I grew up believing in the efficacy of speech as a tool for resolution. First of all, that everything could be (re)solved, and second of all, that speech was the way to get there.

You’re angry? Talk it out. Hurt and confused? Express yourself. You don’t like something? Speak up. Speak out. Speak boldly. Speak openly. Speak frankly. 

In some ways it is easy to understand speech’s allure; the very mythology of existence is grounded on the power of the spoken word— “Let there be light.” And there was light! 

Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years. And let them be for lights in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. (1)

This is how the spoken word became the originator of any and all things (or so we are told). 

But as I get older, I’m drawn towards an exploration of silence, non-verbal vocal emphasis, and other unvoiced ways of speaking. I’m thinking through powerful and perhaps more subversive ways of communicating. My sense of fatigue with “speaking up” is largely brought on by the loudness of social media and how that noise is translated, or not, IRL. We’ve become well versed and articulate in political correctness and woke politics—saying the ‘right things’ at the ‘right times’ and saying them loudly. The currency is in your thunderous voice and the sound it emanates, but of course, one (wo)man’s sound is another (wo)man’s noise where noise is simply thought of as unwanted sound. Impulse noise. Background noise. White noise. 

My unwanted sound is speech that is rhetoric and a form of propaganda—it is too obvious, it lacks imagination, and at the worst of times, it is violent and deadly. Wherever speech exists (if it must), I’m interested in its undertones, the variations in pitch, the depth of lung capacity required, and the circularity of breaths between each word. 

I’m interested in how each of these underscores social justice, and thinking about liberation through the sonic; sound [ing] better—where ‘sound’ is about pressure waves but also about resonance, energy, and the auditory impressions we have on each other. sound [ing] better. sound [ing] together.

  1. Genesis 1:14-15. King James Version. 

In her book, Listening to Images, Brown University professor Tina Campt explores the idea of frequency as a site of possibility. Taking inspiration from British historian Paul Gilroy, Campt theorizes sound as an inherently embodied process that registers at multiple levels of the human sensorium where sound need not be heard to be perceived (2). Both Campt and Gilroy offer a framework of understanding life (particularly Black life) through sensory registers of sound that manifest a different kind of futurity. Here, I see the possibility of spoken language, in its gestural and aesthetic form, to respond to cultural, political, and social realities.

Languages of subversion and resistance have existed and evolved in various parts of the world through responding to different moments in human history. Whether it is Fanakalo, spoken by mining workers from different parts of the African continent in South Africa’s mines. Or Camtho, which was spoken mainly by urban youth in the west of Johannesburg between the 1940s and 50s. Or the long-dead Polari, used within the British gay subculture. Language can offer political agency and obscurity in its performance, beyond the essence of facilitating communication. One such language is Gayle, which is a codified vernacular combining English and Afrikaans through an  arrangement of traditional female names carrying specific meanings. 

Priscilla – police. 

Shiela – rubbish. 

Wendy – white gay man. 

Dora – to drink/ drunk. (3)

Believed to have originated in the hairdressing salons of Cape Town’s District Six, Gayle was largely used by the ‘coloured’ (4) gay community during the 1950s and 60s. It is considered a ‘gay’ language where “the term gay embodies a group of people who have adopted a particular perspective of reality which goes way beyond the bedroom” (5)

Although underground and hidden at first, the language has reached broader societies in different geographies and made its way into popular culture. It has evolved in form, content, and usage. Gayle is imaginative and performative and was a conceptual but also palpable argot of resistance (during and around the time it was conceived). It allowed members of the gay community to communicate, protect each other through passing information secretly, and to gossip. Its ability to facilitate gossip is largely as a result of its precision and characterization of humour. And of course, in most communities, especially so in marginalised communities, gossip is a key practice of pleasure that allows strong bonds to form. Gossip is also a form of knowledge production and distribution. 

In the seminal book Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, Tavia Nyong’o writes about the conditions of contemporary Black artistic production in the era of post-blackness. He notes that “gossip is the one true living archive.” Gossip is not just merely malicious truths, extemporaneous intensifications, and manipulations. Rather, it can be “deployed against hegemonic demands for legibility and transparency that so often simply expose and endanger minoritarian lives.” Similarly, one could argue that the use of Gayle in its entirety, over and above its function for gossip, is the employment of language against hegemonic demands for legibility and transparency where the typical insider (read white, straight, rich male) / outsider (read black, queer, poor) dynamic is inverted. Gayle, therefore, is an elusive strategy fundamental to survival. It situates comprehension and maybe even truth (a kind of truth) away from formal taxonomy and places agency on the speaker’s lips. The testimony is in the body where differences between language and body, subject and object, and fact and fiction exist in a single utterance (6). Priscilla is a girl’s name. Priscilla is also a warning to seek refuge from police who, through a long global history of police brutality, are to be feared and avoided.

2. Campt, T. 2017. Listening to Images. Paul Gilroy

3. Excerpt from gayle dictionary provided as notes in the 2018 exhibition “Kewpie: Daughter of District Six”.

4. Mixed race communities were classified as Coloured under apartheid laws. This categorisation is largely still in use to refer to mixed race people.

5. Cage, K and Evans, M. 2003. Gayle: The Language of Kinks and Queens : a History and Dictionary of Gay Language in South Africa. Jacana Media.

In an audio essay titled Contra Diction: Speech Against Itself, presented at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin) in 2016, Lawrence Abu Hamdan contemplates the workings of speech, truth, and silence in today’s all-hearing and all-speaking society by introducing us to the concept of Taqiyya. Taqiyya “is an old piece of Islamic jurisprudence practiced only by esoteric minorities that allows a believing individual to deny his faith or commit otherwise illegal acts while they are at risk of persecution or in a condition of statelessness.” (7) Taqiyya allows one to speak untruths by sounding words differently—the pronunciation of the word is what determines the truthfulness of a statement. So it is possible to denounce one’s faith (by uttering the words) without actually truthfully denouncing one’s faith (because the truth lies in the sounding of the words). I find the principles of this practice to be quite instructive and useful in thinking through language as a tool for survival. 

“Truth lies in the ears of the beholder”, notes Abu Hamdan,“Taqiyya is never the expression of one clear position but a multitude of statements that all emanate simultaneously from one voice. Each of its numerous truths is forged by and for the ears of its listener.” Within this practice, one speaks to listeners based on the level of their readiness to listen, and on their knowledge of hidden meanings. 

Abu Hamdan notes further; “Taqiyya is not unlike the freedom of speech. It is the right for free expression. But it is more like the freedom of the speech itself. Rather than the freedom to speak it is the freedom to use your voice to mimic and mutate to dissimulate in order to navigate the sometimes hostile terrain of those ears that prey upon your voice.”

In both Taqiyya and Gayle, freedom of speech means the freedom to remain opaque. Secrecy is camouflaged by words which allows humans who exist in environments of precarity to create spaces of freedom.

6. Paraphrased from Abu Hadman. 2016. Contra Diction : Speech Against Itself.

7. Abu Hadman. 2016. Contra Diction : Speech Against Itself. 

NKGOPOLENG MOLOI is a writer and photographer based in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa and is excited and intrigued by history, art, language and architecture.

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