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At-whay Is-way Ig-pay Atin-lay?(What Is Pig Latin)?

O-day ou-yay eak-spay ig-pay Atin-lay? id-work/Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

Most American kids have encountered pig Latin at some point. It's been around for more than a century, which means the great-great-great-grandparents of today's elementary schoolers almost certainly used pig Latin. And their great-great-grandparents probably danced the Charleston to a song sung in pig Latin.

And yet you can't use pig Latin to fulfill your foreign language credits requirement in school. Maybe because, as we'll see, it's not really foreign or a language. Let's ook-lay at-way ig-pay atin-Lay.

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How to Speak Pig Latin

Let's start with a language lesson, probably one of the easiest you'll ever encounter. No app necessary! No translation needed!

Take a word, like "cat." Put the end of the word at the beginning, move the first letter to the end, and add the syllable "ay," which rhymes with "way." So now you have "at-cay." The at-cay says eow-may.

If you have a word with more than one syllable, like "curtain," you have a couple of options, depending on how you learn it. Most people go with the easiest solution, which is to treat it just like a word with one syllable: "urtain-cay." But others prefer to make it more complex, and more of a coded language, by pig-Latin-izing each syllable: ur-cay ain-tay.

Here's where it does get tricky (as tricky as pig Latin gets anyway). If you have a single letter word, like "I" or "a," some people choose to add yay, while others add way to the end of the word. So you get "I-yay" or "I-way" and "a-yay" or "a-way." Either is technically pig Latin, it just depends on which way you say it.

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How Old Is Pig Latin?

Before there was pig Latin, there was dog Latin and even hog Latin, which is probably how we got to pig Latin. But dog Latin and hog Latin, aren't anything like pig Latin, other than their names being similar. Those first two refer to a kind of fake, made-up Latin.

In "Love's Labor Lost," none other than Shakespeare indulges in a bit of dog Latin:

Costard: Go to; thou hast it ad dunghill, at the fingers' ends, as they say.
Holofernes: O, I smell false Latine; dunghill for unguem.

After Costard says "ad dunghill," Holofernes explains that Costard is using false Latin. Costard has used "ad dunghill" because it sounds enough like "ad unguem," a Latin phrase for something being done to an exact measure or standard. "Unguem" means "fingernail," and the phrase comes from checking the smoothness of marble. The joke is much funnier when you explain it at length.

Then in an 1844 issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review, a monthly political journal published in the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe mentioned both dog Latin and pig Greek, and not in a kind way. But also not referring to the pig Latin we know.

Pig Latin was likely invented in the late 1800s by kids who wanted to talk without adults understanding them. But as we've seen, it's not exactly the Enigma code. The Oxford English Dictionary has the earliest written use of the phrase pig Latin in 1896, when a J. Willard wrote in "The Atlantic":

They all spoke a queer jargon which they themselves had invented. It was something like the well-known 'pig Latin' that all sorts of children like to play with.

By the early 20th century, everybody who was anybody knew about pig Latin. Enough people that Arthur Fields could release the record "Pig Latin Love" in 1919. The recording is hardly hi-fi, but it does have a clear example of pig Latin. Then, in case you're still hopelessly uncool, he provides a translation in the second chorus.

In the 1930s, the Three Stooges used pig Latin in their short films. Moe and Larry even provided a primer for Curly in 1938's "Tassles in the Air." Curly doesn't learn very quickly, but "ixnay" and "amscray" became part of people's vocabulary thanks to the trio's work in expanding the language.

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But Is It a Language?

People use pig Latin to communicate, so sure. By the broadest definition, it is indeed a language. It's not anyone's native language, though, and it doesn't have its own grammar or syntax. It depends entirely on English for, well, everything.

It's an example of "back slang." A 2015 paper published in the journal Signs and Society notes that these are "simple rules...that can be applied to every word in the language." That's why you don't need to take a pig Latin class to learn new vocabulary or how to decline its verbs; it's just English with a twist.

It's also a code language, since it moves letters and sounds around to disguise the words. It's similar in that way to systems like Morse code, where letters are replaced with dots and dashes to encode the alphabet and send across wires. Pig Latin is not an invented language, like Klingon or Esperanto. These languages have a separate vocabulary, grammar and syntax that does not directly rely on English or any other language.

Admittedly, pig Latin is not a great code. But it's enough to keep, say, a dog from knowing what you're saying. If your dog gets wound up every time you mention taking a walk, try saying "Id-day ou-yay alk-way e-thay og-day?" rather than "Did you walk the dog?"

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Pig Latin Around the World

Other languages do this same kind of encoded wordplay, though it doesn't usually work exactly the same way English and pig Latin do.

French, for instance, has "verlan," which switches the first and last syllables of a word. The name itself is an example of the way it works: "l'envers" means "backward." In the Spanish word game "jirgonza," you double the vowels and put a "p" between them. So the word for "cat," "gato," becomes "gapatopo," which sounds like a great name for a cat, actually. Japan has "babigo," which inserts b-syllables after the usual syllables in a word. So something as simple as "sushi" becomes "subushibi."

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