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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

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.

References

  1. The Ohio State University Department of Linguistics. 2004. Language Files. 9th ed. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press. pp. 24-25.

  2. Yule, George. 2000. The Study of Language. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.19-29.

  3. “Language Game.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_game, accessed Sept. 14, 2010.

  4. 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."

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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.