The ubiquitous ludling (Argots, Part 2A)
It is well known that there are language games, also called secret languages or word games, and while I had some idea that other cultures had them, it turns out that they appear basically everywhere and there is also a more scientific name for them: ludlings. It’s a portmanteau of the Latin words ludus “game” and lingua “language”.
The best known of these to an English-speaking audience is Pig Latin. This ludling most often appears today as a comedically penetrable code: people either say things in it with a surety they will be understood, or think they are being covert when they’re not. It was featured in the very well known musical Gold Diggers of 1933, wherein Ginger Rogers sang an entire verse of “We’re in the Money” in Pig Latin. In a 1934 Three Stooges short, Larry speaks it to a woman in an effort to impress her, but she already knows it, and in another in 1938, Moe and Larry attempt to teach it to Curly.¹
Today it has come to be generally used ironically in phrases like “ixnay on the [x]” (nix), or simply amscray (scram). Nix itself is a borrowing of Yiddish nichts, “nothing” with its meaning extended in an argotic way to become a verb meaning “cancel” or “reject”. 86, which carries the same meaning, is suggested by the OED as rhyming slang for nix, extending this ludus.
Still, when a French reader ran across the following passage in a Kotaku article,² they were flummoxed:
Next time, exne on the wiisucksne when you’re talking with the video games press.
One element of the “unintelligibility” of this phrase comes from the reference to the Nintendo Wii video game console and another from the fact that it’s improperly formed; the article’s comments section included corrections to “ixnay on the iiway uckssay”. Add to that even a slight deficit in English comprehension and click! — the code works again, even though its use in a magazine article reflects its accepted comprehensibility among English speakers. If you watch the Pig Latin performance of “We’re In the Money”, which is available on YouTube, it’s quite strange and even unsettling.
The other shoe that I’d have wanted to drop in a dramatic reveal, but have unfortunately already announced in this article’s subtitle is that ludlings are also argots. Serbian Šatrovački (шатровачки), though it is often compared to Pig Latin, is generally classified as an argot rather than a ludling. The essential difference is apparently a von Braunian one of attitude—if it’s used by marginal groups, it becomes sinister. Take Cockney rhyming slang; what’s more of a language game than that? But it seems clear the language was devised in order to communicate without either the gendarmes or “customers” (i.e., those being fleeced) understanding what was being said.
Returning to Pig Latin, why is it called “Latin” when it clearly has nothing to do with that language? It is common to name ludlings by analogy to foreign languages: Double Dutch (English), Javanaise (French), Macaronic Latin (Romance languages), Mattenenglisch and Matteänglisch (German; two different ones, despite the similarity in names), Yuantang dialect (苑塘话, Hakka 客家話).
And what about the “pig” part? Again, many ludlings have names recalling animals and other nonhumans. Birds are often invoked, but some stranger ones include Korean Gwisin Mal or Dokkaebi Mal (귀신말: “ghost language”, 도깨비말: “ogre language”), and Somali Af Jinni (“djinni language”). Some even run to inanimate objects like Russian Kirpichny yazyk (Кирпичный язык: “brick language”), Latvian Pupiņvaloda (“bean language”), German Löffelsprache (“spoon language”), and Swedish Fikonspraket (“fig language”). Many of those remaining refer to the type of gibberish they deal in, but only Romanian Greaca Vacească (“cow Greek”) matches the neologizing in Pig Latin precisely.
Latin, perhaps due to its role as a language of learning, seems to have been singled out for mockery. Macaronic Latin, which I mentioned above, is based on a somewhat nonsensical application of Latin endings onto vernacular words and actual Latin words mixed in. The name of the language also refers to a rustic dumpling — the term was to eventually evolve into macaroni.
The German version is Küchenlatein, while French has Latin de cuisine—both “kitchen Latin”—which, while it seems a classist put down of the help, actually stems from the fact that monks dining together and often lacking a shared vernacular would inventively update the liturgical vocabulary they did share in order to communicate concepts more down-to-earth or modern.
In any case, a few precious words of this gibberish found their way into English dictionaries:
- babblative: prattling
- balductum: balderdash
- circumbendibus: roundabout process
All of these puckishly prod the perceived pomposity of Latin, each via a slightly different stratagem. There are a few more terms that I’ve run across in disused lexica of vernacular English that clearly share this origin:
- inebrious: drunken
- excrementitious and stercorarious: covered in feces
- sinistruous and theftuous: hidden, secret
If this reminds you of the ersatz taxonomic binomial names that appear in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, that’s no accident—it’s exactly this kind of nonsense, though at a less advanced level. And in English there is a tradition of such code-switching shenanigans going back at least to Shakespeare that post-Bard came to be known as Dog Latin or Cod Latin. The dog element here, rather than referring to the sound of the speech is more to the idea of a mongrelized language and the cod doesn’t refer to the fish or the body part but the meaning of “joke”—ludus again.
As I noted previously in this series, there has always been literary interest in argots, and indeed, there is a certain virtuosity at work, as assistant professor of English and Art, Elyse Graham, notes in the OxfordWords blog:³
[I]n dog Latin […], an appreciation of the misuse of the rules requires an understanding of the rules; it requires a subject position past that of a novice who can only follow rules and toward that of an expert who knows when to violate the rules.
On the borderlands between ludling and argot, Meredith Doran, assistant professor of French and Applied Linguistics at Penn State, performed a yearlong study on the use of Verlan, formed by swapping syllables, among teens in minority communities on the outskirts of Paris (la banlieue). She finds of their use of the ludling as their preferred idiom:⁴
[B]anlieue youth language may represent a valuable alternative to mainstream French precisely as a tool for forging, negotiating, and expressing identities which stand outside the binary categories of mainstream discourse, allowing youths to define and express themselves through a linguistic bricolage that mirrors their sense of identity as mixed, evolving, and drawing from multiple cultural and linguistic sources.
It’s important to note that Verlan can be dated at least to a 12th-century version of The Madness of Tristan (Folies Tristan), wherein the titular hero gives his name as “Tantris” to conceal his identity. It seems to have also been used during the German occupation. Although not nearly as old, probably dating from at least the turn of the last century, Pig Latin also seems to have had its own renaissance based on the evidence in popular culture. I’d guess because of the need for a cryptolect during the Prohibition, and probably continuing through the Great Depression.
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- Three Little Pigskins and Tassels in the Air, respectively.
- “Capcom (Try To) Back Away From Anti-Wii Comments”, Luke Plunkett, 2010.
- “Dog Latin: a comedy of errors”, 2017.
- “Alternative French, Alternative Identities: Situating Language in la Banlieue”, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 2007.