As a bit of an amateur anthropologist, I am fascinated by language - how it affects our perception of the world around us, and our relationships with other people; the story it tells about human history, the blending and annexation of cultures.  The social history of language is particularly important, especially when that language declines in use.  With the rainbow flags of Mardi Gras covering Sydney's streets, I have been thinking about Polari, the name of which comes from the Italian verb parlare, or 'to talk'.  It was the dialect used by travelling showmen, prostitutes, members of Britain's social underclass, for centuries.  Because of this, many of the words have roots in the Romani language, or come from Cockney rhyming slang.  However it is probably most commonly known as the parlance of British gay subculture in the first half of the 20th century, before homosexuality was decriminalised.

Homosexuality was classified a mental illness until 1968, and was not decriminalised in all countries of the UK until 1981.  Obviously homophobia still exists today, but it is wild for me to think of a time when being gay was so subversive that there was no public discussion, so dangerous it could result in a prison sentence or electroshock therapy.  So, like many persecuted groups before them, gay people in the UK adopted and adapted their own methods of communication.  Speaking Polari allowed them to discuss clandestine activities without fear of recrimination.  The theatre was something of a safe haven for young gay men in post-war Britain, who were as such exposed to Polari, and it developed from an itinerant street slang into a kind of secret code.  It began to decline in use from the 1970s, as gay rights gained momentum and secrecy was less important, but has left its mark on modern English slang.  Some commonly used Polari phrases include:
  • barney - a fight
  • camp - effeminate or showy
  • naff - drab or tacky
  • slap - make-up
  • troll - to go out looking for something
  • zhoosh - to style or do your hair
As times change, so subcultures leach into the mainstream.  Today, those young gay actors have become iconoclasts of British theatre such as Ian McKellen, whose sexual orientation is as much a part of his cultural impact as his critical acclaim.  To some extent, the changing usage and subsequent disappearance of Polari mirrors the gentrification of places.  From being the dialect of people who lived on the fringes of society - 'carnies', streetwalkers, people deviating from the law and heteronormativity - it became inextricably linked with underground gay culture, then exploited and parodied in mainstream media to the extent that the increasingly visible LGBT community wanted to distance themselves from it.  They also had less need for it, as gay rights gained traction and it became less dangerous to be openly homosexual in the UK.  A world opened up, as mainstream society learnt the Polari 'code' and assimilated certain phrases, and as such gained understanding of the associated subculture.

Society shifts and changes, and so does language.  Polari might not be much in use today but fortunately we do have some recordings for posterity.  Here is a radio clip from Round the Horne (1965-8), featuring Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams speaking Polari as their characters Julian and Sandy.  The accompanying footage of a bike ride through London is a bit random, but I can't think of a better person to demonstrate Polari than my old fave Kenneth Williams.

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