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Have you ever heard an interesting word and then suddenly heard it used three more times in quick succession?  The word, in this case, was cant.  A cant is a secret language designed so a group can speak in front of other people and not be understood.

The first time it came up, it was in an article about thieves’ cant.  The next time, it was a line in a person’s biography mentioning that they wrote a book about Polari.  The third time referred to nadsat and A Clockwork Orange.  It was strange because I clearly knew words from cants — like drag — but didn’t remember that there was this word, cant, to describe these languages.

I liked the idea that something exists that is like a language geocache.  You know how there are dozens of treasures you walk by every day and have no clue that they’re buried in plain sight?  Well, I love the idea of these little languages spoken around us that we don’t know because the whole point is to be able to speak in front of other people without revealing the subject of conversation.

To operate in secret, out in the open.


The twins and I just finished translating their Torah portion together.  We took it apart, word by word.  First, they would write out the word.  Then we would think about whether the word sounded similar to a word they already knew.  If it didn’t, I helped them look up the word in the dictionary.  We went through the portion, word by word, until it formed sentences and paragraphs.

We did it this way because I felt silly hiring a tutor to teach them something that I could teach them.  I have a translation degree.  Wasn’t it high time that I actually used it?  Plus I didn’t want to have to drive them to a tutor once a week.

But it was also special, taking something apart, word by word.  Learning etymology and how random words were related.  My goal was to instill in them a love of being a word archaeologist, something that will serve them well with everything from the SATs to discerning what someone isn’t saying in a conversation.

The project made us talk a lot about how languages divide all of us, making it difficult to understand one another.  But in the case of the translation project, it also served to bring us closer for hours at a time around the kitchen table.


It was strange that the term cant kept popping up right as we were finishing the translation project.  The whole point of the cant is to set up that divide.  The definition is focused outward; it’s to exclude.

But, of course, it’s also to include.  To let someone in.  To clearly state that they are a part of a group.  Outsides only exist when there are insides.  Translating their portion together was about giving them a key.  They own Hebrew, are insiders even if they don’t know it fluently yet.  The project was about beckoning them in.


A co-worker sent along an article about Facebook researchers that shut down an AI project when the system began developing its own language because the researchers wanted robots that spoke efficiently to humans, not to each other.  “In each instance, an AI being monitored by humans has diverged from its training in English to develop its own language. The resulting phrases appear to be nonsensical gibberish to humans but contain semantic meaning when interpreted by AI ‘agents’.”

I love the idea that even robots gravitate towards making language more efficient and more exclusive to other robots when given the chance.  Sets of people develop a shorthand, an informal cant, over time.  Our instinct is to always separate linguistically while we cleave to others in our defined groups.  Even robots.

The key is our ability to translate and cross linguistic bridges.


1 Ellen { 08.02.17 at 7:37 am }

So thought provoking, Mel.

I’m Impressed also that your kids will do this painstaking work with you without complaining. I think the main reason I’ll pass mine into a tutor is to avoid some of the inevitable whining. (Unfortunately, whining is a language that I’m overly familiar with.),

2 Noemi { 08.02.17 at 10:24 am }

I’ve been thinking a lot about how language divides lately. There are three parent groups at my daughter’s school and I am in a leadership role in one of those groups and am friends with someone in a leadership role in another of the groups, so we naturally talk to each other about what are groups are doing and know what is going on in each other’s parent communities. The third group was created specifically to support EL (English language learners) at the school, which has a very large Spanish-speaking population (because it’s a Spanish immersion school), so those parents primarily speak Spanish and many of them aren’t comfortable speaking English at all. That language barrier has kept that group separate, even though people like me, who speak both languages, have tried to build bridges and include them. It all kind of blew up last year and I’m working hard to come up with ways to make sure that group feels included in the larger parent community this year. It’s hard though, because when translators are required to help people understand each other, connection can’t happen organically.

3 torthuil { 08.02.17 at 10:46 am }

What a great experience. I loved learning Old English for similar reasons: it was so interesting and rewarding to slow reading down to the point where I was thinking about each word. Although at first it was awkward, slowly I developed the ability to hear the language and I felt like I had an ear in another world. Mind blowing experience.

4 Symanntha Renn { 08.02.17 at 12:01 pm }

This may be my favorite post of yours, ever! Language is fluid and always changing, and that is amazing.

5 Sharon { 08.02.17 at 1:26 pm }

One thing I always liked in Star Trek was the universal translator. Don’t know why no one has invented this yet!

Yes, I have had the experience you describe where you hear an interesting word for the first time and then suddenly hear it again and again. The last time that happened to me was this past fall/winter, and the word was “hygge.” I had never heard the word before, but then I read it somewhere (online moms’ group? I can’t remember), and the next thing I know, I am seeing it everywhere.

6 Counting Pink Lines { 08.03.17 at 6:52 pm }

Noo… those facebook AI articles are total BS. I can’t find the facebook response but this one does a decent job of explaining it: http://gizmodo.com/no-facebook-did-not-panic-and-shut-down-an-ai-program-1797414922

The work itself is really cool (https://code.facebook.com/posts/1686672014972296/deal-or-no-deal-training-ai-bots-to-negotiate/) but NOWHERE near some sort of apocalypse that people seem to be freaking out about.

On a super high level, they built these bots to optimize X and realized, whoops, X isn’t actually a good representation of what we want, let’s optimize X+Y instead. Also frankly dialog bots have existed since the 80’s. And that one still works reasonably well.

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 08.04.17 at 12:02 am }

I remember coming home from college as a freshman and showing off for my parents and sisters the cool new lingo my friends and I were speaking at school. We were so silly and cool, bonded by the made-up words only we knew how to use.

So weird that nonhumans will do that, too.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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