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June 27, 2018

Classical Pig Latin

Have you ever heard someone say something like "ix-nay on the alking-way"? If so, you've heard some Pig Latin! Pig Latin is an argot or a language game. An argot is a modification of a language made to make it uninterpretable to outsiders. Pig Latin is a simple argot popular among English-speaking children.

The rules of Pig Latin are fairly simple:

  1. If a word starts with one or more consonants, take that consonant cluster and move it to the end of the word. Then add -ay to that consonant cluster. Examples: "pig" has the 'p' removed and moved to the back, then 'ay' is added: "ig-pay." "Strong" becomes "ong-stray."
  2. Otherwise, add "ay" to the end of the word. Example: "animal" does not start with a consonant, so it becomes "animal-ay."

You could actually boil this down to one rule: move any initial consonants to the end, and then add "ay." If there are no consonants, then there is nothing to move.

The simplicity of Pig Latin undoubtedly contributes to its popularity among children and even adults when they want to hide something. If you can't imagine a use by adults, think about a dog that recognizes the word "walk" to mean "we're going for a walk." The dog's owner wants to talk about going for a walk, but without exciting the dog. The dog's owner can say, "I think today's a good time to for an alk-way."

There are more complicated argots. One famous argot is Cockney rhyming slang. This is used among lower class Londoners speaking the Cockney dialect. Unlike Pig Latin, the rules for Cockney rhyming slang are irregular. You can vaguely boil them down to this:

  1. Take the word that you want to obscure and find a phrase that rhymes with it. For example, if you want to say stairs, you could rhyme it with "apples and pears."
  2. For maximum obscurity, remove the rhyming element from the phrase. In our example, we're left with "apples" as the slang for "stairs."

Cryptographically speaking, this is a lot harder to crack! If you hear someone say "take the apples," there's no way to be able to tell that they are referring to stairs unless the context makes it 100% clear. This means that you need to be on the inside from the beginning to understand Cockney rhyming slang.

Now I'm going to be honest - the entire point of this blog post on Pig Latin and argot was actually to show off my Pig Latin "translator". If you enter a sentence, it will translate it into Pig Latin. Check it out over here!

There's an annoyance when it comes to dealing with silent letters. For example, "honor" is pronounced /ɒnər/, no "h", in English. However, in writing, "onor-ay" is not quite as easy to decipher. Could you do "onor-hay" or "honor-ay"? Moreover, in American English the "h" in "herb" is silent, but it is pronounced in British English. The program makes no distinction and will treat initial-h like any other consonant. Perhaps a future iteration of the Pig Latin translator will be able to tell if a word has a silent 'h' in the beginning!

June 20, 2018

Where are the British Accents?

"People lose their accent when singing!" Have you ever heard someone say that? Here's the thing... it's a little bit nonsensical. Country music is an entire genre made by people with regional accents and whose regional accents can be heard. African American English speakers' accents can be heard (note not all Black Americans speak AAVE, so remember the distinction is for Black Americans who speak AAVE). how can someone ignore these?

What people really mean when they say people "lose their accent" is referring to the inability to tell that a singer is English from a song. Song is apparently a magical property that makes accents disappear (though only some accents, since Southern and AAVE accents are apparently unaffected).

The reality is that many British singers purposefully change their accents when singing. Listen to the One Direction boys:

Liam Payne confesses that bosses at record label Syco (owned by Simon Cowell) encourage them to nurture their inner Yank. He says: “I don’t think you can really sing in a British accent. I think it’s a bit hard and sometimes a bit forced. Singing is an imitation at the end of the day, it’s the way you put things across.”
Louis Tomlinson, 19, from Doncaster, “I think in certain music genres you can really tell when people are British, but in pop it’s not as easy to get it across.”
Harry Styles, 19: "I have a theory... I think it’s all on who you grew up listening to and who your parents listened to. So when you sing, you’re singing along with them. I think you just apply that and you have that idea of singing.”
Louis agrees: “It’s what music you sang in the shower and what you listened to when you were young.”
Zayn, 20, “What Makes You Beautiful would sound more indie with a British accent.”

Zayn's comment about "What Makes you Beautiful" sounding "more indie" with a British accent is interesting. There does not appear to be the same restriction on accents in indie music as there is in pop music, which demands either General American or a modified AAVE. You can find punk bands and indie rock bands (The Ting Tings) where the singer clearly has a British accent. Louis Tomlinson's solo material (Miss You) shows his regional English accent clearly. This should be enough to disprove the notion that singing neutralizes a British accent, because we can hear examples of it.

So why do so many British singers try to sound American? Has it always been this way? British rock and roll bands from the 1960s tend to do their best imitation of AAVE. These bands were hugely succesful and influential on future British musicians, who would listen to those same records and try to get the same sound. In this way there is a period of time where mainstream British artists downplayed their accent or copied another one.

In the 80s you had Kate Bush, who sang with her British accent. The Human League had a big hit with "Don't You Want Me."

Nowadays it seems more common - though still not universal - for British singers to keep their accents, or at least *a* British accent. Ellie Goulding sings in an English accent, but she used to have a different accent. Florence Welch keeps many notably English pronunciations (Kiss with a fist). Perhaps this is due to the increasing prominence of indie music. it's no longer bizarre to hear British accents in pop or rock music. British accents can even be found in rap. After decades of being ignored, British accents may yet return to pop music.

June 15, 2018

6-11 recap

The month of June has not been kind to this blog. As you can imagine, being in a full-time program trying to execute a career change takes up quite a bit of time! However, I'm not going to ignore this blog. That's why I'm uploading a short little article on Wednesday. I won't be able to update weekly for the time being, but I do want to remind my audience that I'm here and that this site is still active and being worked on.

On some non-blog news, I've recently gotten into podcasts as a result of a long commute. If you're interested in a linguistics podcast, I recommend checking out Lingthusiasm. It's fun and accessible to anyone. The episode I checked out was about the concept of "untranslatable words," which is an interesting one. If you're stuck in traffic, try it out! I'm also going to read the second book in Ada Palmer's Terra Nova series soon, "The Seven Surrenders." The first one talked a lot about language in society, so I'm expecting the second one to develop that further.

Thank you all for sticking with the blog. The regular schedule will return before long!

- Karen