Julian and Sandy, 1970s, LP Cover | Copyright control | 17032
Paul Baker, an authority on Polari, having studied it for some time, has provided Scroll/The Conversation with a brief history of the language. To summarise:
Polari has now largely fallen out of use, but was historically spoken by gay men and female impersonators.
Polari developed first in the world of entertainment, West End theatres and 19th-century music halls, travelling entertainers and market-stall holders, and was based on Parlyaree which had roots in Italian and rudimentary forms of language used for communication by sailors around the Mediterranean, which found its way into Britain, especially London and port cities, and gradually became used by gay men and female impersonators, especially during the first half of the 20th century. In England, gays added Cockney Rhyming Slang, backslang (pronouncing a word as if it was spelt backwards), French, Yiddish and American airforce slang to Polari.
It was useful as a means of conducting conversations in public spaces, which would have alerted others to your sexuality at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.
“Vada the naff strides on the omee ajax” meant look at the awful trousers on the man nearby. Inserting a Polari word – such as bona (good) or palone (woman) – into a sentence could act as a coded way of identifying other people who might be gay. The language itself, full of camp, irony, innuendo and sarcasm, also helped its speakers to form a resilient worldview in the face of arrest, blackmail and physical violence.
In the 1970s, in a gay magazine called Lunch, activists branded Polari as ghettoising and it gradually became surplus to requirements. In 2000, Baker carried out a survey of 800 gay men and found about half the respondents had never heard of Polari.
In recent years however, there has been renewed interest in Polari. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence created a Polari Bible, running a Polari wordlist through a computer program on an English version of the Bible.
Paul Baker is the Professor of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University.