30.9.09

Word Diary: How I Discovered Coded Languages Like "Pig Latin" and "King Tut" as a Child (And As an Adult Learned More About Their History)

In this post (which is an update of the original post I wrote in 2009), I write about the use of encoded words and phrases that have meaning only to the initiated — or, put in another way — how we can even understand each other at all! If you think about it — words are just sounds, aural signifiers that are inert, the utterances of our vocal cords. But put into context, into meaning, and then voila — we have utterances that can break through the void and become language.

Nonsensical Languages in Linguistic Terms

Nonsensical languages are so much fun. Nonsensical in the linguistic sense, that the use of words, syntax, order of words, encoded meanings, enact a playful dynamic to undercut the formal use of the dominant language form and to lay bare the construct of language, how it works and operates. You know you are a fan of the nonsensical if you can enjoy Lewis Carrol's "The Jabberwocky." I am stunned that I understand what a vorpal sword is and chortle. Amazing. Simply amazing.

The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carrol

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
      Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
      And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
      The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
      And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
      The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
      He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
      Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
      He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

Most of the words in this poem are completely made-up. They are neologisms. It was only recently, after they entered the dominant language, that words like chortle and snort came into the main as "English words". But coded languages do not only appear in poetry. Look to the child's playground. Or other social spaces where the need to speak in secret emerges. Do you remember Pig Latin as a kid? I-ay o-day! We used to speak Pig Latin in the schoolyard so we could say bad words. Uck-fay ou-yay!

King Tut

"Hello" in King Tut Language
But, what about King Tut language? I stumbled upon this coded language* several years ago, working as a page in a public library - you come across a plethora of arcane, but useful books.

King Tut is a language I read about as a child in a book by Paul Dickson — it involves taking all consonants and simply doubling them and inserting a "U" in the middle. It works like code. Vowels are pronounced as usual. Here is the alphabet:

King Tut Letters

A, Bub, Coy, Dud, E, Fuf, Gug, Huh (or Hoy), I, Juj (or Joy), Kuk, Lul, Mum, Nun, O, Pup, Quk, Rur (or Roy), Sus, Tut, U, Vuv, Wuw (or Woy), Xux, Yuk (or Yoy), Zuz

Double Letters

If a letter is doubled, like in "book" you say bub-o-square-kuk.
"Hello, How are you?"
in King Tut is rendered
"Huh-e-lul-square-o, Huh-o-wuw a-rur-e yuk-o?" 
When King Tut is spoken it is unintelligible only to the uninitiated. It sounds like complete nonsense. But once you understand the code (i.e., the rules,), it's meaning becomes clear. Once you learn how it works, the code is broken and you can understand it. I have taught coded languages like King Tut to my freshman English class to impress upon them the artificial construct of a language (although I don't tell them that is why I am teaching it to them). 

It is quite impressive how quickly the students can understand what I am saying once I explain the rules. And what was at first an unknown string of sounds becomes intelligible.

But — of course, coded languages come into being for a purpose. And while I did not at first know the origins of King Tut, I learned about it as a coded language that was used by enslaved peoples in North America.

Update (August 2021):
I wrote about King Tut Language on my blog in 2009. I first read about it in the 1990s when I was a kid — reading about it in a book by Paul Dickson. Subsequently, I have learned that Tut Language has its origins in American slavery. Enslaved people used Tut to communicate amongst themselves and to practice literacy without being caught. Tutnese, or Tallehash, is way more complex in its original form than the modified version I learned. In fact, the alphabet I learned as a kid most likely is not Tut’s original form. When speaking in Tut, or writing in Tut, the coded words appeared unintelligible to outsiders; this allowed enslaved persons to speak, write, and practice literacy without being punished — as learning to read and write was forbidden by slaveholders. Enslaved people fought against their masters and learned in secret, and in code — in a way that shows the resiliency and tenacity of the human spirit. I apologize for my ignorance in originally writing this post, thinking that Tut was a child's language (like Pig Latin). It has a much richer history. And one that seems to be getting noticed as people start learning more about their individual histories.

Thank you to Gloria McIlwain's book "Tut Language" — it was the book that I read that introduced me to the Tut language's history and origins. Check it out if you wish to learn more. Here is the pronunciation table she provides (using the phonetic alphabet):
McIlwain, Gloria. “Tut Language.” American Speech, vol. 69, no. 1, 1994, pp. 111–112.
*(thanks to Dickson's Word Treasury by Paul Dickson)
Also, thanks to Wordie

15 comments:

  1. My best friend Cindy and I learned this language in 4th grade at Sam Case Elementary (in the school yard)in 1969 in Newport, Oregon. However, there are some differences to what you have posted. The following is the alphabet that we used - also known as King Tut:

    a, bub, cash, dud, e, fuf, gug, hash, i juj, kuk, lul, mum, nun, o, pup, quack, rur, shush, tut, u, vuv, wow, yux, yum,, zuz

    We did say "squared" after a double letter.

    We sang it to memorize it and then were quite proficient at using it. At 51 years old, I can still pop it out once again proving that it is best to teach language in the early years.


    Hash-e-lul square-o! Hash-o-wow a-rur-e yum-o-u?
    Tut-hash-a-nun-kuk yum-o-u fuf-o-rur yum-o-u-rur pup-o-shush-tut!

    ReplyDelete
  2. My grandmother saw this language in the newspaper and learned it so she and my grandfather could speak to each other without my dad and his brother knowing what they were saying. My dad learned it eventually and taught it to us. I've been speaking it since I was about 8 yrs old and now my children are speaking it!:) Our alphabet was slightly different - a, bub, cash, dud, e, fuf, gug, hash, i, lul, mum, nun, o, pup, q, rur, sus, tut, u, vuv, wuv, x, yank, zuz. We say "square" before the double consonant. So Hello is hash-e-square lul-o. It's fun anyway you say it!:)

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  3. I was surfing the Internet for information and came across your blog. I am impressed by the information you have on this blog. It shows how well you understand this subject. Chinese translation

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  4. AnonymousJuly 09, 2020

    This "non-sensical" language was created by Black slaves in order to talk to each other & learn to read since they were not allowed.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for letting us know more about this made-up language! I am planning on updating this post soon.

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  5. AnonymousJuly 09, 2020

    Tut language
    https://omniglot.com/writing/tut.htm

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    Replies
    1. Unknown - relax - he did the best he could with what he found, and then updated it. There is only so much research that can be done, especially with languages taught orally or meant to be secret, and with the internet more than 10 years ago.

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  6. AnonymousJuly 09, 2020

    Tut
    Tut is a form of English invented in the 18th century by black slaves in the southern states of America. It was used to help them learn to read and write at a time when literacy was banned among slaves. Doesn't sound very funny to me. Just sounds like a different language.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for filling in this piece of the story. I know "King Tut" is mentioned in the book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou talks about learning this secret language as a kid. I learned when I was about 13 years old. I read about it in a book I had borrowed from the library and my friends and I learned it and we would write notes to each other in class or whatnot.

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  7. I don’t understand how you learn a language without learning where it came from. You manage to belittle a language made by my ancestors to survive. Also never apologized to the people who informed you on the history of tut.

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    Replies
    1. Reading your comment, I can see why you say I have belittled "King Tut" language. I wrote this post, originally, in 2009, only understanding it to be a coded language I read about it in an arcane word book by Paul Dickson called Word Treasury. That book did not mention the connection between Tut and American slavery. It was only when folks mentioned to me the origins of the language that I had to revisit this post — and I looked at the work of Gloria McIlwain's book "Tut Language" which was very illuminating. I apologize if my post caused offense.

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  8. Do you still have access to the book, TUT LANGUAGE? I am just now learning about it. However, I am unable to find a copy of the book.

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  9. Do you still have the book

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  10. How do I get the book and cassette?

    ReplyDelete

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