                x /ks/ (mix)12                      


The letters “c” & “q” are not used in Polari (though “c” forms part of the digraph ch; see following). English words with “q” are rendered by k (clique > kleek) or kw (queen > kween). Note, too, that the final “d” (but not “t”, as in arnt nel) in C clusters is routinely dropped (round > reon), though is generally retained in further derivation (reonding).


The digraphs ch & sh are pronounced as they are in English:


ch // (chance, match)       sh /š/ (ship, fish)                


The digraphs dh, dz, jh, ng, th & tz are always pronounced as follows:


dh /ð/ (the)                         jh /ž/ (measure, corsage)    th /q/ (thin, Plath)

dz /dz/ (mezzo)                  ng /ng,/ (sink, singer)12       tz /ts/ (pots)


The digraph kh is rare, often replaced with h alone:


kh /x/ (chutzpah, loch)      


  1. The letter “h” is always pronounced (pace Cockney).
  2. The letter “t” between two CC is often pronounced as a glottal stop (e.g., arnt nel).
  3. The letters “h”, “w” & “y” never appear at the end of a word, except as part of a digraph (“jh”) or diphthong (“ay”).
  4. Neither the letter “x” nor the digraph “dz” begins a word in Polari. Words of English origin beginning with “x” are rendered into Polari by “z” (zeilefone). Note that the letter “x”, in a departure from phonetic purity, also represents the / gz / sound in “exist”.
  5. The agma /ng/ is represented by “ng”, and may be followed by a V (chinga). It may also represent the hard /ng,g/ sound, as in English “finger” (fangichude, founges). Note that when “ng” is followed by “k”, the “g” is dropped (eefink). Note, too, that the sound /ns/, often written “nce” in English, is rendered “ntz” in Polari.
  6. The letter “r” is pronounced as in English. It is pronounced residually in LVV “ar”, “air”, “ir” & “or”. Note that the DC “rr” is used to restore the foregoing short V sound see Point 4., above).


DCC are formed in the normal way (e.g., “bb”). The “r” changes LVV to short VV when doubled (marreer). Note that DCC are always used after “e” to differentiate it from the schwa (sessemi).


E) Semi-Vocalic Glide


Semi-vocalic glides are “w” or “y”, depending on what vowel precedes them. In Polari, the letter “w” is not used in diphthongs (in English, the “w” is usually already there, as in “blowing”, though it may simply be sounded as in “froing”), unless to demonstrate stressed or emphatic use (fleor, flower > fleowr, flow-wer, or, as Catherine Tate’s Chav character, Lauren, might say, fleowa). The letter “y” is interpolated in the same way: e.g., reir (normal pronunciation) > reiyr (stressed), which if really accentuated, becomes reiya. Likewise, Polari “ew” is not pronounced as in English but as a schwa followed by “w” (there are no examples of this in the Vocabulary, but consider how differently English treats “ew” in few, beware and Stonewall). Naturally, the same is said for Polari “ow”.

The semi-vocalic glides are sounded mostly when suffixing “-ed” or “-ing” to verbs: “w” for those ending in “eo”, “o” or “u” (but not a schwa, which changes from “-a” to “-er”, as in artha > arthering: leo[w]ing, intentzo[w]ing, ku[w]ing), and “y” for those ending in the other vowels (parni[y]ing). Note that words ending in weak “r” are usually sounded when suffixed in this way.


Polari’s orthography in many ways has reflected that of its “parent” language, English, even though much of its vocabulary comes from Italian, Romany, Yiddish and even French (including such pretentious renderings as buvaray or nantwar), in addition to conventional slang, backslang, Cockney slang and thieves’ Cant. As such, however, a multitude of spellings has arisen for common words (e.g., [h]omee, [h]omi, omy, omme, etc.), for there is no Academy or institution to guide the user. And while English has no Academy either, unlike the Académie Française for the regulation of French, it has had many centuries of convention on its side to support American and British English — and those in between — systems, to create the flavors of English we know so well. (Even so, variant spellings, leaving aside American and British spelling, exist; Chambers lists “Druz” and “Druze” as variants of “Druse”, for instance.) I have tried to maintain this natural “flavor” as much as possible, while making the spelling completely regular, which has been to distort some words just enough to add an element of not disguise but new clothes. Although disguise was considered necessary when Polari was purely a spoken vernacular of gay people in a hostile, homophobic world, it has largely been discounted in today’s post–Gay Liberation society, where the language of the oppressor will do just fine. So, while state-sanctioned oppression of gays in today’s English-speaking world is largely a thing of the past (pace Alabama, etc.!), and as the number of “native” speakers dwindles and the incidence of Polari being written increases, I felt it — not necessary — desirable, for want of a better word, to cloak the language in some kind of obfuscation in order to preserve Polari’s “feminine mystique” (much as Latin was used as disguise in “polite” nineteenth-century society, so as not to offend; e.g., “pudendum muliebre” for “minge” — or minj). To the extent that Gay Liberation may have made disguise unnecessary, such “phonetic” renderings therefore lend a playful originality to the language. I wish I could say that it was unnecessary to disguise one’s homosexuality anywhere in the world, but I cannot, not while gays are being executed by governments inIran,Africa and elsewhere, for the “crime” of being gay, let alone “gay-bashing”, discrimination, physical and verbal taunts and the like. (Similarly, it is not so difficult to understand why Yiddish, a Germanic language, is written in Semitic Hebrew letters.)

Codified Polari orthography follows pronunciation (sound), not grammatical or inflexion rules (shape), as English does. (Consider how many different ways “-ed” may be pronounced in English.) Naturally, any extended text written in Polari would rely on the matrix language, English, and so it is envisaged that the orthographical scheme I have outlined would apply to the complete text. This would mean forgoing etymological fidelity when some words alter their spelling in different parts of speech (nayshen but nashenel), or due to emphasis (ta or tu), etc., to reflect changes in pronunciation. English speakers are not used to this, whereas it is more common in, say, French (hôpital but hospitalisation). Pronunciation is also largely standard English, with an Anglicisation of foreign terms, convenient for native English speakers. All languages distort, to a greater or lesser degree, borrowed words to conform to their morphology (cf., Japanese “asshisutanto”, assistant). The French do to shampooing what Australians do to “lingerie”, that is, distort the sounds to such an extent that native speakers may be left scratching their heads. (Thus, the French say “shaumpwang” and Australians, “launjheray”, to use Polari spelling.) In the end, if you apply these orthographic rules to pronunciation, you cannot make a spelling mistake. “Deelishes”, “dilishes” or “delishes”, for example, may depend on different speakers, or even the same speaker at different times, let alone the “ee-ther/eye-ther” problem in English, with both legitimate variants spelled the same way as “either”. That would not happen in Polari.

Leave a Reply