5 September 2018
Marion McClintock talks to Professor Paul Baker of Linguistics and English Language about his recent staff award for work on the language of Polari and its contribution to uncovering and highlighting LGBT heritage.

Professor Paul Baker said: “I thought after my PhD, a couple of books and a dictionary of Polari that would be the end of attention to it, but interest has revived.  I am fortunate not only to have been the original academic interpreter of Polari language, but to be actively involved in its latest bump of interest.”

So what is Polari, and why does it matter?  The language is a hybrid, picking up vocabulary from many sources, including Italian and the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean, Romany, Yiddish, back and rhyming slang, and survivals of Elizabethan thieves’ cant. Its origins lie with 19th century music hall and travelling entertainers, fairground workers, stallholders, beggars, and sailors; people who were itinerant and on the margins of society.

By the early 20th century it had become a coded language for emerging LGBT communities, whose members could use it safely in public, mostly confident that it would not be understood except by those in sympathy with the speaker. There may have been tens of thousands of users.  Each speaker would have their own variant and level of skill, including the extent to which a grammar and word order were established.  Eine for London, vada for look, bona for good or well, and sharpy for a policeman might be heard alongside eek for face (via the backwards spelt word ecaf), riah for hair, or lally for leg.

Paul, who was awarded a Research Impact Award in the recent Staff Awards, studied Polari for his 1990s Ph.D, having been intrigued by a 1960s BBC comedy series, ‘Round the Horne’, with characters using the language. He interviewed older men who still spoke it as it was dying out. The secret had been spoilt by its BBC exposure, and in any case after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act there was a progressive lessening of the need for a covert language for LGBT people. Polari was seen as old-fashioned, and perhaps sexist and racist.

Paul turned his attention to research in corpus linguistics, including the language of newspapers and of patient feedback in the NHS, but found that he was being drawn back to Polari. People interested in it would contact him, and Bishopsgate College in London asked for a series of workshops including games to learn how to speak the language. Artists would contact him for help with projects involving the use of Polari, and two plays were written based on his Ph.D. His books about it has given a voice to non-powerful people. One day in Stoke-on-Trent he happened on a coffee shop, Polari House, where they were displaying his books and leaflets about his work and in 2015 a short sketch, ‘Putting on the Dish’, drew on his Polari dictionary.

Most recently, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool has used his work, and students at Goldsmith College have written a short novel in the language. Next year Paul will have a book published by Reaktion about the last twenty years of Polari, written for the general public, but including reflections on how the study of Polari and its heritage has influenced his own research development. 

Paul surmised: “I think Polari will continue, used by political activists, younger people, and those interested in alternative cultures. I don’t think it will go away.”