Most native English speakers are familiar with “Pig Latin”, a silly word game played by children (and occasionally adults).
It's probably the best known example of a language game in English, sometimes called a “ludling” or “argot”.
So, how does it work?
How to Play Pig Latin
In case you grew up under an ock-ray, here's how Pig Latin works:
- If a word starts with a consonant (or group of consonants), you move it to the end and add -ay. So e.g. “three” becomes “ee-thray”.
- If a word starts with a vowel, you simply add -ay. So “and” becomes “and-ay”.
So the name of the game itself becomes ig-pay atin-lay, and the name of this website is uent-flay in-ay ee-thray onths-may.
We don't know who invented Pig Latin, but there are historical references to it dating back to the 19th century!
Unsurprisingly, similar word games exist in many other languages. Sometimes people use them because they don't want to be understood, although it doesn't always work, as seen in an episode of The Simpsons:
Bart: Why don't you let us watch T.V. and get her a Roofie CD?
Lisa: (in pig latin) Don't tell mum Roofie has CD's!
Bart: (in pig latin) Why not? What could go wrong?
Lisa: (in pig latin) She'll buy them, stupid!
Marge: (in pig latin) You know, I was young once too!
Other times, people use these games just because they're silly. Here are some examples of silly, Pig Latin style word games in a few different languages:
1. Spanish Word Game: Jeringonza (“Gibberish”)
The name of this game translates roughly as “jargon” or “gibberish”. Sometimes known as jeringozo, jerigonza, or jerigoncio, it's played by children all across the Spanish-speaking world.
In jeringonza, you double every vowel sound and add a “p” in a the middle. For example, if a syllable contains an a, you'd replace it with “apa”.
The word español becomes “epes-papa-ñopol”, and the name of the game itself becomes “jepe-riping-opon-zapa”.
There are several different versions of jeringonza, depending on where you live in the Spanish speaking world. In some places, it might be more common to use “chi” or “f” instead of “p”. It's also found in very similar forms in other languages, as we'll see.
2. Portuguese Word Game: Lingua do Pê (“P-Language”)
Lingua do Pê means “P-Language”, and it's essentially the same as jeringonza. It just has a different name in Portuguese. (Although in some Spanish-speaking areas you might hear jeringonza being called idioma de la Pe).
Brasil in Lingua do Pê would be “Brapa-sipil.” Lingua becomes “lipi-guapua”.
3. Italian Word Game: Alfabeto Farfallino (“Little Butterfly Alphabet”)
Italian children play a game that's very similar to jeringonza or lingua do pê. Instead of inserting a “p” between vowels, they use “f”. This results in words like “cafa-safa” (casa, house) and “stefe-llafa” (stella, star).
Italians call this game alfabeto farfallino – “little butterfly alphabet”. This is because all those extra “f”s create words that sound like farfalla, meaning “butterfly”.
4. German Word Game: Löffelsprache (“Spoon Language”)
Löffelsprache means “spoon language”. Like jeringonza or alfabeto farfallino, you duplicate the vowel in each syllable. This time, instead of adding a “p” in the middle, you add “lew,” “lef” or “lev”.
Take JFK's famous pronouncement “ich bin ein Berliner!”. Despite the persistent myth that America’s 35th president told a Berlin crowd “I am a doughnut”, this phrase simply means “I am a Berliner (i.e. a citizen of Berlin)”.
But what if JFK had been speaking Löffelsprache? Then it would have been “ilewich bilewin eilewein Belewerlilewinelewer!”. Like a tasty Berliner doughnut, that's somewhat of a mouthful.
As you can see, Löffelsprache results in some very long words – and this is in a language that's already famous for having long words.
Imagine driving down an Autobahn (Aulewautolewobahlewahn?) and seeing a sign that says Geleweschwilewindilewigkeileweitsbelewegrelewenzulewung. That's Löffelsprache for “Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung”, which means “speed limit”. So much for German efficiency…
5. French Word Game: Verlan (“Back-to-Front”)
Many, many slang words in French come from verlan. This is a phenomenon where people create new words by saying existing words backwards, or swapping their syllables. So français becomes céfran and merci becomes cimer.
The name verlan comes from of l'invers – “the inverse” or “back-to-front”. Swap the syllables of l'invers and you get ver-lan. So the word verlan is itself verlan!
Generally, converting a word to verlan doesn’t change its meaning; it’s just a humourous way of saying the same thing. Sometimes, however, a piece of verlan becomes so common that it takes on a life of its own.
One of the best examples of this is meuf, an inversion of femme (woman or wife). Meuf is so well-established in French that its meaning has shifted slightly. If a French man says ma meuf, this would be understood as “my girlfriend”, whereas ma femme would mean his wife.
In fact, meuf is so commonplace that you'll even hear French people “verlanising” the word a second time to create feumeu. This “double-verlanisation” process is sometimes called verlan au carré – verlan squared. Another example of this is rebeu, which comes from beur, which comes from arabe – “Arab”.
6. Nordic Word Game: Rövarspråket (“Robber Language”)
“Rövarspråket” is Swedish for “robber language”. To speak it, you double every consonant and add an “o” in the middle.)
Hur är läget is Swedish for “how's it going?”. In rövarspråket it becomes hohuror äror lolägogetot? What a mouthful. The name of the language itself would be röpövaparspråpåkepet.
Rövarspråket was made famous in Sweden by the children's author Astrid Lindgren, best known to English-speaking audiences as the creator of Pippi Longstocking. In Lindgren's hugely successful series of books about boy detective Kalle Blomkvist (“Bill Bergson” in English translations), the children use rövarspråket as a code when solving crimes.
The same game exists in Norwegian, where it's called røverspråk, and Icelandic, where it's known as goggamál.
7. British Word Game: Cockney Rhyming Slang
In the 19th century, the word “Cockney” referred to somebody from the East End of London, particularly a member of the working classes. Historically there was a very distinctive “Cockney accent”, although it's less prominent these days.
Perhaps the most famous on-screen depiction of a Cockney accent is Dick Van Dyke's character in Mary Poppins. This is a shame, because Van Dyke's accent in that movie is atrocious. He sounds nothing like a real Londoner.
Cockney English is internationally famous for its “rhyming slang”. The basic idea is that you replace a word with a two-word rhyme, and drop the second word. So “stairs” becomes “apples and pears”, which gets simplified to “apples”. Someone might then say “up the apples” to mean “up the stairs.”
If I had a pound for every time an American has asked me about “Cockney rhyming slang”, I'd have a lot of bees. (“Bees” = “bees and honey” = “money”… geddit?). Except almost no-one in the U.K. would understand me if I used “bees” like this. Cockney rhyming slang isn't nearly as prominent in British English as Americans seem to think it is.
Still, some rhyming slang terms are more well-known than others. If you're not sure of something, you could say that you “haven't got a Scooby”, i.e. you haven't got a “Scooby Doo” – a clue.
You might also call someone a “berk”, which is slang for “idiot”. While “berk” itself isn't particularly offensive, it was originally rhyming slang for “Berkeley Hunt”, which comes from… well, use your imagination.
Do you know any other language games? Does your native language have a well-known game like Pig Latin? Let us know in the comments.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.