This morning, I read the following intriguing Tweet by Brian Lehrer, host of a popular WNYC public radio talk show:
@BrianLehrer: Did you know gibberish/secret languages are mostly a young-girl thing? @jessweiss1 writes about it: https://t.co/SHUu5P7ufp
The link led to an insightful article entitled “The Secret Linguistic Life of Girls” by writer Jessica Weiss---an article which never mentions “Jane Austen”, but which nonetheless resonates strongly with the “Jane Austen Code” I’ve been so painstakingly decoding since 2002. After the following relevant excerpts from Weiss’s article, I’ll briefly explain the Austenian resonance they carry for me:
“…For the next few minutes, we inserted this simple phonetic string—/ɪdɪg/—into syllables, transforming our sentences into long-winded, funny sounding staccatos. “Jess” became “Jidigess”; “secret language” became “sidigecridiget lidiganguidigage.” At points we exploded in laughter over what we were doing. I hadn’t spoken gibberish in over a decade, but I surprised myself with my fluency….As an adult, speaking idig with Daniela felt sacred, like a window into the most peculiar and spontaneous part of my youth—a part I hadn’t accessed in so long. As we spoke, I wondered if we were members of something bigger than we realized: a tribe of gibberish speakers, scattered throughout the world. This tribe has existed in many times and places. As Princeton University comparative literature professor Daniel Heller-Roazen notes in Dark Tongues: The Art of Rogues and Riddlers, “Historians have wished, at different times, to attribute such forms of cryptic speech to as diverse a cast of socially marginal characters as beggars, butchers, fisherman, prostitutes, and prisoners.” So why do ordinary girls speak in secret languages?…Though there appears to be no definitive research on gender and gibberish, it became clear to me that girls are drawn to gibberish and the dozens of other secret languages and language games, also called argots and ludlings, because using them builds social bonds. Though girls aren’t threatened in the same way as others who use secret languages, like prostitutes or criminals, using gibberish creates a sense of exclusivity and power for girls at a time when they are otherwise inherently powerless. Though boys like secret codes too, it seems as if more girls use gibberish and remember it fondly…”For girls and women, their connections with each other are the center of their lives,” [Linguistic prof Deborah] Tannen told me. “And talk is the glue that holds those relationships together. The fact that you can share a private language, create that connection, feel you’re part of that group and that you’re an in-member of the group is going to carry so much weight that it’s going to be really, really attractive to girls,” she said….In some places, women use secret languages to keep themselves safe. In the 1980s, Teshomme Demisse and Lionel Bender described an argot used by “freelance prostitutes” in Addis Ababa in order to keep secrets such as “concealing conversations and planning tricks at the customers’ expense” and holding themselves apart from the “ordinary run of bar prostitutes.” Daniel Heller-Roazen describes javanais, apparently used by 19th century prostitutes “for protection from male clients.” Were they making use of secret languages from an earlier time in their lives?...” END QUOTE
Mainstream Austen scholars have long been aware of the Austen family’s love of word games, such as charades, poems in which every line ends on the same rhyme, etc.---and Jane Austen’s especially active participation in that family tradition, with its decidedly female slant, is also well recognized. In addition, letter writing was the lifeblood of female communication at a distance in JA’s world---she lived her entire life with her sister Cassandra, and ¾ of her surviving 154 letters were written to Cassandra while they were apart; but she also had numerous, mostly female correspondents, including several of her nieces. And one finds scattered through her letters that same love of wordplay. One letter in particular, to her young niece Cassy, sending new years wishes, stands out as an example of the linguistic bond that Jane created and maintained with females close to her, using a form of “gibberish”, i.e., backwards writing:
YM RAED YSSAC,
I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey. Ruoy xis snisuoc emac ereh yadretsey, dna dah hcae a eceip of ekac. Siht si elttil Yssac's yadhtrib, dna ehs si eerht sraey dlo. Knarf sah nugeb gninrael Nital. Ew deef eht Nibor yreve gninrom. Yllas netfo seriuqne retfa uoy. Yllas Mahneb sah tog a wen neerg nwog. Teirrah Thgink semoc yreve yad ot daer ot Tnua Ardnassac. Doog eyb, ym raed Yssac.
Tnua Ardnassac sdnes reh tseb evol, dna os ew od lla.
Ruoy etanoitceffa Tnua, ENAJ NETSUA.
Notwahc: Naj. 8.
But these examples from JA’s private writings only scratch the surface of the myriad ways in which Jane Austen, as a mature novelist, developed an elaborate linguistic system in her fiction, for the purpose of conveying secret meaning intelligible only to readers who understood what I call the Jane Austen Code. It’s not girlish gibberish like Weiss described in her article, but in some ways it serves a strikingly similar purpose, in particular communicating private sensitive information secretly and safely.
You need only browse anywhere in my blog to find a thousand examples large and small that illustrate how Jane Austen, in each of her six novels, managed to tell two different, coherent stories using the same words—more specifically, that behind the overt meaning that is accessible via a trusting, passive reading of her novels, she hid a shadow story that could only be accessed by readers who were well versed in reading against the grain, and could “print out” the alternative meanings hidden on every page. And as a giant wink as to all of this anamorphism, Jane Austen placed at the center of Emma the charade with more than one answer, which is also the acrostic that Mrs. Elton mentions.
And what is most similar in JA’s fiction to the female-centric intimate friendship served by coded gibberish, is that, just as Weiss and the girls (and other marginalized speakers) she describes in her article were telling secret stories to each other in a safe “secure” code, so too was JA the novelist telling female stories to other females, stories which had always been relegated to the shadows in the intensely sexist society she grew up in, and which could not be told overtly without genuine risk of detection and retribution.
It has long been clear to me that the primary reason why Jane Austen created an anamorphic, ambiguous structure for her novels, was in order to tell her radically feminist shadow stories to the readers who would be most attuned to reading the “lines beneath the words” (as Lydia Bennet puts it), and who were most in need of Austen’s fierce, brilliant wisdom –other women!
Weiss pointed us to the untold story of girls sharing secrets one-to-one, but Jane Austen had much bigger fish to fry---she was tapping into the ancient linguistic channels that female human beings have always used to secretly communicate with each other - JA just found a way to do it from her quill point to the eyes of millions of her "sisters", unlimited by distance in time and space.
So, three cheers for Jane Austen! Or should I rather have put it, three cheers for “Jidiganidige
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter