Broken tongue

Languages and Jargons
March 28, 1997

This is the third volume to be edited by Peter Burke and Roy Porter, following on from A Social History of Language and Language, Self and Society, but the first to focus on a single theme, with seven contributions revolving around the topic of languages and jargons, all placed in context by Burke's useful introductory essay.

Scholarly and wide-ranging contributions consider the different functions of jargon and the overlap where a separate language may decline or even emerge. The language used by gypsies has reached a point where it is described as poggerdi jib, a broken tongue, no more than a code within a language, though it does serve as a means of identifying members of a group. But jargon goes beyond an in-group form of slang. The casebook of Dr Johann Storch in 18th-century Germany illustrates the problems of communication without mutually recognisable common terms (appendicitis was dismissed as a jargon term less than a century ago). On the other hand, obscure terminology can be used in order to talk across patients, or to ensure that they do not understand - a point exploited down the ages by the quack and mountebank.

The sheer range of examples used in the book would provide a rich source of material for the wordier game shows on radio. The etymology of such underworld cant terms as margery-praters for hens and bung-nipper for cutpurse would have been welcome; the first title in the series contains a bibliographical essay, and a commentary on sources and advice at least on where to search for derivations would have been useful.

The level of assumed prior knowledge suggests that this worthwhile compilation is aimed at the more experienced linguist. The phenomenon of jargon creep is discussed in the context of language evolving from the use of computers, but the same trend is evident in some places here. A firmer editorial hand might have proved beneficial and at times might have heeded the advice of Oliver Wendell Holmes (quoted on page 54), never to use a long word where a short one will do.

For anyone interested in rambling Romany-style along the highways and byways of language, this book is anything but poggerdi jib. I hope that the editors will set out on a fourth journey of linguistic exploration in due course.

Tim Connell is director of language studies, City University.

Languages and Jargons

Editor - Peter Burke and Roy Porter
ISBN - 07456 19 2
Publisher - Polity
Price - £39.50
Pages - 216

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