A secret language of Kinks and Queens

Gayle is an argot from gay communities in South Africa.

Entrance to Beaulah Bar in Cape Town, South Africa. “Beaulah” means “beautiful” in Gayle. By HelenOnline — published June 21st, 2014, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:De_Waterkant_10.jpg.

Gayle, the language of kinks and queens, as Ken Cage has dubbed it, is an argot used in South Africa by white and coloured gay men. Argots, secret languages invented so that outsiders cannot understand, can also be used in the context of an “anti-language” — a term created by Michael Halliday in 1978. An anti-language describes how stigmatized subcultures develop languages in order to reconstruct the reality around them in alliance with their own values; these secret argots are a protest against the dominant culture, the external imposition of a linguistic value system which does not reflect the experience of the stigmatized community. These languages primarily develop during times of government crack down and social stigmatism: during the 70s, a gay argot developed in San Francisco (complete with a secret code involving handkerchiefs to accompany the spoken language), Polari flourished in Great Britain during times of repression, and currently Swardspeak, a gay language within the Philippines, is becoming more widespread among younger generations, due to increasing discrimination. Collectively, these languages are known as the “Lavender Languages”, a term derived from Betty Friedan, a lesbophobic American of the 1970s, when she called lesbians a “lavender menace”. Gayle, Polari, and other similar languages are used as a way to communicate between members of the community. If someone is unsure if another person is gay, they can approach them using Gayle. If the person is not a part of the community, they will be baffled by the conversation, but of course, on the other hand, if they understand the jargon, then both parties are on the same page.

Gayle originally manifested as moffietaal in the drag culture of the coloured community of the 1950s. Moffietaal, Afrikaans for ‘homosexual language’, quickly permeated into the white homosexual culture and by the 1960s it was a part of the mainstream white gay culture. The term Gayle derives from the Moffietaal word “gail”, meaning ‘to chat’. The spread of Gayle can be linked to the 1970s with the flight stewards of South African Airways, the koffiemoffies as they were called at the time in Afrikaans. As more countries around the world began to refuse doing business with South Africa due to the increasing brutality of apartheid, there were an influx of flights to the countries that were maintaining relations. The Springbok route from Johannesburg to London became one of the most popular routes from South Africa, leading to South African Airways actually needing to purchase five new Boeing 747s to keep up with the demand. Once they acquired these new, larger jets, they needed more manpower to run them and started an aggressive recruiting campaign for stewards. Many gay men of South Africa were attracted to the job for a variety of reasons, primarily the ability to escape the confines and restrictions of the community at home. In the hours of sitting in the office on standby, awaiting their next flight assignment, the gay stewards would gossip and expand the lexicon of Gayle. Being a worldly gay steward, proficient in Gayle, became the epitome of popularity within the gay community of South Africa.

Gay argots commonly use a created lexicon superimposed onto the grammatical structure of the lingua franca of the region. In doing this, these argots are also implying the phonology, morphology, and syntax of the lingua franca that the argot is based upon. Gayle, which was primarily used in the urban centers of Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria, has two versions: an English based and an Afrikaans based one.

The development of Gayle from the drag community, continuing with the creative expansion with the stewards of South African Airways, is visible within the lexicon used. Most of Gayle’s word choice derives from alliterative forms of women’s names. (This lexical method can be seen in most gay argots around the world). For example, we have “Abigail”, which translates to abortion, “Belinia” meaning beautiful or really gorgeous, “Hilda” is synonymous for ugly, “Griselda” translates to hideous (or: ‘Hilda’s even uglier older sister’), “Olive” is an attractive man, etc. One interesting aspect of women’s names in Gayle is their functionality: a name can be used as an adjective, a noun, or even a verb. An example of Gayle, taken from Ken Cage’s book Gayle: The Language of Kinks and Queens, shows the use of women’s names in context:

Varda that Beulah! What a lunch! Such a picnic basket! Vast Mitzi. I’d love to Sally her, but she looks so Dora. She’s a chicken, and probably Rita to boot, or maybe even Priscilla, and I don’t need Jennifer Justice in my life right now. And who needs a visit from Auntie Aida? I supposed I’ll have to go home and Tilly — the lot of an Olga pixie!

Translating in English to

Look at that beautiful man! What a package! It’s so big! Very me. I’d love to fell ate him, but he looks so drunk. He’s very young and probably a male prostitute as well, or maybe even a policeman, and I don’t need trouble with the law in my life at the moment. And who needs to expose themselves to AIDS? I suppose I’ll have to go home and masturbate — the lot of an old gay man!

Dora in this paragraph is an example of a name being used as an adjective. With the same context, Dora can also be used as a verb, as in: “Don’t Dora too much tonight”.

A survey of Gayle speakers completed by Cage 18 years ago showed that only 5% of speakers used Gayle to cover their identity. Nowadays, Gayle usage has for the most part died — it is primarily used among younger people as a joke or a relic of the past, not for secrecy within a community. When searching for Gayle on the internet and on current forums, it is almost impossible to even find a reference to the language (Cage being the sole researcher on the argot). As South Africa’s discrimination of homosexuality has waned, so has Gayle’s usage.