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What Is an Anti-Language?

An anti-language is a form of speech crafted by subcultures to remain inscrutable to outsiders, often reflecting unique identities and experiences. It's a linguistic rebellion, a secret code among those who share common ground. As we explore the intricacies of anti-languages, consider how language shapes your own world. What hidden dialects might be woven into the fabric of your daily life?
Esther Ejim
Esther Ejim

An anti-language is a language developed and spoken by a subgroup within a major group. The purpose behind the development of an anti-language is varied. A sub-group may develop the language as a means of forming a bond among the members, such as in a cult or secret society. Another purpose may be to prevent the members of the outer society from understanding the meaning of the words spoken by the subgroup, such as is the case with gang members. The purpose may simply be as a means of rebelling against the dictates of a repressive outer society.

Anti-language may be used by members of a secret cult as a means of communicating with each other. Some of them may even develop a language that is understood by only members of the cult. This form of anti-language is used by such underground members of an anti-society as a means of keeping their activities secret.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

The words spoken by the subgroup and used to form the anti-language are often corrupted versions of the words spoken by the major group. This may involve reassigning letters in words, putting different inflections, or using a different intonation to speak a version of the language. It may also mean ascribing new meanings to regular words or completely creating a new language from scratch.

An example of how an anti-language may be applied can be seen in the language used by thugs and street gang members. They may use different words to refer to something completely alien to the word. For instance, they may refer to a gun as a banana or any other word of their choice. To any other person listening, it would sound like the gang member was merely referring to a banana. Other members of the gang would immediately grasp that the person was talking about a gun.

Another example of the use of an anti-language is the development of a corrupted version of a regular language. The development of Pidgin English in some African countries where English is the official language is a corruption of the language. This form of anti-language contains elements of the English language, but with other additions and improvisations. Any English-speaking person listening to a Pidgin version will be hard-pressed to understand what someone speaking the language is trying to say. The person may catch glimpses of familiar words now and then, but it would be hard to totally make sense of the language.

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Discussion Comments


I think toddlers have their own anti-language!

Has anyone noticed that toddlers make up their own words for things? My daughter does this all the time. It's usually kind of similar to the actual word but different enough that I don't understand it initially. The most interesting part is that when my daughter is playing with other toddlers, they speak to each other in this anti-language!

Some of the words my daughter has made up is "hanny" for hand, "banny" for band aid, "yoyo" for yellow and "pasgetti" for spagetti. I always get so confused when she first makes up a word but I finally figure it out when she repeats it and shows it to me!


@feruze-- It could go either way but there really are anti-languages that are distinct from any other language and only that group can understand.

I think some languages in Italy were created with this purpose in mind. Like Neapolitan that is only spoken in Naples is totally different from Italian. There has also been a strong history of mafia and mafia culture in some parts of Italy, so I think some Italian languages might have emerged with them.

I agree with you that anti-languages are really cool. I wish my friends and I had our own anti-language.

Does anyone else know any other examples of anti-languages and why they were created? It would be great to know more anti-languages and the story behind them.


So is an anti-language really a language then?

It sounds like in some anti-languages, like with the gang example, they're using the same language but just changing the meaning. It seems like it has to do more with an in-group code or understanding.

Either way, an anti-language is a fantastic idea. My native language is not English, so when I'm shopping with my mom and we're speaking among ourselves, I feel like I'm speaking an anti-language. Because no one else has a clue what we're saying!

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