The Princes of Jargon

[...] It is with the disappearance of argot as a secret language that Gypsy words get through as is, without transformation, into the speech that today takes the place of argot and that one calls "plugged in" [branche]: the same with imitation-English and the other sub-languages that have currency and are widely diffused by the media and as quickly become antiquated. The very words "plugged-in" proves the degree to which one is far from argot, which was precisely the opposite, that is to say, an elitist language. By the usage of argot, one used to get one's belonging to a certain milieu recognized. Today, one gives oneself the illusion of calling upon different milieus -- pub[licity], spectacle, audio-visual, psy[chological], sport, drug, political, intellectual, gangster, carceral, etc. Verlan ["back slang"] itself owes its success to the simplest procedure, that of the anagram. Ancient argot was centripetal, that is to say, it was essentially by and for the dangerous classes (to which were attracted, for their use, words annexed from different zones). Today, it is centrifugal; it leaves the media's assembly-lines so as to be diffused immediately and intensely for the sake of all of the population. If the use of argot was once "aristocratic," today it is "democratic." Previously, "proper" people did not speak argot; today it is a must[1] among a thousand others.

"For modernization, as for all the other forms of contact [...] the rate of change of a given society is always in positive, close correlation with the extension of the contacts that it has with other societies" (Wilbert Moore, Social Changes).

"Having lived on the fringes of the criminal world, some of them had maintained superficial, but amicable contact with several representatives of the underworld, and thus they could more easily obtain their collaboration in the fabrication of false identification papers. They enjoyed an experience that the Resistance movements still had not yet acquired [...] At the beginning, the Rom[ani] obtained their weapons and munitions from the underworld. Later, it was the Allies who furnished them [...] The Rom[ani] of our Gypsy tribe [Kumpania] played an active role in the Resistance until early August 1943. At that time, many of them were apprehended by the secret military police [Geheime Feldpolizei]" (Jan Yoors).

"The formation of the language of argot since the end of the war of 1914-1918 is permeable [...] One must add to these contributions the products of the internments during the last war, when many malefactors met each other while on the yard with Bohemians of all categories. Several words of the Gypsies, who looked after the animals in the circuses, several Gypsy expressions became associated with the traditional language of the purists of argot. The documents on these contributions are very few" (Pierre Mac Orlan, Argot in Literature).

For a language to be enriched with words borrowed from a foreign one, it is not only necessary that there is contact, but the practice of a community, as well. Many French people stayed in Germany for a long time during the last war. If they learned several words, they did not, for all that, inscribe them in their own language when they returned. This is because neither there nor here did they form a specific group from these circumstances, contrary to the example provided by Mac Orlan. But he appears to believe that this was a singular historical occasion. In fact, the event took place 500 years before the date that he retained.

The purism of the argotiers is sociological and not linguistic. The argot word only wears out when it leaves its kingdom. As long as it remains reserved, it keeps all of its purity and for good reason: it is a secret language, a sign of connivance that only has a pure interest. It isn't the malefactors who have kept apart from the Gypsies, but quite obviously the reverse. In a certain way, the Gypsies are the free slaves among the free salves (kay dikhlan kokalo romano ka I gadje?[2]). "Because, in principle, in the eyes of the Tsiganes, no friendship is possible between a gadjo (even if he [or she] is rai) and the Man par excellence, the Rom[ani]" (Luc de Heusch, The Uncovering of the Tsiganes). The language of the Gypsy is the proof of the Gypsy. It contains its own "argot," which obviously has not been unveiled to the linguists who have presented themselves. If it was not in itself the prototype of argot, it could not have been able to preserve the essential aspects of its structure for more than five centuries. It would not have been able to allow itself, lacking a written form, the important phonetic differences and evolutions that one has seen in all the other idioms, without quickly losing its identity. And it is precisely thanks to this relative immobility that one can date it so far back with assurance.

When elements as important as the existence and role of the Gypsies in the formation of argot are ignored or even denied, in France more than anywhere else, one successively falls into two errors: that of the linguists who claim to decorticate it and and subject it to the laws of language (formation of collective, unconscious or subconscious evolution; conditioned by physiological, psychological and social causes); and that of the people who only see in argot an individual and purely arbitrary fantasy. Those who do not know the notion of clandestinity, and cannot even imagine its practice by others, strangely [try to] explain many phenomena that appear simply inexplicable to them. One has no need to be a sociologist to accept the cryptological goal of argot as a means of collective defense of a group, nor need to be a poet to experience the creative and ludic aspects of this language. But, as such, it has its own rules: it must have even more fixity that ordinarily spoken language. Above all, it is a question of making oneself understood and in often difficult particular conditions.[3] Some words can evolve; others may take on new meanings; but such instances remain rare. Gypsy language has this point in common with patois: to survive, they both must not evolve too much. The vocabulary can be enriched, but phonetic and semantic evolutions are almost prohibited. De Heusch thus has been able to "verify that the language of the nomadic groups in 1961 is perceptibly the same from Istanbul to Paris, whereas the Tsignane groups that have been sedentary for several generations generally manifest signs of alteration that affect both the culture and the language."

The Gypsies are our Middle Ages preserved: dangerous classes from another time. Gypsy words have passed into the different argots are like the Gypsies themselves, who, since their appearance, have adopted the patronyms of the countries they have wandered -- gadjesko nav -- [thereby,] in a certain way, losing their "identity" on paper, in the eyes of those who believe they know how to read. "A white meadow, black sheep, [by] walking they ceaselessly speak but do not know us." This is a riddle of the Romanian Tsiganes. The response, in their language, is Lil, the written document.

"Today, the Tsignane-Romani people speak an English argot (pogadi chib, broken language), the exotic vocabulary of which (especially coming from the now-dead Romani language) is used in an English grammatical and syntactical framework," says the linguist Donald Kendrick. Ian Hancock, a sociologist in the USA, sees in it a "16th century Creole, a language-bridge between the Romanichels who have recently arrived in England and the English nomads who joined the Tsignanes bands." One had already found the same characteristics in calo and its abundance of hybrid formations. "Finnish Tsignane contains a surprising number of Swedish words [...] as well as forms of ancient Swedish, that is to say, the vulgar form from the 18th century [...] The argot of the large towns, especially Stockholm, is very rich in words of Tsigane origin, although in a deformed (sic) and banalized form" (Richard Rayment, Swedish linguist: The Degradation of Language as a Function of the Assimilation of the Tsiganes). It is only their integration, which was actually completed in today's society -- supposing this to be possible -- that has brought the Gypsies to speak the recent argot spoken by everyone. [...]

[1] English in original.

[2] Author's note: "Has one ever seen an authentic Gypsy among the gadje?"

[3] Author's note: Villon's Ballads in Jargon are a perfect illustration. Written after the arrest of a part of the Band of Coquillards, they constituted a warning for those who, this time, escaped justice, [written] in a jargon that has not ceased to intrigue those who have not had the keys. The beginning of Ballad VI announces: Contres de la gaudisserie ["Companions of the pleasing word/pleasantry/mockery"] / Entervez tousiours blanc pour bis ["Still/always see white for black"].

(Excerpted from Les Princes du Jargon, published by Editions Gerard Lebovici in 1990; 2d edition published by Gallimard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! January 2008.)

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