Ou-day ou-yay ow-knay at-whay is-thay ays-say? That might look like alien gobbledygook to the unfamiliar eye. But if you’ve ever played word games with kids or needed to communicate more covertly than usual, you might recognize this argot called Pig Latin.
This coded language is one of many that exist today where systems of writing and speech that are altered or camouflaged (some might say corrupted) versions of real, everyday languages became a sort of secret jargon within an exclusive group. It can be immensely entertaining to confuse others as they try to pick apart the cryptic messages you create.
Though Pig Latin is by no means a direct derivation of actual Latin, there are other “languages” out there that actually do hearken back to that ancient language of the Roman Empire by altering an English root word. And these types of games aren’t English-exclusive either, though not all of them play off of Latin necessarily. Read on to find out about Pig Latin and other coded language games throughout the linguistic world.
What Is Pig Latin?
Don’t let its name confuse you; Pig Latin is unrelated to the tongue spoken by the Romans of antiquity. It’s wacky wordplay, more of a constructed language game than anything else. Linguists typically agree that it’s more appropriate to call something like Pig Latin a code rather than a language, much in the way Morse code and Braille are codes (they can also any language, not just English).
Pig Latin is so ubiquitous because it’s not hard to learn at all. Traditional Pig Latin involves altering English words so that they’re still intelligible to the trained ear but sound like English-adjacent near-nonsense to someone who’s never heard it before. Typically, this means taking the beginning consonant or consonant cluster of the first syllable of an English word (what in linguistics speak is called the “onset” of the syllable), moving it to the end of the word, and adding some sort of vowel sound, most often -ay. That means the word dog becomes ogday or speak becomes eakspay (or peaksay, depending on which variant of Pig Latin you’re used to). If the original word starts with a vowel, some people add -way to the end of just stick with -ay, making a word like igloo into either igloo-way or igloo-ay. You can use this system to translate and decipher entire sentences:
- Can you speak Pig Latin? → An-cay ou-yay eak-spay ig-pay atin-lay?
- Let’s watch that movie tonight. → Et’s-lay atch-way at-thay ovie-may onight-tay.
(As you can see, trying to write down Pig Latin takes a little finessing to preserve the same sounds. It’s often easier just to say it out loud.)
Pig Latin has been around for centuries in some form or another; Thomas Jefferson is rumored to have written letters in the coded language (though it’s more of a rumor than a claim substantiated by hard evidence). It was highly popular in the 1920s and ‘30s, and over the past decades it’s given English words that are now in the public lexicon, like ixnay (“nix”) and amscray (“scram”). And today, there are even Pig Latin-to-English translators you can use.
Plenty have tried to understand or contextualize the etymology of the name “Pig Latin” to little avail. The name is an intentional misnomer; the “Latin” doesn’t have to be Latin at all, and no one’s exactly sure why the “Pig” couldn’t be a “Donkey,” “Goat,” or “Emu” instead. And “Pig Latin” used to refer to some other altered English entirely — what we today would call “Dog Latin.”
How Is Pig Latin Different From Dog Latin?
More closely related to actual Latin of ancient times is Dog Latin, though it’s a bit less recognizable to the average person. It’s also known today as “Cod Latin,” “macaronic Latin,” “mock Latin” or “Canis Latinicus,” but it was called “Pig Latin” or “Hog Latin” centuries ago.
Dog Latin isn’t a code as much as Pig Latin is, but it does involve altering English words so they’re just recognizable. Dog Latin takes English words and treats them as if they were Latin words by conjugating and declining them in the same way you’d do if you were a speaker of the tongue a few millennia ago (or in high school Latin class a few years ago). To do so, for example, you could take off the final sound of a word and add the suffixes -us, -ium or -icus to give you words that resemble actual Latin phrases — words like pencilicus, Instagramus or backpackium. It’s sort of like an “instant Latin” — just add water!
The concept of Dog Latin has existed for centuries (though not always by the same name), which you can see evidenced in the dialogue of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, first performed in 1597:
- Costard: Go to; thou hast it ad dunghill, at the fingers’ ends, as they say.
- Holofernes: O, I smell false Latin; ‘dunghill’ for unguem. (Act V, Scene I)
Though this “false Latin” to which Holofernes refers isn’t created in the same way as today’s Pig Latin — the Shakespearean “false Latin” is actually related to Latin — the ideas behind the alt-Latin variants are virtually the same. Dog Latin is a fun to play around with existing English words so that they’re masked, disguised or changed, either for secrecy or for comedic effect.
Coded Languages In Other Languages
English speakers are by no means alone when it comes to this type of wordplay. People all over the world have used coded language, their own versions of Pig Latin, to deceive, distract and dupe those who aren’t in on the fun.
In Sweden, speakers use what they call Fikonspraket, or “fig language.” In Finland they call one of their most popular language games Kontinkieli, or “container language.”
There’s a similar game in France called loucherbem. Throughout its history, this coded language has been used by prisoners, by Parisian resistance forces during Nazi occupation and by workers in the meat retail industry. (The name loucherbem is itself a loucherbem-ized version of the word boucher, or “butcher.”)
Mattenenglisch was the name for the particular sociolect of the type of German spoken in the working class area of the Swiss city of Bern and by young people who wanted to communicate without the police understanding them. Like English Pig Latin, it involves moving consonants to the end of a word and adding a vocalic sound. The main difference is that it goes a step further and replaces the exposed vowel with the i- sound.
Coded languages have existed for millennia, whether “Latin” or not. Learning them can be worthwhile when it comes to hiding secret messages — and they’re an easy way to have some un-fay!