Unearthed Mundana: I Can’t Believe it’s not Thieves’ Cant
This article was first broadcast in Episode Ninety Nine on 4th December 2019.
Ostron: Hey, there you two are! So I’ve been going over the script for How To Paint Your Miniatures and …
Lennon: No time for that this week! Ryu’s going to teach us Thieves’ Cant
Ryu: I am?! I, err, mean, I am!
Lennon: Yep! You’ve already handed me these sheets of paper… so… here, one each… You said to read from the top, right?
Ryu: Right! That is exactly what I said.
Lennon: Ok, here we go!
There are many languages in D&D, such as Common, Elvish and Dwarven, but very few dialects, much less alternative ways of speaking. In fact, aside from the Githyanki and Githzerai who both speak a dialect of the common Gith language, and the various elementals each speaking their own dialect of Primordial, non-standard ways of speaking rarely crop up. There is one exception, however, which is so key to a class’ identity that it’s actually a class feature: the first-level Rogue ability “Thieves’ Cant”. Wizards of the Coast define it as “a secret mix of dialect, jargon and code that allows you to hide messages in seemingly normal conversation”, and that only another creature that knows thieves cant is able to understand you. Despite that definition being in the Player’s Handbook, many DMs and Players still seem to believe it’s another language entirely, or at the very least acts like one, leaving everyone except the speaker and receiver completely clueless if they don’t speak it.
But that’s not exactly true. To define a few terms… well, we’re going to presume you’re OK with “thieves”. The definition of “cant” is somewhat similar to the more familiar terms of “slang” and “jargon”. Where slang is informal language, and jargon is technical language, cant is secret language, designed to exclude or mislead a group of people that aren’t on the inside of whatever is going down. Slang may be unknown to you, but it’s not a secret and is publicly used. Jargon may be used by particular groups, but it’s done to be precise, not to keep people away. A cant is what you get when it’s designed to be unknown, and you won’t know, unless you’re part of the group where the cant originates, however much like slang and jargon, it’s not solely a language on its own. It relies on a common base language with a few encoded words to prevent eavesdroppers tapping in to the secret meanings held therein.
Thieves’ cant in the PHB takes its name from an alleged secretive language used by all thieves in England in the early 1500s. It was popular in plays and books of the time, though what was in print was, like most things, granted a bit of artistic license. In fact, several well known vagabonds were interrogated by a justice of the peace, and those vagrants affirmed that the supposèd thieves cant in the books and plays was entirely fictional, and there was no singular secret language spoken by all thieves. At the time there were many different secret languages spoken in different circles, such as Romany used by gypsies, and Polari, commonly used by actors and those in the circus. That’s not to say that thieves never had their secret languages, just that, unlike Polari which was common amongst *all* actors and circus people across the country (or indeed around the English-speaking world), a single thieves’ cant just wasn’t a thing. Still, the idea of thieves’ cant made its way into the popular culture of the time until it faded into obscurity, only to be picked up again by a popular fantasy table-top roleplaying game franchise many years later.
So thieves’ cant is a type of cant that has not been, is simply not, nor will ever be a part of your repertoire; but that doesn’t mean you need to simply resort to telling the DM “I say in thieves’ cant…” or passing notes around the table if it needs to remain secretive from other players. Whilst the Rogue and the DM could go and learn an existing cant together, that can be an awful lot of work; and as the cants are developed to keep key information secretive, not all cants would be applicable. For example, Polari was mainly spoken by actors and circus folks in the 1500s, but it was also used by the LGBTQ+ community in the UK well into the 1970s, when adult homosexual acts started to become decriminalised, and so the need for a secretive language lessened. As you can imagine, there’s probably not a lot of words in Polari that would be suitable for discussing retrieving an artifact, fencing goods, or assassinating a target. No, in this instance, we would recommend homebrewing your own cant. Luckily, it’s no where near as difficult as it sounds, and you can make it as simple or complex as you like.
First though we need to look at how cants are constructed. As mentioned previously, they’re flourishes to a language, encoding certain key words, and are not whole languages in themselves. Sticking with Polari, the encoded words come from various sources, with Italian, Romani, Backslang and Rhyming Slang being the most prominent. For example, rather than using the term “run away”, Polari uses the word “scarper”, a heavily anglicised version of the Italian “scaparre” [sca-PA-re], meaning “to escape”. Borrowing key words from other languages in this way is especially easy if the Rogue and DM already have a common second language, even if it’s very rough. On the off-chance the Rogue and the DM do both speak a second-language fluently, it’s important to remember that the majority of the words have to be spoken in common with only the pertinent words encoded.
If you don’t happen to speak another language, don’t worry, there are still plenty of options. Another cant that’s extremely well known over in the UK is Cockney Rhyming Slang. This cant is made by replacing the target word with a small phrase where the last word rhymes with the original word; and then in almost every case you omit the end of the rhyming phrase. Sounds complex, but it’s easy! Take, for example, the word “face”. The Cockney Rhyming Slang for “face” is “boat”. This is because the rhyme for “face” is “boat race” (the last word race rhyming with face) but then you only say the first word. So the sentence “Did they see your face” becomes “Did they see your boat?”. Cockney Rhyming Slang was quickly adopted by the criminal underworld of London as a way to talk about their illicit activities in broad daylight, potentially in front of the police, and so under no circumstances is the original word revealed. Lennon wrote that this is an important point, because a lot of the time when Cockney Rhyming Slang is portrayed in American media, they’ll often say the whole thing, e.g.: “How’re you doing me old China plate — mate!”. Saying the full rhyme and the original word defeats the entire point of the cant, and anyone saying it that way is legally allowed to be killed with a sword by the Queen. At least according to Lennon, we can’t find any sources that say that’s the official stance of Buckingham Palace. Anyway, other common words in Cockney Rhyming Slang are “butchers” for “look” (from “butchers hook”), “weasel” for “coat” (from “weasel and stoat”), and “apples” for “stairs” (from “apples and pears”).
As a cant is, at its heart, just a substitution of words that everyone in a given society adopts, this can be something a DM and player can easily come up with at a table, because unlike in real life, only two actual people need to know it. When coming up with your cant, it’s important to find something that offers flexibility in case a new word needs to be invented on the fly in the conversation. The easiest way to do this is to substitute a like-for-like theme, so for example you could substitute power structures with family structures. King becomes “granddad”, the queen “grandma”, the thieve’s guild becomes “mum”, dukes and barons become “uncle” or “auntie” etc.. Then you just need to come up with terms for the various activities that the rogue will need to undertake, for example, assassination becomes “birthday party”, stealing artifacts could become “helping out on the farm”, and so on. You can make the list as expansive or as slim as you need, but making sure you come up with alternative terms for common organisations and common roguish activities will ensure that the vast majority of your uses will be covered. Then you just need to put it into use! The DM giving the rogue a quest by saying “‘ere, got something you might be interested in. Mum wants to know if you’d be up for going to Uncle’s birthday”, and the rogue replying “won’t granddad get mad”, followed by the NPC saying “Nah, mum says it’s for the best. Besides, he got caught helping out on Auntie’s farm”, and finally the rogue agreeing and returning to the rest of the party saying “we’ve got to go kill the duke” is, firstly, so much cooler than just giving the quest or passing a note, and secondly enables the rogue to have a key role that nobody else in the party can really fill. Also, you don’t have to have memorised every part of your cant. The DM can obviously keep a cheat-sheet behind the screen, but don’t be afraid to let the rogue have one. Even if they have to reference it during the game, it’ll just add to the layer of mystery with the other players at the table.
Ryu: This makes so much more sense now!
Ostron: I’m glad it does to someone… wait, didn’t you know Thieves’ Cant already?
Lennon: Of course she did! She was just talking in her brand of Thieves’ Cant, which is loosely based on reverse-psychology. She obscures the true words and meaning by making it sound like even she doesn’t know.
Ryu: … yeah!
Lennon: Speaking of obscure… things…
Ryu: Ugh, fine! Ostron, could you get Peaches and meet me out the front of the guildhouse? I need to calculate a bicycle trajectory…
Ostron: I would, but 1. I’m not going anywhere near that thing after last time, and 2. we’ve got a scrying pool to get to.