Friday, February 25, 2022

The Egg Language

One of the effective devices used in Arthur Machen’s renowned short story ‘The White People’ (Horlick’s Magazine, 1904) is the use of words which apparently mean something important to the nurse and the girl of the story but are not from any known tongue. These include ‘Dôls’, ‘voolas’ ‘the Aklo letters’. Elsewhere, Machen uses in his stories what at first appear to be harmless child-like signs, a hand drawn on a wall, an arrangement of flints, or games, a version of hopscotch, or being counted ‘out’: these prove to have a sinister import.

In this interest in the peculiarities of children’s rhymes, games and lore, even though he was using it for fictional purposes, Machen was ahead of his time. Though it occasionally interested Victorian folklorists and anthropologists, it was not until The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie (1959) that the subject of children’s playground and street culture received significant attention. And Machen’s idea of a child’s secret language, albeit of uncanny origin, was also shrewd, for they do exist.

In one of his journals, the architectural historian James Lees-Milne mentions a private language used by the children of a particular family he knew, noting they were still proficient in it as adults. He refers to it as 'eggy-peggy'. This consisted of adding ‘egg’ before every vowel, or more specifically before the vowel-sound in every syllable. Children could easily become so fluent in it that it was incomprehensible to anyone not in the know. 

A blog post by the romantic novelist Elizabeth Hawksley is the best source I’ve seen on the subject. She calls it Ag, not egg, slang, and gives an example: ‘dago yagou spageak agag slagang’ – do you speak ag slang. She can and does still speak it, as can her brothers and cousins. She says it’s best learnt aged 7-9, as her mother taught her, and she taught her children over a car journey, but is almost impossible to learn as an adult.

From her mother’s use of it she dates it to the interwar period, the 20s and 30s. She notes that it is referenced by Nancy Mitford in The Pursuit of Love (a novel about the Bright Young Things) and is therefore sometimes viewed as a ‘posh’ argot but stresses it is very much not: her own family’s background was lower middle class. [It is actually in Love in a Cold Climate - thanks to a reader for spotting this].

People commenting on her post say they used something similar but used ‘ab’ or ‘ga’. Other versions elsewhere say ‘ig’ or ‘ug’ were used. It is suggested it was primarily a schoolgirl playground language: however, sometimes boys also learnt it. One online forum says it was still in use by school children of all ages in the mid-1960s. It was a word-of-mouth tradition passed on especially between siblings and schoolmates and still used, though not very much spoken about, by some into adulthood.

Speculatively, this made me wonder if the phrase ‘I am the eggman, they are the eggmen’, followed by the nonsense syllables ‘goo goo’ajoob’ in the Lennon/McCartney song ‘I Am the Walrus’ (1967) could be an allusion to the Egg language: the song does use other direct quotations and adaptations from the playground rhymes of John Lennon’s childhood.

But then there is always Humpty Dumpty, the patron saint of private languages: ‘ “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, 1871).

There have been other ‘secret languages’ in Britain. A now quite celebrated and well-studied one is Polari, used in gay and theatrical circles in London (mostly) in the Fifties and Sixties, and deployed with comic effect by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick as the camp couple Jules and Sandy in the Sixties radio programme ‘Round the Horne’. Another I have caught passing references to is Cockalorum, which seemed to derive from harbour-side argot.

The comedian Stanley Unwin perfected a unique patter involving mangling and rearranging English words into picturesque neologisms, and contributed interludes in this style to the Small Faces’ album Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake (1968).

But I suppose in specialist circles the Egg language isn’t technically a ‘language’ as such, since it doesn’t have its own words or private meanings, but is rather a masking or obscuring of an existing language. Elizabeth Hawksley quotes the Oxford Companion to the English Language, noting ‘it’s pretty hazy about the subject – not to say snooty’. The OCEL calls this technique ‘Infix’, a term dating back to the 1880s, which is where ‘the speaker inserts a nonsense syllable before a vowel sound to make it difficult for non-infix speakers to understand what’s being said.’

I have chanced across other infix variations. One is Ssssh, which involved mixing hushing and x sounds in with usual words to get a sibilant effect: another, similarly, involves inserting ‘z’ between syllables. As well as insertions, there may be some versions that use omissions. In Violet Trefusis’ Echo (1931) she mentions that the twins of her story ‘communicated solely with each other in a private language utterly devoid of consonants’: much of her book is semi-autobiographical and this idea is possibly derived from some authentic similar tradition.This would presumably be an 'Exfix'.

There does not seem to be, so far as I can tell, any full study of these practices, as distinct from other informal forms of language, such as slang, jargon, dialect or cant, but some are referenced in Paul Beale, updating Eric Partridge, A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1990). Do any still survive as a living tradition anywhere among children today? How would we know? They are supposed to be a secret. But it could be the case that generational social media jargon, abbreviations and private meanings now perform the same role.

(Mark Valentine)

 

 

18 comments:

  1. Wonderful post, thank you. Americans of my generation will be more familiar with the variant called "Ubbi-Dubbi," which placed the syllable "ub" before each vowel sound, as it was popularized on the 1970s children's television show "Zoom." (Sample: https://youtu.be/DeDLs3qXl6c)

    ReplyDelete
  2. There was the secret language known only to the silent Gibbson twins, I recall.

    ReplyDelete
  3. When I was a boy, we would occasionally use Pig Latin, ie. Igpay Atinlnay. We also made up our own nonsense words and sometimes composed poems using them. Here's the last few lines of one that I still remember:

    Zark boople as tar the frosh!
    Yet can it stand?
    Nay, the rett is not,
    But soon the boople will zark
    And all shall fitrod.

    Sad to say, though, our neologisms had no clear-cut definitions. They were simply strange-sounding vocables that appealed to our sense of humor. --md






    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you for these interesting comments. And of course Carroll also set another example here: 'Twas brillig and the slithy toves . . . ' Mark

    ReplyDelete
  5. There is an episode of the radio series 'After Henry' with Prunella Scales (can't remember which one!) that makes extensive use of eggy-peggy

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Ian. That must have taken some learning by the actors - unless they knew it already! Mark

      Delete
  6. I read Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, and didn't notice any reference to eggy-peggy in it. I searched online copies of her novels, and, FWIW, found that the reference to "eggy-peggy" is not in The Pursuit of Love, but in Love in a Cold Climate.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Donald, that's a useful correction. Mark

      Delete
  7. I seem to remember being told by a butcher in the 60s that butchers had a secret language, but I could never get him to divulge the details.

    ReplyDelete
  8. There was a similar language in Russia too, only we used 'be', so it was called 'language B'. No one whom I knew was really fluent in it, we just composed and learned several useful phrases. There were mentions of such languages in different children books I read, pity, I cannot remember their titles.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Comedian Greg Davies used a Shhhh version (with added expletives) when he was a young man. Considering he is of similar age to me, I'm claiming that counts as recent use.....

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thank you for these interesting additional examples. Clearly this is a subject that invites more study! Mark

    ReplyDelete
  11. i heard about "Opish" in a book of codes & ciphers when i was a kid, & became quite proficient. (i can still say my first name "mop-a-cop-hop-a-lop".)

    ReplyDelete
  12. And there is, of course, 'back slang'....or 'ackby angsly' as it is more properly called.

    ReplyDelete
  13. French has Verlan, L'envers, or backwards, backwards. Somethings get switched round a few times. The French for Police is Les Flics, Les Keufs in Verlan. Although that has also been turned round in Les Feuks, sounding very like English swearing.

    ReplyDelete
  14. something of a detour, but like Polari, there was a widely used slang language that was quite complex used by convicts and criminals in the UK and then extensively in Australia in the era of transportation, known as Flash language. It existed somewhat to disguise criminal activity, but it was also just for privacy. Someone who knew it was described as being flash, outsiders were not very flash. There's a play that features flash, The Ship That Never Was, written by Richard Davey.

    ReplyDelete