Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

(I lied, I’m getting another post in before I leave.)

Today on the bus there was a radio ad playing for some sort of storage company. This ad was an “interaction” between a female narrator and a male narrator, who, for some reason, was speaking mostly in Pig Latin.


For those unfamiliar with it, Pig Latin is an spoken English word game in which one removes the first consonant (or consonant cluster) in a word and places it at the end of the word, followed by the vowel sound /ei/ (as in “hey”, “play” or “may”). So, dog becomes “og-day”, blog becomes “og-blay”, and grammaticalization becomes ‘ammaticalization-gray’.

It’s relatively common, and has entered the popular domain in a number of places. Google (oogle-gay?) is available in pig latin, and the “ixnay on the __” construction is fairly common (meaning “Don’t talk about/do __”). Interestingly, there are similar (but not identical) language games played in other languages. Wikipedia has a list of some of these games which has some very interesting examples.

Anks-tay or anks-thay?

So, on this radio ad, at the very end of the ad, the female narrator said “Thanks”, and the male corrected her to “anks-tay”.

This is interesting because generally, the consonant is kept the same in pig latin, just moved to the back of the word. So, I’d expect it to be “anks-thay”, with a θ (the sound in “thistle”). This got me to thinking, why would this happen?

ut-whay oes-day onology-phay ave-hay u-tay u-day ith-way it-ay

Phonology, as I’ve mentioned before, is the study of sound systems in a language. Every language has a system of rules which dictate which clusters of sounds and sounds are valid, and which aren’t. For this reason, “lomin” sounds like it could be an English word, but “ngostla” doesn’t. If you try and pronounce something and have lots of trouble, chances are, it’s violating a phonotactic rule of your language.

So, what’s wrong with “anksthay”? Well, I tried pronouncing it. Even with my training in pronouncing strange things, it’s a bit troublesome to go from a k to an s to a θ without any vowels to rest. Since each sound is made in a different place in the mouth (the velum in the back for the K, the Alveolar ridge for the S, and with the tongue between the teeth for the θ), you have to do a lot of moving without any rest.

Compare this to “ankstay”. We have no problem with this (it’s very similar to “angst” an accepted English word) because the “st” cluster is pretty easy to make. To make an S, you bring your tongue up to the alveolar ridge (the bony ridge of the roof of your mouth, just behind the teeth) so it’s just far enough away to cause friction in the air. To make a T, you put the tongue in the same place, except you make a complete closure. To make an “st” cluster, your tongue stays in the same place, it just moves upwards to change the S to a T.

For English speakers, “kst” is a much easier cluster to handle than “ksth”. There may be a phonological or phonotactic rule to explain it, but I’m not sure what that rule would be offhand. However, if we just look at the clusters that exist in the language, we can figure out what’s allowed and what isn’t, and suddenly, it all becomes clear.

Languages games like Pig Latin may not be serious in use, but studying how people use language when playing them can reveal a great deal about the phonology and phonotactics of the language in question.

See, even the most serious linguist has a place in their life for fun and games.

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