Backslang is not a language so much as a system of verbal encoding. It typically involves dropping or adding letters, reversing syllables or whole words, echoing sounds within words, and otherwise jumbling and obscuring words to produce a new and distinct mode of speech.
The documented use of backslang in England dates back to the Victorian era, where it was used as a means of communication between pickpockets who worked the streets in teams. A version of it was also used by "barrow boys", street sellers whose wares were transported and displayed on barrows (hand-drawn carts). In both cases, the object was to allow backslang speakers to communicate with each other without anyone outside their circle understanding them. In the case of pickpockets, backslang made it possible to identify likely victims and point out the location of their valuables even when that victim was very close by. Similarly, barrow boys were able to talk among themselves in the presence of customers in the safe knowledge that whatever they said was private.
The only online source that I have been able to find that relates to this subject describes two forms of backslang. The first is an extremely simple form where the first letter of each word is removed and an 'a' is added to the end of the truncated word. Using this method, 'good luck' would change to 'ooda ucka'.The second form is known as 'Andportl', and works by removing the first letter of each word and adding it to the end. It was used in Landport, Hampshire hence its name. Using this method, 'good luck' would be 'oodg uckl'. The barrow boys' system was less consistent; it contained some words which were backwards, some which had portions which were backwards, some ordinary words, and a large vocabulary of slang terms. I have been unable to find any written example of it at this time, but I do know one expression: 'Look at the gels on that lrig', which of course means, 'Look at the legs on that girl'.
As can be seen, most forms of backslang are very simple to construct once you know the rules. However, they can be very difficult for a casual user to follow if they are spoken quickly, a fact I know from experience.
I was born and brought up in London's East End, and lived and worked there for many years. There are many fragments of antiquated forms of communication in common use there: rhyming slang and all of the vestigial signs of it that remain embedded in everyday speech; odd words which are almost certainly remnants of the largely forgotten international trading language Lingua Franca; words and phrases from the City's rich history. Not only does their common usage continue, in some cases it actually continues to evolve. Backslang is an excellent example of this evolution.
I was taught a form of backslang at school by other children. It was passed on in exactly the same way as schoolyard rhymes and games. I no longer remember the exact details of that version, in fact I had forgotten about it entirely until many years later when I began working with children and heard it again.
This version was a relatively complex one. It consisted of adding the syllable 'vig' (as in navigate) after each syllable of each word and then adding an echo of the first syllable onto the next syllable. Thus, 'put that hat on' becomes, 'puvigut thavigat havigat ovigon'. Even if a listener is familiar with these rules, when spoken quickly it is almost impossible for someone not 'fluent' in it to understand what is being said. In the time it takes to painstakingly isolate a word and apply the rules to it a couple of sentences have passed. The awkwardness and repetitiveness of this form of backslang also work it its favor, making it even more difficult to isolate even simple words.
If you attempt to put these rules rigorously into practice, you'll quickly run into problems. Namely, most multi-syllabled words will be very long and difficult to say, and some shorter words won't work well (for instance, what about 'he' and 'a'? Hevigee? Aviga?). For this reason, 'fluent' speakers of backslang will avoid some words, will use some without any alteration at all, and will use others in a version which 'sounds right' but which does not strictly follow the rules. This is true of all versions of backslang that I have come across, and again, far from making the language easier to understand, it actually makes it more confusing, since it allows exchanges to flow more smoothly and introduces words which cannot be simply decoded using the rules.
Although all the examples in this writeup are of English backslang, I am aware of at least one form which is in use in the US (known as Ubbi Dubbi) and I find it hard to believe that it's the only one. I would be very interested to learn of other versions in the US and elsewhere.
- The only online source I could find was John Meyer's rather mediocre "Learn to speak backslang" page at http://www.anvil.clara.net/backslang.htm
UPDATE November 10, 2001
A couple of months ago, I received the following e-mail:
I read your article on Backslang found at everything2.com. I found it
very interesting, as I've come across this type of thing during my
studies in France.
Everywhere in France, the 'youth' (anywhere up to one's thirties) use
an interesting modification on the French language called "verslens"
(Verre-lahn). This alteration occurs in key words of sentences almost
all the time.
Basically, there are certain words that are almost always modified,
and these words relate to the culture of those speaking it. Most of
the transformed words relate to youthful society, such as "party",
"breasts", "woman" (as in girlfriend), "metro", etc. For these types
of words, rarely will the actual word be used.
The key to verslens is in the name itself. "L'envers" is french for
"the inverse", now switch the syllables, and lavoi! (voila).
The french words for the above stated examples would be the following:
English French Verlens
party = fete ---> teuf (slightly modified for easier
breasts = seins ---> eins
woman = femme ---> mef (again, the spellings are all modified to
ease the pronunciation)
metro = metro ---> trome
Anyone not used to hearing these words can lose key ideas in a
sentence (learned from experience), but once you get the hang of it,
if ever a word sounds a little weird, you can figure out what's been
said, and then add it to your list of commonly used expressions.
Just thought I'd share a slightly different version of Backslang as it
exists in other parts of the world.
Many thanks to John Wilson (who is not personally known to me) for his input.
Note to noders:
I'm probably not telling you anything that you don't already know, but it's very easy to forget that what we do here is visible to everyone, not just other noders. That fact is not always apparent, but it's always true, and it's worth bearing in mind.