TikTok Users Revive Secret African American Language

In the 18th Century, African American enslaved people developed a secret language that was used to encode private communication and also teach each other how to read, at a time when they were forbidden from attaining literacy. The language, called Tut, functioned similarly to language games like Pig Latin, though it’s much more complex, as it assigns a new syllable to every letter in the English language.

Although Tut (also referred to as Tutnese) remains a largely underground phenomenon, the language has been seeing a revival on TikTok, with users teaching themselves and documenting their experiences learning how to speak it with each other. A recent report from NBC News shows that while many young African Americans are enthusiastic about Tut’s revival, there are some concerns over how to respect its legacy, given the language’s history as a sort of code for enslaved people to communicate privately in the presence of their oppressors.

According to researcher Gloria McIlwain, who’s written extensively about Tut, the language was developed by enslaved people in order to teach each other how to spell, which effectively means they were able to read as well. Each consonant of the English language is assigned an individual syllable, and the word is pronounced as if spelling out the word individually (for example, according to the Tut alphabet published by McIlwain, “word” would become “waksoruddud” in Tut, with “waks” corresponding to “w,” “o” corresponding to “o,” and so on).

As reported in NBC News, many young African American TikTok users have taken it upon themselves to informally revive the language, as many had not heard of Tut prior to hearing about it through the app. The language has indeed seen a surge of interest among internet users, as Google Trends notes that more people have been searching for “Tut language” and “Tutnese” in the last three weeks or so than ever before in the search engine’s history.

However, some believe Tut’s emergence on social media to be a “double-edged sword,” since it also increases Tut’s visibility among people outside of the African American community. Given the fact that Tut was developed as a way to transmit private, or secret communication among enslaved people, NBC News reports that some people believe that the language should not be so publicly visible, as it takes away some of Tut’s ability to encode private information.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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