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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 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.”

Next: The History of Pig Latin

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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.