Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On Secret Languages

Letter from Aix-en-Provence

JAN: When I was a kid, I loved secret languages. My friend Karen had older sisters who taught them to us. There was one language that involved adding "ub" or "ubba" between the syllables. As in Jungubbalububba Redubba writubbaters. Or something like that. All that mattered was it sounded incredibly exotic and your best friend could understand you in the playground. Better yet, you could talk about boys when they were right there, and they never got it. Boys didn’t go in much for secret languages.

That quickly gave way to Pig Latin, which was a more highly respected and widely understood secret language. You had to be more careful in your usuage, but there was the possibility of an older junior high school student actually picking up on something you said and responding to you in your oh-so-in-crowd special code.

When I got to high school, I quickly fell in love with first year French, which was so pretty and way more exotic than Pig Latin. Had Cinderella originally been from France and spoken to her fairy godmother in French? I was pretty sure she had.

But French was a hell of a lot harder to speak and understand. And the challenge was on. I wound up taking eight years of French, minoring in it in college and did a semester abroad in Aix-en-Provence. Although I work hard to try to keep up on my French via Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone, I’m still pretty much a piker. But God knows, I try.

Which is why I’m back in Aix-En-Provence for a month, living in a condo, and shopping at the Monoprix and the market, which requires more use of French than staying at a hotel where the concierge can step in and help. Last week, my daughter and I went to the market to buy ingredients we were making for a special dinner that night. We bought cheeses, which I promptly put down when I went to another vendor and searched through my wallet for five euros to buy sunflowers.

By the time I got home, realized I didn’t have the cheeses and ran back to the square, the market stalls were down, the garbage trucks had rolled in, and everyone was cleaning up. I raced back to the cheese guy to see if I could buy more cheese. To get him to reopen his stall and sell me some, I had to explain what I’d done.

J’ai perdu mon sac du fromage quand j’ai achete des fleurs, I told him. This also included a lot of hand gesturing to both indicate where the sunflower vendor had been and that I was clearly a space shot (finger pointed to head with roll of the eyes and shrug).

Not only did he open to sell me the cheese, he gave me a one Euro discount because he felt sorry for me.

And I thought, my God, the SECRET LANGUAGE WORKS.

I realize that on some level, I think that every time I say anything to anyone in French and they understand and respond. There is always this rush of both surprise and excitement that these exotic words I’ve strung together form a sentence that can be decoded.

It's why I spent all that money on airfare. And well worth every penny.

So I think, that the thrills in life haven’t changed much for me since I was a kid in the playground, only in France, I’ve noticed that the crowd "in" on the decoding is pretty signficant. And you have to watch what you say -- and not just to the junior high schoolers. All the boys are in on the secret language, too.

(Do you remember any secret languages from elementary and junior high school? Apparently, it's a regional thing with Ubba Dubba in the Northeast and Gibberish in the South. Gungi was spoken in Waltham, MA and Opish in New York City.)


  1. OOh. Dboo yabooo tbalk dabubbablle tabalk?

  2. And Yabba Dabba Doo to you too! You guys are scaring me. I "don't know much about the French I took" (google Sam Cooke or rent Witness - two classics) ..or the Spanish..or the Italian, for that matter. I've turned in to a Pimsleur speaker..if they don't have it on the cds I probably don't know how to say it!
    I am working on my Kiswahili..and my Kigogo. No lofty conversations yet, just the basics.
    Jan..I'm jealous of your sunflowers in the marketplace! More pix please.

  3. Hi guys,
    I tried to comment yesterday and Blogger wouldn't let me. I tried three different users and passwords, even the Jungle Red Special code. Maybe it doesn't trust my French and thought I was an Internet spy (is there such a thing?). Anyway, will try to upload more pix, but have to do it from Lannie's computer because I have a little one that doesn't have any photo programs. Also, I get internet access only once a day, so it's all very tricky.

  4. Dub-ank,

    I-ub dub-o.I-ub ub-think.


  5. I spent a year in Brazil as an exchange student living in a family where no one spoke English. I was a very young 17 and learned Portuguese almost natively. Two other American girls were in the same city on the same AFS program, and we spoke English in public as our secret language. Imagine my embarassment when we all returned to the US and were on a bus in New York City, and I said out loud in disgust in ENGLISH, "Look at those typical Americans!"


  6. We used pig Latin, but our parents understood us! Sigh...

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  7. Hiby Hibank!
    Yybes webe dibid dabubablle tibalk libike thibis. Wybe ciballed ibit giboose tibalk!
    Cool post--or rather cibool pibost!

  8. When I was young, my parents used to use French when they didn't want my sister and I to know what they were talking about. That didn't work for long.

    When in another life I was an art historian, I used to visit France every other summer or so. I was immensely flattered when somebody mistook me for a Canadian when I spoke French--it was so much better than being labeled Americaine!

  9. Interesting, Jan. My husband has had emails blocked from his cousin in the South of France. I hadn't realized before that someone actually monitors and blocks emails. I thought that went against free speech etc!

    When I was about ten, my best friend and I used to speak imaginary foreign language to each other on the bus, waving our arms a lot and saying things like "Ish gosh yapurdl spekno?" I don't think anyone was fooled.
    But when I toured youth hostels in Europe with a college friend we would pretend to be Finnish (as that's a language pocket and nobody can speak it) and we'd speak mock-Finnish to each other if annoying guys were hitting on us.
    I'm actually bilingual in German and English and my daughters and I speak German when we don't want the kids to understand--actually also when we don't want my husband to understand!

  10. My mom, dad and relatives used to speak a secret language when they didn't want the kids to understand - it was called Italian!
    Never learned it! Learned French instead. Wow, I really spited them!!

    Jan - My daughter leaves for Amien, just north of Paris, to teach - guess what? - English at the University there!!! She was supposed to teach in one of the grammar schools there as well, but her work visa limits her hours. You and she would have fun speaking French. She speaks 5 languages. Talk about a secret language - when she is with her Chinese friends they suddenly begin speaking Chinese. Her and her boyfriend (another English teacher for speakers of other languages) often times break into French. My son's secret languages are Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish. An then there is my favorite - Turkish! I'm the only one who knows any in my immediate family, so that's fun.

    So, I live in a family with many secret languages...

    MaxWriter - Loved your story!! My son lived in Florianopolis, Brazil for 6 mos. studying on an art grant at Santa Catarina Universidade.

  11. From the fourth grade on, Morse code was the language my best friends and I used. The tin-can-and string business failed miserably--who has waxed string? But then we found flashlights with very delicate switches and we were in business. Not nearly as cool as French. I wonder exactly why it is better to be thought Canadian than Americaine? Safer, maybe?

  12. My best friend in confirmation class and I (age 13) went on the class trip to New York City. When we went to the UN, we pretended we only spoke French so the tour guide would have to give the tour in French AND English.

    I saw her recently (ny friend, not the guide) for the first time in 20 years...and we both still howled with laughter about our silly prank. We thought we were so funny.

    Thebats sbo fubunny, rebebbie!!

  13. Lyn,
    I never learned Morse code, what a mistake!

    Mike, I'm totally jealous of your daughter, I wish I'd come to live here when I was still that age.

    And Rhys and everyone else who is truly fluent in another language, *I AM TOTALLY JEALOUS.

    I got to speak French all day yesterday to my French friend Anny, but she is unusually patient. I'm starting to be able to understand the newscasters, but I think true fluency is still many many Pimsleur tapes and years here away.