Ideas

Ideas | Mark Peters

Pig Latin is alive and ellway

Guiseppe Barranco/The Beaumont Enterprise/AP

LATIN IS DEAD. But Pig Latin is still kicking.

“First words of the day from the 8 year-old: ‘Where do people actually speak pig latin?’” writer Heather Havrilesky recently posted on Twitter. Perhaps Havrilesky’s kid was inspired by Pig Latin-speaking Wiglaf from the popular Dragon Slayer books — or just kids at school enjoying the eternally popular, not-too-secret code.

The term “pig Latin” has some secrets of its own. Originally, it had a more literally Latin-centric meaning, referring to Latin-esque gibberish meant to mock the fancy-pants types who still used the language. An 1869 issue of Putnam’s Magazine includes a description of “Hoggibus, piggibus et shotam damnabile grunto” as Pig Latin.

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“Pig Latin” evolved from some close relatives. Early in the 1800s, “hog Latin” is found with a similar meaning as above, and back in the 1600s there are examples of the term “Dog Latin.” The evolution of “dog” to “hog” to “pig” makes sense sonically, if not biologically. Similar terms have included “false Latin” and “dog Greek.” Not until a little before 1900 do we find “Pig Latin” referring to the anguage-lay ame-gay that’s familiar today.

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Most Pig Latin words have had no success in their own right: They’re momentary concoctions meant to fool eavesdroppers or amuse friends. But a few terms caught on. “Amscray,” an alteration of “scram,” has been found in print since the 1930s. “Ixnay” is first recorded in the 1929 film “Broadway Melody.” These words are common enough that you can ixnay a suggestion or tell an intruder to amscray without anyone thinking you’re goofing around.

Children’s book author Kate McMullan has long used Pig Latin in her Dragon Slayers’ Academy series. Lead character Wiglaf frequently speaks Pig Latin with his pig Daisy, and the language game has been a hit with readers. One of the books is even titled “Pig Latin — not Just for Pigs!”

McMullan said that her friends used Pig Latin as children because “it was a secret language, but it wasn’t hard to learn.”

Pig Latin is very helpful for developing readers, she said, giving them “another way to use their brain” to decode language. There’s also a satisfaction in using Pig Latin, much like solving puzzles. “Kids like being in on the joke,” she said.

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Ironically, parents also use Pig Latin as a way of keeping information under wraps. When spelling the word out doesn’t work, Pig Latin is another way to keep, say, a potential trip to the ark-pay or oo-zay covert.

Language games like Pig Latin can be a form of group bonding. Knowing how to play is a mark of membership — or meggembership, to use Eggy Peggy, another language game (legganguage geggame) recently noted on the American Dialect Society listserv by Bill Mullins.

Group solidarity is particularly key to “kizarney,” the lingo of carnies, which involves altering words in several ways, including by adding the infix “-iz” after the initial consonant sound (cizonsonant sizound). That type of infixing has been made famous by hip-hop artists.

The path of the infix is uncertain, but linguist Joshua Viau has found similar examples in 1960s radio broadcasts and early 1970s drug slang.

Another contribution of carnie lingo is the not-quite Pig Latin “kayfabe,” a professional wrestling term thought to have arisen from its carnival roots. “Kayfabe” refers to the strict code of secrecy that used to surround the staged spectacle — for example, good guys and bad guys could never pal around in public — and may be an alteration of “be fake.” The word and practice of kayfabe kept outsiders at a distance.

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Kayfabe, like Latin, was serious business and is now dead. But playful Pig Latin and similar games live on for children and adults with a taste for playful secrecy.

Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.