Language Games*

A lot of the games that we play as kids help us learn important life skills. “I spy”? Color recognition. “Peekaboo”? Object permanence. But what about language games? In English, you’ve got games like pig Latin, which has several versions. Most involve moving syllables or consonants from the front of a word to the end, and then adding “-ay”. It’s such a prevalent phenomena that there’s even a Google search in pig Latin.

And English isn’t alone in having language games like this. In fact, every language I’ve studied, including Nepali and Esperanto, has had some form of similar language game.

Codex Manesse 262v Herr Goeli

“Ekchay Atemay!”
“Roland, please stop being so infantile. This is backgammon and I know perfectly well you’re fluent in Liturgical Latin.”

The weird thing, though, is that it kinda looks like the only people that language games are really useful for is linguists.

Let’s look at syllables. If you’re a normal person, you only think about them when you’re forced to write a haiku for some reason. (Pro tip: In Japanese, it’s not the syllables that you count but the moras.) If you’re a linguist, though, you think about them all the time, and spend time arguing about whether or not they actually exist. One of the best arguments for syllables existing is that people can move them around relatively intuitively without even having a university degree in linguistics when language games require it. (I know, shocking, isn’t it?)

And you can use the existence of language games to argue that there’s a viable speaker community of any given language, a sort of measure of language health, like mayflies in streams; that’s a valuable indicator, since language death is a serious problem. Or you can even use them to argue that a language is alive in the first place.

The main use of language games for language users, however, seems to be the creation of smaller speech communities within larger communities.  But then, as a linguist, you probably already knew that. Keep an ear out for them in everyday life, however, and you might be surprised how often they tend to crop up–like the use of -izz  in early hip hop parlance.

*If you thought I was going to bring up Wittgenstein in a blog post meant for people with little to no background in linguistics you are a very silly person. Oh, alright, here. I hope you’re proud of yourself.