Pig Latin

Vivian Cook  Words site Word games

One of the ways of playing with language is to code it into a slightly different form, partly for the fun of it, partly to conceal what is being said from people who do not know the rules. Parents for example try to spell out words so that their children do not follow what is being said: It’s A.U.N.T.  K.A.T.E.

A classic form this takes is Pig Latin, which has a history going back several centuries, and is still encountered from time to time. The rules of Pig Latin are quite straightforward, even if they take practice to use fluently:

* if a word starts with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u), add -ay to the end:

ask > askay; elephant > elephantay; ink > inkay; on > onnay; umpire > umpireay

* if a word starts with a consonant (bcdf…), move the first sound to the end of the word and then add -ay:

time >imetay; London > ondonlay; data > ataday; Gordon > ordongay; car > arcay

Here are some titles of Abba songs to practice on:

upersay oopertray
eenbay anday onegay anday oneday itay   
aketay aay ancechay onay emay
ankthay ouyay orfay ethay usicmay
ethay amenay ofay ethay amegay

ammamay amay
ancingday eenquay
Iay avehay aay eamdray 

There are two ‘dialects’ of Pig Latin. Suppose you had to turn cute into Pig Latin, would you say jutecay or utayeacay? If you say jutecay, you are a Dialect A speaker; you treat the opening c of cute as having two spoken consonants /k/ and /j/ ‘kjute’; moving the first one ‘k’ produces jutecay. If you say utayeacay, you are a Dialect B person; you treat the opening c  as’ k’ ‘kute’ and get utayeacay, ignoring the /j/. The same happens with words starting with two consonants like blue ‘bl’ and twist ‘tw’: Dialect A speakers move only the first consonant, getting luebay and wistway. Dialect B speakers move both sounds, getting ueblay and istway.

At one level this is just a letter-game, like I-spy. However it reveals some of the different ways in which people perceive English. If you asked people to count the sounds in cute, Dialect A speakers would say it has four  ‘k’  ‘j’ ‘u’  ‘t’, dialect B speakers three ‘kj’  ‘u’  ‘t’: they are hearing their language in different ways.

For phonologists, this is important because English consonants at the beginning of words like str, strike are different from the usual consonant combinations possible in English (or indeed other languages). For example m and n do not occur in combination with any other consonant than ‘s’ – you can say sneeze but you can’t say bneeze, tneeze or rneeze. The fact that people mentally break sn- up into separate sounds shows that they are treating them as separate sounds rather than as a combination.

One of the problems with reading is being able to work out the sequence of sounds in a word. Breaking up the sounds of a word and then moving the first one to the end requires an ability to isolate the initial sound; children are still only 75% accurate at this by the age of nine. So Pig Latin tests your ability to segment the sounds of words. Pig Latin has indeed been used as a way of assessing reading ability; poor readers are half as good as average readers at doing Pig Latin.

Sources: Barlow, 2001; Gottardo 1997
Formerly at homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c