I just read Slate’s great review of a new book, Daniel Heller-Roazen’s Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers. The book explores the hidden languages of secret societies throughout history. Jacob Mikanowski, the author of the review, writes:
The rogues of England were governed by an elaborate hierarchy, running from Abram Men, who feigned madness, and Bawdy Baskets, female peddlers, all the way up to Upright Men, who commanded authority among the beggars in the land and could levy a tax on all those they met. Not only were beggars organized in their own society, but they also spoke a language of their own: cant.
Also known as peddler’s French, cant was the specialized tongue of thieves, cutpurses, and con artists. More than just slang or jargon, cant was an independent language, unintelligible to outsiders, an artificial English-within-English, which, according to the playwright Thomas Dekker, “none but themselves should understand.” Harman’s informants claimed that cant had been invented 30 years before in a cave by Cock Lorel, a legendary rogue and the king of the Gypsies, and while this almost certainly wasn’t true, it points to something else that was—cant was a recent creation, and not a unique one.
There’s a lot to learn from this review and it makes the book seem like it would be worth the read. One of the most interesting tidbits is that these languages continue to exist in modern times. Loshen-Koudesh, the secret language of Jewish cattle traders was still being used in the 20th century in Orange County, New York.