Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
Ebonics, Mat and Argot
December 1, 2010 - By: - In: Language, Localization - 7 comments

A few months ago, I blogged about the Drug Enforcement Administration’s search for Ebonic interpreters to translate wiretapped conversations among drug dealers. Like many readers, I’ve been curious about any relationship between Ebonics, or African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), and modern criminal argot. An argot is a secret language used by various groups—including, but not limited to, thieves and other criminals—to prevent outsiders from understanding conversations.

There’s just one little problem in researching argots. As a secret language, no self-respecting argot speaker is going to be making small talk with the uninitiated. Either that, or it’s not a secret language anymore. So after in-depth researching on Google for many minutes, I’ve come up dry.

At Argot.com, I found stuff like “Alice B. Toklas” for a pot brownie and other such phrases. Up-to-the-minute drug dealing argot has got to be better than that. Ethnicity is going to play a big role, too, in the formation of argots in illicit communities, so speaking the local language or learning the dialect is the first step towards decoding the argots that derive from those languages.

The only English-derived criminal argot I’ve found has been the thieves’ cant of Elizabethan England, conveniently published in a dictionary in 1699. For those interested in further study of thieves’ cant, please be careful to note that an academy in this dialect refers to a bawdy-house, not a university or educational institute for Gentlemen.

And apparently this particular argot is still in use, or at least has been revived at Buckley Hall Prison in the UK by convicts who “use ye olde Elizabethan slang to smuggle drugs past guards into prison.”

It’s been updated, of course, to reflect modern improvements, but still bears the mark of the old dialect, thought to originate from medieval gypsies. Since those old timers didn’t know their crack from junk, convicts have found it necessary to update their vocabulary to meet modern prison smuggling demands. Cawbe for crack cocaine, Onick for heroin, and Inick for a cell phone.

But hidden meanings are a two-way street between rogues and shades (guards) in British prisons, or at least a convenient kind of translation fail. The Telegraph reported a few days ago that Russian convicts at Lincoln Prison were being told that an exercise area was an “execution yard.” That kind of translation fail will take the spring right out of your step.

Since prisons were a big growth sector for the Soviets, it figures that Russian argot, also known as “mat,” would be important. Mat, Russia’s dirty-mouthed national argot is leaving the streets for the salon these days.

“Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, mat was largely a language of the street. But in the nineteen-eighties, during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms, it began to move aboveground, infiltrating the mass media, literature, movies, and eventually the Internet, finding its way onto videocassettes, into pop songs, and even opera. Russia today is experiencing the age of the liberation of mat, and its lilt is often heard in public spaces, including the Duma itself,” wrote Victor Evrofeyev in the New Yorker back in 2003.

Fascinating to a foul-mouthed New Yorker like me that such a proscribed, nasty-worded language could rise to the heights of society after long decades of oppression. But I remain clueless about what mat means to Russian speakers, and what argots are spoken in English by the criminal class. I’d love to hear from those more knowledgeable.

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