Posted by Neal on October 15, 2010
Today’s episode of the Grammar Girl podcast is another one of my guest scripts. It’s on Pig Latin and whether it can be considered a real language, and I talk about whether it meets some of the main criteria linguists use in classifying something as a language. When Mignon first proposed the idea, though, I came back with a bit harder-core linguistic stuff. As I wrote in an email at the time, she could start with Pig Latin and then generalize to…
…language games and what they can tell us about a language. For example, there are different varieties of Pig Latin when it comes to consonant clusters. In one version, split would be itsplay; in another, plitsay. Suppose you speak the plitsay variety, where you remove just the initial consonant sound. Now take the word chip. The CH sound, in fact, is a cluster, too. Not because it’s written with two letters, but because, if you listen carefully, you can hear that it’s composed of a T sound, followed by a SH sound. So if you speak the plitsay variety of Pig Latin, would chip become shiptay? No! You’d probably still say ipchay. That tells us that English speakers perceive CH as one sound.
Even clusters that aren’t perceived as single sounds might be sticky enough for plitsay speakers to move them both to the end of the word. For example, does quit become itquay or witkay? Does cute become ootkyay or yootkay? Returning to what I wrote back then:
It can also be a good diagnostic of what speakers consider to be word units. For example, if someone turns gonna into oing-gay o-tay, they still consider gonna two words. But I’d bet most speakers would produce onnagay. The same goes for compound words: ighthouselay or ightlay ouse-hay?”Umblebeebay or umblebay eebay?
Language games in other languages can offer similar insights. I could look into other examples, starting at the Wikipedia article on language games.
We think of ourselves as speaking the same language, but even people of the same age, same background, etc., might actually be speaking different versions of English from each other and never know it … until something like a language game comes along and shines a light on differences that are otherwise invisible.