I am writing a fantasy novel and I wanted a few of the characters who speak a secret language. I didn't want to create an entire language from scratch. So I started looking for real secret languages that were no longer in use. I found Polari, and I really liked it. I not only liked the words, but also the clipped pace, and the sense of humor in it. Since it had smatterings of Yiddish and several different European languages, it sounded more exotic than back or rhyming slang.

The problem is, while its no longer fluently spoken, it was in use fairly recently. Even if I took out all of the crossover words that survived and became modern gay slang, I still think it might sound familiar enough that some readers would immediately recognize the brief conversations as Polari. If it were very few, maybe it would be sort of an Easter egg that would make a few people snicker. But if it's still fairly well known, it might make the characters stand out as badly as Jar Jar Binks did when he said, "Exsqueeze me?"

I would have fun being a little bit creative and make up some terms, but I'm no Tolkien. I'd like to just add things that don't exist in the real world and take out phrases and words that are more obvious in origin.

Anyway, I'm asking because I'm American, and I'd never even heard of Polari. But in the UK, it might still be "funny, but not not-funny ha ha." If you catch my meaning. I didn't even know back or rhyming slang existed and they are still used!

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    I'm not sure how to do this, but I answered my own question last night. It turns out that it's extremely easy to invent a cant. You just need to make up your own jokes and then use rhyming or backwards slang to tell the jokes. It only took me a few hours to create my own nearly synthetic can't that has the same clipped pace and naughty humor of Polari. It's basically exactly what Anthony Burgess did for Clockwork Orange. So I don't need an answer for the question. I already answered it.
    – Keobooks
    Commented Jan 9, 2016 at 16:49
  • I just wanted to add for the record that I'm from the UK and have never heard of Polari... Reasonably sure nobody else I know will have. Hang on, let me pop over to Facebook... Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 10:39
  • Okay, the results are in (I realise a bit redundant, but I've started so I'll finish): It was exactly 50/50 between UK people having heard of it or not. Huge bias towards people from London having heard of it as opposed to others. However, my poll was completely unscientific and the respondents self-selecting (more likely to respond to say they had herad of something than not) and a miniscule sample size. But there you are. Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:43

2 Answers 2


You've already described a great solution to your problem in your comment to your own question, but I'm going to give my two pence worth anyway.

Factors against using Polari:

  • as you hint in your question, it could be perceived as mocking rather than celebrating the original users. I am quite sure that is not your intention, but there is a tendency nowadays for some people to be hyper-sensitive about "cultural appropriation". Conversely, you might also get hostile reactions from people who object to its associations with the gay subculture. (Although Polari was never exclusively used by homosexuals. Growing up in the 1970's, I would have thought of the few Polari words I had come across as market traders' slang.) You could end up being shouted at by both sides in a political dispute when all you wanted was to add a bit of local colour to your story.

  • if your setting is not derived from Earth, having a language that recognisably includes quite well known Earth languages like Yiddish and Italian suddenly appear without explanation just seems odd. It chips away at the suspension of disbelief. Readers accept the translation convention that puts the main language of the story into English or whatever language the book is written in, but you don't want them to think about the process too much.

  • the more closely you stick to real Polari, the more glaring your inevitable mistakes will be.

Factors in favour of using Polari:

  • there is an explanation within the story of why and how Polari is still in use, or has been revived. That could give an ambience rather different from the usual run of fantasy stories and suggests some interesting plot ideas.

  • you say in a preface that just as English is being used as a translation for the "Common Tongue" or whatever language most of your characters speak, so Polari is being used as a translation for a specific secret language spoken in your world. Some writers can pull off putting in this sort of dual language translation convention without any explanation, thus overcoming my second "against" point by sheer writing skill and confidence. It is a matter of having such an authoritative tone that the reader instinctively falls in with your decisions as to how to indicate what language is being spoken. But it is easier just to say explicitly what you are doing. Plenty of authors add prefaces and afterwords to their fantasy books; sometimes they are more interesting than the story!

This Writers SE question about the use of Latin and this one about using Russian in fantasy settings might interest you. You have independently found a method to create slang but here is another question on that subject, specifically about creating a jargon as a marker for an in-group.

  • Thanks for the well thought out answer. Before anyone even answered this at all, I put in a note that I answered my own question. I'm inventing it from scratch, but making it much simpler because it doesn't have to be that complicated. I certainly won't be Anthony Burgess and teach myself Russian and write a whole language! I never literally wanted Polari. I just loved the fast pace and the humor in it when spoken. I mostly wanted a look and feel. I just didn't word the original question properly. I just wanted a secret trade language.
    – Keobooks
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 4:06

I've never heard of Polari. However, I'm not from the U.K. Maybe combine it with another language. Or keep it, because probably no Americans have ever heard of it. It IS a secret language after all.

  • I did more research in it. After homosexuality was decriminalized in the late 60s, there was a popular radio show spoken in it. There were a few Polari jokes that slipped into many sitcoms at that time. So it's probably familiar enough to steer clear of. Here's a short film in Polari if you're interested. m.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8yEH8TZUsk
    – Keobooks
    Commented Jan 23, 2016 at 0:15
  • And that radio show is still being broadcast today on BBC Radio 4 Extra, @Keobooks. I, like many others, would associate Polari primarily with Julian & Sandy. Oh 'ello Mr 'Orn. How bona to vada your dolly old eek! Troll in.
    – TRiG
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 11:05

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