Aesopian Language

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Aesopian Language


(from the name of the ancient Greek fabulist Aesop), a special type of cryptographic or allegorical writing used in literature, criticism, and journalism in order to circumvent censorship when such literary activity is denied freedom of expression.

An example of Aesopian language was the technique worked out in the Russian press between the late 18th and the early 20th century—that is, the system of “deceptive means,” or of encoding (and decoding) freely conceived ideas—as a reaction against the ban that forbade mention of certain ideas, subjects, events, and persons. Specific examples of such techniques were the use of images derived from fables and of allegorical “fairy-tale descriptions,” particularly in the work of M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, who in fact popularized the term “Aesopian language”; semi-transparent circumlocutions and pseudonyms, such as those used by A. V. Amfiteatrov in The Obmanovs (Deceivers), his feuilleton about the tsar’s family (the Romanovs); more or less covert allusions; and irony—which, when “clothed in tactfulness,” was invulnerable to censorship. “Foreign” subject matter was used to disguise condemnations of actual conditions in Russia, and common phrases became gibes, as in the case of the expression “At your service, Sir,” which was a reference to A. S. Suvorin’s newspaper Novoe vremia. Readers knew that “the big job” stood for “revolution,” that “the realist” was K. Marx, and that “those missing from the anthologies” meant V. G. Belinskii or N. G. Chernyshevskii. When so used, Aesopian language was accessible to the general reader and served as a tool not only of political struggle but also of realistic literary craftsmanship. In France, H. Rochefort was master of the Aesopian language.

In time, the typical techniques used in Aesopian language became part of the satiric style, and today’s writers resort to such techniques independently of censorship pressures. Whether used separately or combined with other means of creative linguistic expression, these techniques have become attributes of specific writers’ styles, as exemplified by A. France’s Penguin Island, the works of M. A. Bulgakov, K. Čapek’s The War With the Newts, and various literary genres of science fiction and humor.


Chukovskii, K. Masterstvo Nekrasova, 4th ed. Moscow, 1962.
Bushmin, A. S. Satira Saltykova-Shchedrina. Moscow-Leningrad, 1959. Chapter 6.
Efimov, A. I. lazyk satiry Saltykova-Shchedrina. Moscow, 1953. Chapter 8.
Paklina, L. Ia. Iskusstvo inoskazatel’noi rechi: Ezopovskoe slovo v khudozhestvennoi literature i publitsistike. Saratov, 1971.


References in periodicals archive ?
The recommendations of the Venice Commission are only recommendations (not obligatory) and are usually articulated in the Aesopian language (in a roundabout way) especially when the matter is specific to the country and it is therefore left to local lawmaker to hammer out solutions fir for that particular society," Professor Biljana Vankovska said in a Facebook post.
In the idiom of Losev's description of Aesopian language through theories of information, these poems could be considered noise--or, alternatively, as the thread of potentially parallel or opposing interpretations of the collection, proof of Lu Xun's endless capability to simultaneously hold two or more ideas, and engage in two or more actions at once.
Lioudmila Savinitch, who analysed the use of Aesopian language in the Russian press of the 19th century defines the Aesopian language as
It is interesting to note that Stone uses Aesopian language and parody to amplify his point.
To circumvent censorship, Eastern European theatre artists had mastered to perfection an Aesopian language in which they could say almost anything, and which made the stage all the more important and urgent, compared to other media.
The enduring scale of faint differences amid policy, on occasion highlighted in prior studies such as Lev Losev's On the Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russian Literature, Arbeiten und Texte zur Slawistik, 31 (Munich: Saguer, 1984), underscores the need for instructive texts such as National Identity but, paradoxically, emphasizes the fact that subtlety is also something understated, not quite said.
Second, they represented a translation from Aesopian language and euphemism to conversational German, on behalf of the slow-witted, the saboteurs, and so on.
Such application appears limitless: an official Russian translation of The Lord of the Rings in 1991, available underground for many years, saw the text function as a kind of Aesopian Language, (44) substantiating the ability of escapism to be subversive, socially sanctioned, and yet deconstructing the dominant discourse as it purports to reinforce it.
A remarkable array of defense mechanisms, including the hiring of "dummy" publishers by newspapers to serve jail terms in place of actual publishers and the adoption of Aesopian language, were employed to throw overworked, harried censors off track.
Given the extent to which Yiddish writers in the USSR, like their Russian-language counterparts, had been increasingly compelled to deploy Aesopian language in their work in order to escape, as far as they could, the prohibitions of the Soviet censors, it is quite possible to read Bergelson's testimony here both as an encoded equation of Bolshevik with Roman hegemony and repression, and as an encoded assertion of pride in being Jewish, a pride that, at one moment in the trial, manifested itself explicitly in Bergelson's response to the overt Jew-hatred that increasingly emerged during the hearing.
The Jewish audience of 1883 understood that Rome was Rome in the play, but they could read the Aesopian language that the contemporary antisemitic tsarist regime [the self-styled Third Rome] was coeval to the Roman state rule.
In the view of the organizing committee, "The Aesopian language of antisocialist writing, so long fostered by sanctioned as well as banned writers, has become as dead as the square-wheeled bicycle.