There are, hidden in plain sight, a hundred different languages supporting our towns and cities. I’m not talking about English or Urdu or Mandarin, I’m talking about the secret codes of tradesmen and subcultures, the scrawls and the scuffs and the mystery strings of letters and numbers you see on walls and pavements. They’re everywhere.
And yet I only realised quite how important they are until I listened to the latest edition of 99% Invisible, a podcast you really should be listening to. This episode, about the interactions between city planners and skateboarders, revealed that, like a movie big game hunter, you could find a city’s ‘boarders by looking out for streaks of wax on steps.
And that means you do just learn when kids go to skateboard, you learn about a town’s history and cultures, because there’s a reason skateboarders use these spaces, and that plays in to planning and architecture and questions over who ‘owns’ a space. Study these languages and you can learn how a city works, how initiates keep things running; spray-paint on a pavement tells those in the know where the power lines are; to those who don’t know, that paint may as well be an Enigma code, and yet it’s a language essential to the running of a city. Heck, according to this article, so are the skateboarders.
There’s an example of this near to where I work. On the wall of a bridge overlooking a railway track is this sign:
What does that even mean? I have no idea, but someone does, and while Dudley Station no longer exists, a victim of Dr. Beeching’s railpocalypse of the sixties, those letters and numbers represent something of my local history. I tried googling them, of course, but there was no definitive answer; these languages remain obscure and arcane, even to the Internet. Some cultures have languages used only by women; we have languages used by no-one other than rail workers and train enthusiasts.
I’m not completely ignorant of these hidden worlds; I know hidden Tupperware containing a logbook is probably a geocache; I know a QR code stuck to the back of a road sign is waiting for the local Munzee players. But I recently walked past felt-tipped letters on a tree and I’m not sure if that’s forestry or graffiti. And if it is the latter then it’s just part of a whole vocabulary of tags I don’t know how to interpret, yet another hidden lexicon that makes the world bigger and more expansive than I imagined.
It makes me want to learn a language.