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Visiting gayle

- Delia du Toit

It might never be one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, but that would defeat the purpose of gayle – a language of secrets.

The research focus of Film and TV postgraduate, Lauren Mulligan, was to tell the story about identity and the role language plays in bonding a community. This culminated in her documentary film: Visiting gayle, that was shown at the Iziko South African Museum Gallery in Cape Town. Delia du Toit spoke to Mulligan about her Master’s degree journey.  

patsy.hilda.mavis. carol. (*) Women’s names, clearly. But to those in the know, each of these names has a secret meaning: party. hideous. effeminate. cry.

Such is the nature of gayle, a coded language developed in the Cape LGBTQIA community that has since spread across the country. Still, tell the average Jo’burger to “carla that paula bag” and they would likely look at you with a rather perplexed expression. Say the same thing in Cape Town, and that bewilderment would be directed at someone else (“Look at that ‘posh’ man”). 

And that’s exactly why gayle was created, explains Lauren Mulligan, formerly a multimedia officer at Wits who completed her Master’s in film and television on gayle in 2018. “Initially, it was used as a way of protecting each other – you could tell your friend to be careful around a specific person, or that a certain power dynamic was at play – without the subject of your conversation understanding,” says Mulligan. 

Mulligan first heard gayle as a teenager, when her brother and his friends used it. “It’s pretty jarring when you first encounter it, but equally fascinating. On the way home from his friends, I’d always ask him the meaning of new words I’d heard, and so I picked up bits and pieces along the way.” 

gayle, however, is constantly evolving – so much so that when Mulligan, who now lives in Johannesburg, visits her hometown of Cape Town, she will wait a few days to pick up the newest words before she starts “gayling” with her peers. “Different generations of gayle-speakers sometimes won’t understand each other because the language changes so much; new words are added, and others take on new forms. mavis [an effeminate man], for example, is maybelline to newer generations, because ‘maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s maybelline’ – the brand’s newer slogan.” 

It was during one of her family visits to Cape Town in 2015 that Mulligan decided to make a documentary about gayle for her Master’s degree. “During that holiday, I was searching for a topic for my research, my friends were gayling and I realised I’d also never encountered gayle on television. There’s this entire community that’s not being portrayed in mainstream media. I wasn’t seeing the characters I wanted to see, and I decided to make a documentary about it.” 

According to various sources, gayle originated among coloured people in Cape Town in the 1960s, or even earlier, and was mostly used by the LGBTQIA community. Mulligan’s research, conducted during several trips to Cape Town over two years, points to hair salons in Cape Town’s District Six, and she believes some of the old names used in gayle are indicative of the time that it was invented – but the exact origins are unclear. When Mulligan was once interviewed on air about her research, several listeners phoned in, claiming that they had started the language back in the day.  

Some research explores interviews with gay men who said they would never gayle to a heterosexual man or a woman, while other research reveals that there are women and straight men who are well-versed in gayle. The origins have become obscured over time, almost an urban legend, as the language spread and evolved. 

What is clear, however, is that besides using female names, gayle borrows from English, Afrikaans and Kaaps, both in structure and vocabulary. In recent years, gayle has emerged from the shadows of subculture to become mainstream. Today, it’s no longer only used as a cloak in dangerous situations, or within the confines of a period of oppression, but has become a way to empower its speakers, a way to bond a community, and a means to play around with words, says Mulligan.  

In her documentary, Visiting gayle, Mulligan interviews several regular gayle-speakers from different walks of life. For her research paper, she spoke to several more, including the rap artist Dope Saint Jude, who uses gayle in her lyrics and so delivers the language to a much wider audience than in bygone years.  

“It might never become a fully-fledged, documented language, but that would also defeat its purpose – gayle is a secret between friends, a way to bond, a way to have fun. One person or group can’t own a language, and it means different things to different people,” says Mulligan.

Lauren Mulligan © Erna van Wyk |  

A photojournalist and Fine Arts undergraduate, Mulligan also created several illustrations for the film to visually describe the words as they’re spoken. Through her animated illustrations, pencils transform into prison bars and safety pins into a dog’s head. These also add a feeling of nostalgia to the speakers’ descriptions of the language, clearly near and dear to them. “The illustrations are there to show the duality of gayle – that everyday things aren’t what they seem and can have a different meaning.” 

Visiting gayle was shown at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town – a dream come true for Mulligan, who first visited the Museum as a child and hoped to one day show her work there too. When asked about her own favourite gayle words, her reply is perhaps the perfect illustration of what gayle means to its speakers: 

“I probably use hilda [ugly] and milly [crazy] the most,” she says. 

“Is that milly with a -y or an -ie?” 

“It’s whatever you want it to be,” she laughs.   

(*) gayle words are written in lowercase to avoid formalising the code and to maintain its fluidity.

  • Delia du Toit is a freelance journalist. 
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office.  
  • Read more in the eighth issue, themed: #Code how our researchers are exploring not only the Fourth Industrial Revolution manifestations of code, such as big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, but also our genetic code, cryptic codes in queer conversation, political speak and knitting, and interpreting meaning through words, animation, theatre, and graffiti. We delve into data surveillance, the 21st Century ‘Big Brothers’ and privacy, and we take a gander at how to win the Lottery by leveraging the universal code of mathematics.