Saturday, 27 September 2014

Out-Spoken Language

Hello, omis, palones and omipalones! How bona to vada you eke again! Fantabulosa!

No, I haven’t gone mad and have started writing rubbish. Those words of welcome were very familiar to me when I was growing up and listened to the radio. They were spoken every week by two characters called Julian and Sandy in the comedy series “Round the Horne”. They were the first overtly camp, gay characters on British radio, and were very, very funny. They have since become legends, even perhaps icons, among the older generation of the gay community in the UK. They popularised a style of slang used a lot in the gay community (mainly in London) called polari, and the words at the start of this article is a polari greeting.

One of the characteristics about any group or subculture is the development of a distinct set of words and phrases that it uses as a kind of secret language, unknown to “outsiders”. The most famous of these is Cockney rhyming slang. In most cases the use of a secret language gave empowerment to a stigmatised or maligned section of society.

Other countries have their own lgbt slang, and as part of my celebration of the US Hispanic Heritage Month I’ve looked at one from a Hispanic nation – the Philippines.

I came across swardspeak earlier this year when I was researching articles for the Asia-Pacific Heritage Month. It was a perfect subject for a separate article so I did more research into it, and here it is.

There is a parallel between the early use of swardspeak and the origin of polari. Both were very much centred round the world of entertainment, specifically the theatre. The theatre and entertainment industry has always attracted a large number of lgbt performers and back-stage crews. It was one of the few areas in society where gay people were “tolerated”.

The swardspeak of the Philippines developed relatively recently compared to polari, in the mid-1970s. The leading populariser and developer of swardpeak was a student called Rikki Dalu. Although there is little evidence to suggest that swardspeak was an established slang language beforehand it is probably right to support the assumption made by Filipino academics who have studied its origins that Rikki invented a single set of linguistic rules and words that make up swardspeak.

Although it came to be used most commonly in gay theatre and fashion circles swardspeak actually began somewhere totally different – in the classroom.

Rikki Dalu was studying Spanish at the University of the Phiippines-Diliman. He wasn’t enjoying it very much and began forming new words from Spanish into nascent swardspeak. For instance, “chica” (girl, in Spanish) became “chikahan”, which became a greeting among swardspeakers; “infierno” (hell, in Spanish) became “imbigerna”, shortened to “imbud” or “im”, meaning “angry or upset”. From a simple set of slang words there developed a whole dictionary and grammar. Over the decades other base words have been taken from other languages.

Rikki belonged to a group of drama students who then began creating new words. Some came from other slang languages or colloquialisms. Some of the swardpeak vocabulary comes from substitution, changing one of two letters, and addition of extra letters or suffixes/prefixes.

This Philippine gay slang language, complete with its own grammatical rules, didn’t have a name when it first left the university classroom and into the back stages of the theatre and fashion world. According to Reneiro Alba, in a paper published by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts in 2006, the person who first used the name “swardspeak” was Nestor U. Torre, a journalist and film critic, in the late 1970s. “Sward” is itself a slang word, a name used in the Philippines for a gay man.

Prior to 1986 the Philippines was subject to martial law and freedom of speech was restricted. In this environment many Filipinos found themselves unable to speak against the government. In the gay community there was must victimisation and discrimination, making it very difficult for gay men to talk freely in public about themselves. The English polari developed in a similar environment.

Like every living language swardspeak in always evolving. Many new words have come in as fashions in culture change. In particular a lot of trade and celebrity names have entered swardspeak. A couple of examples are: “X-Men” (from the comic book and film franchise) meaning “having come out as gay, no longer heterosexual/butch”; and “Oprah Winfrey”, meaning “promise”.

Even the very name of the slang has become a victim of fashion and seems to be losing its appeal and the more general name “gayspeak” has been growing in popularity. This may be because of a similar rise in popularity of the slang in general Filipino culture as a way of indicating its main origin.

After several decades of being a secret language swardspeak has played a major part in entertainment shows on Philippine television. With the more acceptance of gay man in society, as with polari in the UK, swardspeak no longer became secret. With the growth of the internet many swardspeakers have openly spoken the slang in word and sound, and several dictionaries have been produced online.

It’s not certain how swardspeak/gayspeak will develop in the coming years. The gay Filipino culture is so different to that in the UK, so perhaps it will thrive, whereas polari had become a historical curiosity with very few speakers.

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