It was a Monday morning in Berlin, and my German class was discussing secret languages and codes. Or, rather, our teacher was trying to explain, in German, the meaning of the German word for “secret code.” The classroom, full of American students, searched for a concrete example. “Like Morse code,” someone suggested. “Like Pig Latin!” yelled another helpful student.
We all nodded our assent. Like Pig Latin! Of course. Our teacher was mystified. “Schwein?” (Schwein means “pig” in German. You’re welcome.) “Yes! Ig-pay Atin-lay!” Our German teacher, understandably, did not find this string of gibberish especially clarifying.
She asked us how, exactly, we all knew what Pig Latin was — we were all from different states, different schools. Did we learn it in school? We laughed uproariously. A federal Pig Latin class! Our laughter trailed off into confused silence. How did we all know this absurd, nonsensical linguistic code? Pig Latin was just somehow there, inexplicably pervading our collective childhood memories. How had we all been indoctrinated in this strange assortment of complicated, scrambled words?
As it turns out, Pig Latin, like so many English language idiosyncracies, finds its earliest mention in Shakespeare. In 1598, Shakespeare wrote “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” where he included the phrase “false Latine.”
Pig Latin reemerged in the American cultural psyche in the 20th century, with the first American publication of Pig Latin occurring in the form of a 1919 Columbia Records song. Arthur Fields’ song, “Pig Latin Love,” contains the subtitle, “I-yay Ove-lay Oo-yay Earie-day.” The Three Stooges mention it repeatedly in sketches. More recently, in “Who Gon’ Stop Me,” Kanye West raps the line, “That’s Pig Latin, itch-bay.”