The Secret Languages of English, a guest post by Kristy Evans

The Secret Languages of English

Many Americans, particularly those of a younger generation and vernacular, have most likely at one time or another learned or at least heard an alteration of the English language that was used for the purpose of secrecy and amusement, the most common being Pig Latin. These “secret” languages, or language games, are not entire languages on their own, but rather manipulations of already-established languages. Therefore, language games could potentially be created from nearly any language around the world and there are many that exist already, from English to Afrikaans to Dutch to Chinese to French, and so on (Language). Traditionally passed down as an oral language, the purpose of a language game stems from the concept of causing the language to become incomprehensible to listeners with an untrained ear. Sarah G. Thomason explains in her article, “Language Contact and Deliberate Change” that a “common motivation for introducing deliberate changes on a large scale is to keep outsiders at a distance – a linguistic distance – either by making a language unintelligible to outsiders who are fluent bilinguals or by preventing outsiders from learning the language in the first place. This phenomenon is familiar to anyone who ever learned a ‘secret language’ like Pig Latin or invented one as a child” (Thomason 51). For this reason, it is common for language games to be used especially amongst the younger generation, in an attempt to conceal their speech from unwanted listeners. However, a language game may also take the form of an argot, which is more often used amongst thieves and other criminals to prevent outsiders from listening in.

There are countless variations of language games in the English language alone. Although they can be classified according to language (Pig Latin – English, Allspråket – Sweden, etc.), another way to classify language games is by function. Each language game has its own system and set of rules; some with more than others. For example, language games that are created by inserting a “code syllable” before the vowel in each syllable can all be categorized into the Gibberish family, such as in the Ubbi Dubbi language. Another category is for language games in which a consonant is added after the vowel in each syllable and then the vowel is repeated, such as in Double Talk (Language). Although there are a set number of language games that are more common and have been around longer than others, (i.e. Pig Latin), they are a never ending and constantly-evolving systematic form of word play that can be formed and used by just about anyone, especially those who enjoy playing with language. In an article titled, “Play and Metalinguistic Awareness: One Dimension of Language Experience,” Courtney B. Cazden discusses how “there appears to be considerable individual variation in linguistic awareness. Some speaker-hearers are not only very conscious of linguistic patterns, but exploit their consciousness with obvious pleasure in verbal play, e.g., punning and versifying, solving crossword puzzles, and talking Pig Latin” (Cazden 30).

As stated before, the most well-known and easily identifiable language game is that of Pig Latin, in which the first consonant or consonant cluster is moved to the end of the word and an ay is added to it (thus the word ‘hello’ becomes ‘ellohay’). Though its precise origins are unknown, it has supposedly been around since the late 1800s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1895, Pig Latin was mentioned in the magazine 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.” Pig Latin was also famously used by Thomas Jefferson in letters to relatives and close friends for the purpose of privacy. However, Pig Latin did not amass its greatest popularity in America until the late 1920s and early 1930s, when words like ‘ixnay’ and ‘amscray’ began to be used as a regular form of slang. Still widely used in popular culture today, such as in movies like The Lion King and Annie and in TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pig Latin is such a prevalent secret language that it can hardly be termed ‘secret’ anymore. Rather, it is now a staple pastime of American youth, with such words as ‘upidstay’ inducted into everyday conversation (Whitman). For many teenagers and young adults, myself included, Pig Latin represents a portion of nostalgic significance and amusement from childhood that stays with us as an adult. Mary Ann Christison explains this phenomenon effectively in her article, “Negotiating Multiple Language Identities,” when she says, “As teenagers, my friends and I were able to acquire almost native-like fluency in both Pig Latin and Double Dutch – two invented languages that require high levels of phonological aware, especially phonemic awareness. We were motivated to acquire advanced levels of expertise in these languages in order to carry on private conversations and keep secrets from our younger brothers, whom we considered to be unfortunate appendages in our social lives” (Christison 75).

Besides Pig Latin, one of the major English language games is Gibberish. Along with Double Talk, Gibberish embodies the broad category of language games in which an allotted syllable is inserted before the vowel in each syllable. Sounding mostly like pure nonsense, Gibberish is a much harder language game to learn than Pig Latin and so is not as widely spoken. Not only are there multiple variations of Gibberish (ithieg, idig, uddag, athab, and adab are just a select few), there are also numerous language games that belong to the Gibberish family, including Ubbi Dubbi (whubich wubould subound lubike thubis), Obish (lobike thobis), Egglish (eggor theggis), and Izzle (izor thizis). Ubbi Dubbi itself created quite a craze when it was popularized in the early 2000s television series Zoom (Kulkarni). Another language game that is lesser-known, but just as stimulating, is Tutnese, more commonly known as Double Dutch. This language game is often used by children and young adults for concealment and amusement as well, but also by “members of historically marginalized minority groups for the same reason when in the presence of authority figures such as police.” One American Speech article online even claims that it was invented by African slaves in America in order to learn how to read in secret, although this cannot be proven. This language is a bit more difficult as each consonant in the alphabet represents its own specific syllable (b – bub, d – dud, etc.). Therefore, the phrase ‘Mary had a little lamb’ becomes ‘Mumarugyub hutchadud a lulituttutlule lulamumbub’ (McIlwan).

Besides the use of language games among certain age groups and social groups, it is also common for them to be used within families. For example, in an article titled, “Spaka, a Private Language,” Randy L. Diehl and Katherine F. Kolodzey explain that “since about 1957, sisters Katherine and Sarah Kolodzey have communicated with each other by means of a unique private language that they call Spaka, which incorporates a surprisingly large set of non-English syntactic and phonological rules” (Diehl 406). In my own personal experience, since before I was born, all of the family members on my mother’s side have spoken what we have affectively termed the Coffee language, in which an off is inserted in front of the vowel sound in each syllable of a word (therefore, ‘hello’ becomes ‘hoffelloffo’). Supposedly having learnt it from her parents, my mother taught all of my siblings and I how to speak “Coffee” when we were little and it has been an extremely effective means of communication in public places without having to edit what we are saying. In fact, we still use it quite often. Where this language game came from we have no idea and probably will never know. Although there are no traces of it anywhere online or otherwise, its usage will most likely continue to the next generation through the future children of me and my siblings.

The continued practice and appeal of these “secret” languages is quite an intriguing feat of our society. In an article titled, “Exuberance, a Motivation for Language,” Allen Walker Read ponders the question, “What motivates people to use language? The standard answer is to say the need for communication. True enough, but that is only part of the picture. Even more fundamental is the zest for living, an exuberance that carries healthy human beings along in life. It manifests itself in language as what can best be called the “play spirit.” This may even have been the prime mover in the development of language itself. The areas in which word play is evident are wide indeed. We think at once of the sportive coining of new words, punning, metaphor, Pig Latin, Mock Latin, Double Talk, intentional mispronunciation, schizoverbia, and the like” (Read 71). Read poses the interesting concept of how society continues to maintain a collective and unadulterated fascination with language varieties such as secret languages. Sometimes the purpose of using such language games as these is not only for effective communication or secret missions, but rather just for the simple act of enjoyment.

Works Cited

Cazden, Courtney B. “Play and metalinguistic awareness: One dimension of language experience.” The Urban Review 7.1 (1974): 28-39. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Kulkarni, Arjun. “How to Speak Gibberish.” Buzzle. N.p., 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

“Language Game.” Princeton. N.p., 2010. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

McIlwain, Gloria. “Tut Language.” American Speech (2011). Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

Nunan, David, and Julie Choi, eds. “Negotiating Multiple Language Identities.” Language and Culture: Reflective Narratives and the Emergence of Identity. New York: Routledge, 2010. 74-82. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Read, Allen W. “Exuberance, A Motivation for Language.” Word Ways 21.2 (2012): 71-74. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Thomason, Sarah G. “Language Contact and Deliberate Change.” Journal of Language Contact 22 (2007): 41-62. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Whitman, Neal. “Is Pig Latin a Real Language?.” Grammar Girl. N.p., 14 Oct. 2010. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

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Kristy Evans is a junior studying English at Southern Oregon University in the hopes of becoming a writer or editor.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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