What makes something a language?
What Is Pig Latin?
Before we return to the question of whether Pig Latin is a real language, I should explain what it is for the benefit of listeners who might have learned (or might be learning) English as adults and not have encountered Pig Latin as children. Pig Latin is a way of distorting English words for fun, or to prevent someone who doesn’t know Pig Latin from understanding what you’re saying. Here are the basic rules:
If a word begins with a consonant or consonant cluster, remove them from the beginning of the word, and put them at the end of the word, followed by “ay.” For example, to turn the word “grammar” into Pig Latin, we remove the “gr” consonant cluster at the beginning and put it at the end, followed by “ay.” The result: “ammar-gray.” “Girl” is easier, because it starts with just one consonant, “g.” In Pig Latin, it’s “irl-gay.”
If a word begins with a vowel, pronounce the word as you normally would, but put “ay” at the end of the word. For example, the word “is” would become “is-ay.” (Other versions of Pig Latin add the syllable “way” or “hay” instead.)
Is Pig Latin a Real Language?
Now we can talk about whether Pig Latin is a language. At first glance, Pig Latin does meet the main criteria that linguists use in deciding what qualifies as a language. The list varies depending on which linguist you ask, but five criteria that are pretty well agreed-on are the following (1):
Displacement: Pig Latin has the property of displacement, which means that you can use it to talk about things in the future and past (so not just the here and now), and even hypothetical things. In contrast, your pets may communicate to you that they want to be petted, fed or left alone, but they can’t say that yesterday they wanted to be petted more than usual after coming home from the vet, or tell you not to forget to feed them tomorrow morning, like you did last week when you were late for work.
Arbitrariness: As with English words, Pig Latin exhibits arbitrariness, which means that the sounds in a word don’t tell you what the word means. “Ammar-gray” could mean anything at all; that it means what it does is an accident of history.
Productivity: Pig Latin is productive because theoretically, it could be used to convey an infinite number of messages—you can say anything in Pig Latin. By contrast, your cat may be able to communicate its moods or some of its wants to you by the sounds it makes or what it’s doing with its tail, but those dozen or so messages are the limit of what it can communicate.
Discreteness: Moving on to discreteness, I’m not talking about being politely inconspicuous—that’s “discreet” spelled D-I-S-C-R-E-E-T. I’m talking about “discrete” spelled D-I-S-C-R-E-T-E, which means decomposable into individual parts. To illustrate, even though phonetically, the word “ammar-gray” is an unbroken stream of sound, speakers of Pig Latin can easily count the individual language sounds in it: the number of consonants, the number of vowels, the number of syllables. You can’t do that with a dog’s bark, even though different kinds of barking may indicate joy, fear, or the need to do some business outside. (By the way, both spellings of /dI'skrit/ come from the same Latin adjective—real Latin, that is—“discretus,” meaning “separate.” There’s more on these words and other funny homophones in Episode 130, Funny Homophones.)
Cultural transmission: Finally, Pig Latin is culturally transmitted: You don’t automatically know how to speak it by having the right genes. You learn it from your friends at school, from your siblings, by reading about it in a book, or maybe even by hearing about it in a podcast.
Is Pig Latin a Language or a Code?
So if Pig Latin has all these properties, does that make it a language? Well, no. Linguists actually would call it a code. Pig Latin has no syntax, semantics, or even sounds on its own; everything it has it gets from English. In the same way, Morse code or Braille writing are not languages, but codes. Pig Latin could in theory encode any language. You could have Pig Latin versions of Spanish, Navajo, or even actual Latin.
Real Codes Versus Language Games
Of course, this kind of easily breakable code is very different from codes used for serious secret-keeping. Linguists use the more specific name “language games” or “secret languages” to refer to Pig Latin and many other games originating in other languages. These games often add syllables to words, rearrange the syllables, add or delete various sounds, or use a combination of techniques (2). They are of linguistic interest because they can shed light on a language’s phonology and syllable structure. They can also reveal variation in how speakers think about their language. In Pig Latin, for example, I turned the word “grammar” into “ammar-gray” by moving the entire “gr” cluster to the end, but some speakers would take just the “g” and produce “rammar-gay.”
The History of Pig Latin
If you’re wondering how Pig Latin came to be called Pig Latin, The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest attestation is from 1869, and it referred to any fake Latin gibberish. Other names for it included “Hog Latin” and “Dog Latin.” By the late 1800s these terms, along with other animalized Latin names such as “Goose Latin” were being used for language games, and “Pig Latin” had developed its current meaning (3).
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Pig Latin seems to have surged in popularity in popular culture. Around this time, according to the OED, the borrowed German word “nix,” meaning “of nothing,” was Pig-Latinized into “ixnay,” and the word “scram” (meaning to leave quickly) yielded “amscray,” resulting in what to my knowledge are the only words to have been borrowed from Pig Latin to become English words in their own right.*
Literal Minded and Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing
This article was written by Neal Whitman, who blogs at Literal Minded and is on Twitter as @LiteralMinded. The article was edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
The Ohio State University Department of Linguistics. 2004. Language Files. 9th ed. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press. pp. 24-25.
Yule, George. 2000. The Study of Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.19-29.
“Language Game.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_game, accessed Sept. 14, 2010.
Chrisman, Oscar. October, 1897. “The Secret Language of Children.” The North Western Monthly, vol. 8, pp. 187-193. (via Google Books)
*Note: The spelling "nix" was adopted in English, but it came from the German word "nichts."