Encryption has been in the news quite a lot lately for obvious reasons. Crypto is good, and we applaud all technology that provides privacy by default. However, we have been growing increasingly concerned that people are coming to think of secret communications as something that can only be done with electronic communication.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to talk that provides some of the benefits of encryption, but doesn’t require anything more than the ability to speak and to hear? Well, there is! There are lots of them. In fact you probably encounter them every day without noticing, because the communication isn’t meant for you.
We are all familiar with simple speaking codes such as Pig Latin, Double-Dutch, Ubbi dubbi, and so forth. The odds are overwhelming that you learned at least one such code as a kid no matter what your native language is. If for some bizarre reason you never learned one, then you should. You can even make up your own. May we suggest simply spelling all your words using a pessimal spelling alphabet?
These kinds of codes are substitution ciphers, and are generally very easy for people to understand even if they don’t know the coding scheme, so if you want privacy as opposed to just being cute, you need to kick it up a notch.
A step up from that are code words and phrases. These exchange a limited vocabulary for a bit of increased security because there’s no formula you can use to create (or decipher) them. Drug dealers have lifted this type of encoding to an art, but it’s hardly limited to them. You are probably aware of the color codes used in hospitals, and you might be aware that large stores and shopping malls use a similar code. Movie spies use these a lot too, but in the most stupid and obvious ways possible. With a well done code, nobody will notice you’re using a code — which is important because “security through obscurity” is just about the only security this way of speaking gets you (as many drug dealers have discovered).
But there are some interesting examples of substitution encoding that is so complex that it becomes as indecipherable as it is obvious. If you were a British gay man in the ’70s or earlier, you had an excellent example of this in Polari. In Argentina, you can speak Lunfardo without danger that tourists might understand you. The Columbian underworld gives us Parlache.
It is legally mandated that when this topic is discussed, the native American code talkers of World War 2 must be mentioned. So we have. But they’re not the only examples of using obscure languages to speak in code. One of our personal favorites is Machaj Juyai.
All of that is well and good, but to us the most interesting way of speaking in code doesn’t use any linguistic trickery whatsoever. Rather, it relies on shared reality filters. A group’s “in-jokes” are a rudimentary version of this (not that Discordians know anything about in-jokes), but this type of encoding gets much more sophisticated.
Take the code-speaking that we are exposed to everywhere during election cycles, and in political fora always: the dog whistle. We have always admired dog-whistling because of how successful it can be at saying one thing to outsiders while simultaneously saying something completely different to those in the know. Dog-whistling, though, has nothing on the ultimate masters of speaking in code: long-term couples.
That was a lie. Long-term couples are not really the ultimate masters. They’re close, but the real master lies within us all. We are constantly speaking in code without even realizing it.
Spoken codes are fascinating, omnipresent, and rarely noticed. We encourage everyone to use them (intentionally) more. But, as with all things, be mindful of the possible side-effects. After all, language helps to define what thoughts you have.