Monday, July 31, 2006

Language Games

Click on the picture to see it larger. (Click here to visit the excellent site that is the source of the cartoon:
I found out about this site through Purdue's very worthwile

Some of us were lucky enough to learn at some point that Pig Latin could be our secret language. We learned the rule and for a while felt like we had found a cloak of invisibility - or more appropriately, a Maxwell Smartian cone of silence. This cipher enabled us to share our most incriminating thoughts with that one friend. You popular people might have known 2 or even 3 friends who were in on the cabal.

Let me explain it for the masses who never got in on this most select of the very secret societies. It's very complex. Take the first sound of the word and put it at the end of the word then add the "ay" sound.

Did you catch that? Let me give some free examples. The word 'too' becomes oo-tay. The word 'much' becomes uch-may. Now you can read the cartoon and see what that crazy talk is all about.

Please don't abuse this new power.

But before we mastered this language we had to establish a few rules that weren't initially explained. What do you do if the beginning of the word has two letters? Take for instance 'FLake.' In my circle we took both letters and put them at the end. "Ake-flay." And what about three letters? "STRike." Same idea - preserve the onset. "Ike-stray." And what about words that had no consonant in the onset position? Just add the "ay" to the end. "Aim" became "aim-ay." "Idea" - "idea-ay." I've often wondered if there were many variations to these rules - and if they might be regional.

One friend told me about his "ong" language. Take every consonant and add "ong." Spell out the vowels. So the word "car" would be "Cong-ay-Rong." And the word "BoaT" would be "Bong-oh-ay-Tong." "In" -> "eye-Nong." This language took too long to speak. Such a slow language also affords the enemy too much time to add up the code. No matter how quickly you're speaking it's only as fast as spelling every word. A good crypto-langue is difficult for a non-speaker even once they receive the code. Speak it fast enough and they start falling behind.

My friends Keith and Andrea taught me what they called Horse Latin. Like Pig Latin it works with complete onsets and an added syllable (-ibe). It does not however switch anything around. Instead it confuses by adding the syllable after the onset consonant (or cluster) of EACH syllable. So "car" becomes "kibe-ar." "Buggy" becomes "bibe-uh-gibe-ee." If there is no word-initial onset the -ibe is simply tacked on before the first syllable - so "eye" becomes "ibe-eye."

(It doesn't get any more interesting here unless you like reading recipes. Just move to the end of the essay if I've started sounding like Ben Stein -- "[T]he Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the... Anyone? Anyone? . . . the Great Depression, passed the . . . Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which . . . anyone? Raised or lowered? . . . raised tariffs." . . . "Bueller . . . Bueller . . . ?")

These games don't require too much of a theoretical background in language theory to explain. And from the little description we've given we could predict just about any word. Some language games help to illustrate how much the brain is capable of formulating and producing without explicated knowledge of a language's underlying structure. The Kall speech disguise is simple enough to observe on the surface. Most easily put - the first syllable (onset and vowel) of the word moves to the back. "Buggy" would become "geebuh." "ballyhoo" would become "leehoobaa." One extra detail - when there is no 2nd syllable a schwa is inserted. So "car" becomes "reh-ca."

Here's where it gets tricky. The speakers will also pay attention to the length of a sound. Actual timing length. So if the word is "bananaaaa" normally, the disguise will be "nanabaaaa." In both words the last sound is lengthened. And even a consonant can be longer (or geminate). So imagine pausing on the final /t/ of "bat." "Batttt" - the disguise would add the schwa and lengthen the last sound. Even though it's no longer a /t/. The disguise would be "teh-baaaa."

Now move to the Bakwiri language game and throw in one more detail like tone, and the sophistication of language games starts to reveal itself. The vowels and consonants can move around - add some here - delete some here - make consonants longer and have a few words that can even begin with ng-, mb-, or nd-, and do this while leaving the tonal contour of the word intact - and remember that it's mostly kids that teach each other these games. This is a good counter to refute the feelgood argument of Koko-the-gorilla's language skills. No animal can approach this facility with speech sounds - or symbols.

So let's forget about all the theories and abstract representations. Any variations on these language games that you learned? Any completely new ones? Instead of going through the rules a decent data set would suffice. Simply give the alternate for each of these:



  1. Was that Jason Bohl's "ong" language? I'm trying to remember.

  2. No actually that was Ryan Eichele's. I remember Jason Bohl's was a weird neutralisation of all the vowels. That was hilarious to hear.

  3. About vowels at the beginning of words in Pig Latin: I was taught that any vowel sound becomes a "w" and is then shifted as usual.

    Thus "atom" becomes "tomway", "over" becomes "verway", and "ass" becomes "sway". Because the pronoun "I" is one letter it reamains intact, but still gets a "way" for consistency's sake.

    And so forth.

  4. Really m*X*rk? Vowel neutralization...

    So there must have been some difficulty distinguishing words like as and is, on and in, or even otter and adder.

    But that last pair brings up an interesting question - does a language game like Pig Latin pay attention to the actual dialectical pronunciation (hearing the T and D in otter and adder as the same sound) or the underlying pronunciation - hearing the T and D as distinct sounds.

    I will guess that language games usually work in the latter manner: working with the original pronunciation - not the surface representation.


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