Phun with phonetics: pig Latin
Igpay atinlay, so they say. The Oxford English Dictionary gives references to the term pig Latin appearing in various sources since the 19th century. Sometimes used to refer to ‘incorrect’ or ‘bad’ Latin, it also refers to an invented version of a language used as a code. In this latter sense, it is commonly thought of as a children’s game, and some children will devote considerable time and effort to ‘acquiring’ the language. On The Ben Stiller Show, the American actor and comedian performed a mock music album commercial for The Pig Latin Lover, fluently singing portions of love songs converted into pig Latin such as You are so beautiful, Wind beneath my wings, and American Pie.
However, despite its relatively simple rules, fluent pig Latin is surprisingly difficult to decode. Very simply put, the code moves the consonant sounds before the first vowel to the end of the word and follows up these consonants with the vowel sound in FACE (/eɪ/). So, ‘big’ becomes ‘ig-bay’, ‘trip’ becomes ‘ip-tray’, and ‘scrap’ becomes ‘ap-scray’.
With words that start with a vowel, a few different versions exist. Some speakers simply add the FACE (/eɪ/) vowel to the end:
arm arm-ay /ˈɑːmˌeɪ/
ear ear-ay /ˈɪə(r)ˌeɪ/
Others will insert a /h/ sound too:
arm arm-hay /ˈɑːmˌheɪ/
ear ear-hay /ˈɪəˌheɪ/
And others will insert a /w/ or /j/ sound:
arm arm-way /ˈɑːmˌweɪ/
ear ear-yay /ˈɪəˌjeɪ/
In a previous post, I mentioned how researchers looked at Shirley Ellis’ song, The Name Game, and noted how the consonant clusters at the start of Gwen (/ɡw/) and Beula (/bj/) were treated differently – the whole cluster in Gwen was swapped each time but only the first consonant in Beulah. These researchers, Davis and Hammond, found a similar pattern with how such words are treated in pig Latin. Words with a /w/ cluster, such as twice /twʌɪs/ and queen (/kwiːn/), are treated the same as other consonant clusters:
twice ice-tway /ˈʌɪsˌtweɪ/
queen een-quay /ˈiːnˌkweɪ/
In these examples, the whole of the first consonant cluster is moved. But there are two different versions with /j/-cluster words such as feud and music. If it was treated the same as the /w/, we would expect this (spelling adjusted to reflect the pronunciation):
feud ood-fyay /ˈuːdˌfjeɪ/
music usic-myay /ˈuːzɪkˌmjeɪ/
But Davis and Hammond didn’t seem to find this in their research. Instead, in one version, the /j/ is left behind at the beginning:
feud yeud-fay /ˈjuːdˌfeɪ/
music yusic-may /ˈjuːzɪkˌmeɪ/
In the other version, it is dropped entirely:
feud ood-fay /ˈuːdˌfeɪ/
music usic-may /ˈuːzɪkˌmeɪ/
There are many possible factors that feed into why the two ‘glides’ – /j/ and /w/ – seem to be treated differently, including the different evolutions of those sounds in English, the differences in how they are represented in spelling, and the frequency of different sound patterns. If feud is pronounced as ‘ood-fyay’ (/ˈuːdˌfjeɪ/), it would mean using a very unusual pattern for English, with similar patterns found almost exclusively in words clearly borrowed from other languages, such as pied-à-terre, pichiciego,and Osagyefo.
But just to complicate it further, there are some individuals who do seem to treat these /j/ sounds in the way we originally expected (cute as ‘oot-kyay’ /ˈuːtˌkjeɪ/). It’s the glorious thing about pronunciation: even though we all speak English, we’re all subtly different! And the way we play word games can reveal some of these underlying differences in how we store, process, and deploy information about speech sounds. English speakers aren’t the only ones to play with language in this way – a number of languages have similar known equivalents, such as Louchébem – or loucherbem – in French.
Utbay uentflay igplay atinlay eechsplay andway interpretationway emainsray eyondbay ethay eachray ofway ostmay ofway usway, unlessway eway edicateday asway uchmay imetay otay itway omesay ofway ourway ildrenchay.
Gloss: But fluent Pig Latin speech and interpretation remains beyond the reach of most of us, unless we dedicate as much time to it as some of our children.
Ytry omingcay upway ithway ouryay ownway anguagelay amegay!