Cryptolects are secret languages spoken by a specific subculture that are designed to exclude people when you need absolute privacy. This level of privacy might be necessary to help the subculture overcome oppression or bullying from outsiders.
Several groups have their own cryptolect:
- Polari: a language spoken by gay men in London
- Shelta: a language used by Irish Travellers [a nomadic ethnic group]
- Caló: a Mexican rhyming slang
One of the most fascinating is Nushu. In this example, you can see how the slender, elegant shapes appear to be inspired by – yet very distinct from – traditional Chinese:
Historically in China, women weren’t always allowed to receive an education, so many were illiterate. Legend has it that a concubine developed Nushu – a script for writing the local Chinese dialect – as a way to write about her life and overcome the crippling forces that attempted to keep women and men segregated.
Nushu was used exclusively by women in China’s Jiangyong and was discovered by the outside world in the 1980s. Nushu is also a lot more efficient than the traditional and more complex Chinese logosyllabic system: in the women’s phonetic writing system, a single symbol represents a syllable and there are no radicals.
Nushu is the only confirmed example of a women’s-only language or writing system that I could find.
But I wonder if the Voynich manuscript could be another. For centuries, this mysterious document has defied code breakers and historians:
Filled with images of plants, herbs, womanoid creatures, and human women, it is obviously some kind of medical text, most probably focused on women’s concerns. But who wrote the beautifully curly, elegant script and what does it say? To me it appears to be something a midwife would have written. Maybe it’s another example of a Nushu-like women’s-only writing system.