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Is Pig Latin a Real Language?

What makes something a language?

By
Neal Whitman, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #567

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):

  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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.)

  5. 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.

Next: Is Pig Latin a Language or a Code?

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About the Author

Neal Whitman, Writing for Grammar Girl

Neal Whitman PhD is an independent writer and consultant specializing in language and grammar and a member of the Reynoldsburg, Ohio, school board. You can find him at literalminded.wordpress.com.