Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Pig Latin

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.

8 Responses to “Pig Latin”

  1. The Ridger said

    “oing-gay to-ay”? Surely “oing-gay o-tay”?

  2. You do overestimate the global pervasiveness of Pig Latin, by taking it for granted that native English speakers all over the world will have encountered it in childhood. The general family of language games is certainly global, but around here the example of choice was Arpa-Arpa Language, in which all vowels are preceded by “arp”. As in Larpitarperapel Marpindarped. I’d never heard of Pig Latin before it came up in Internet discussion forums.

  3. Neal said

    I hadn’t heard of that one, but then, I haven’t heard of most of the language games out there. You ought to put that in the Wikipedia article, if not as its own language game, then a variety of the “ubba-dubba”/”obba dobba” one they list.

    • It is mentioned (but not described) on the Ubbi-Dubbi page, under the name Arpy-Darpy, and there’s evidence that in some previous revisions it was described in more detail.

      There are a few reasons why I don’t really feel comfortable adding to these Wikipedia pages. One is that they are so badly written as they are, another is that this is exactly the sort of topic that leads to endless boring debate over what is and is not notable, and yet another is that on some level I resent the existence of widely-known variants.

      A little research shows that under the name Arpy-Darpy, the variant I mentioned is connected with Australia and New Zealand; see e.g.

      This geographical fact is probably worth adding to Wikipedia, but personally I don’t want to do it without rewriting most of the relevant articles from scratch.

  4. h.s. gudnason said

    This is relevant, but you have to watch it to the end.

  5. […] Pig Latin « Literal-Minded […]

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