An intriguing email from the Linguist List dropped into my inbox, publicising a forthcoming book on secret languages in Morocco, entitled The X…XəyyuC Family of Moroccan Secret Languages (yes, that's a schwa in the title!). It promises a detailed account of ġuş, a language of the Tafilalet, an oasis region in the Moroccan Sahara.
I looked up this language, and tried to find out about other secret Moroccan languages on the internet. I found the names Igaws and Awal-n-imdiazn, but could find hardly any information about them (presumably because they're secret!).
Secret languages (also called cryptolects) exist all over the world, and many date back hundreds of years. Often they developed from cant, or thieves' slang, and were designed to be used by a particular group of people so that others (often the police) wouldn't understand them. Shelta is the secret language of Irish travellers, Banjački is a secret language invented by Serbian bricklayers in order to hide things from their boss. Spain had several secret languages spoken by different groups of workers - Barallete was the cryptolect of traditional knife-sharpeners and umbrella repairers, Gaceria was spoken by threshing-board manufacturers and Fila dos arxinas was the language of stonecutters. Nyobo-kotoba was a language spoken by the ladies of the Japanese imperial court several centuries ago.
Nearer home, Verlan is a slang or youth language in France and Polari was used by the gay subculture in Britain in the early 20th century.
Whether all of these cryptolects can truly be called languages is another matter. Many so-called secret languages, eg Polari rely on a vocabulary that is different from the main language of the country but have no grammar of their own. Others - perhaps the Moroccan languages - have their own grammar and syntax.
The words of the various languages are formed in different ways. Sometimes, the letters of a word are reversed, just as in English slang 'boy' became 'yob'. Verlan transposes syllables, so that arabe became beur, and then, when the slang version itself became so well known that it entered the dictionary, beur was re-verlanised to become reubeu. In some languages syllables are inserted, so that bonjour in Javanais, another French argot, becomes bavonjavour. Finally, some secret languages incorporate words from other languages into their lexicon.