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Monday, November 29, 2010

Wonky Latin: Erudition Gone Awry

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There are two languages in which I am fluent, and the main one is English.  The second one, in which admittedly I was more fluent as a kid, is Pig Latin.  In fact, my little friends and I were so fluent in it, we could speak very quickly, thereby rendering our communications private because no one (especially our parents) could keep up with us.

Pig Latin is not Latin at all.  It’s a word game whereby you take the first letter of a word and add it to “ay”.  Then you say what’s left of the original word, followed by the new second syllable.  So the word “Latin” would then become “atin-lay”.  It’s a form of wordplay used to disguise words and to sound like a foreign language.  Kids love it.  So do comedians.  You can find it in The Three Stooges or in South Park.  Thomas Jefferson is said to have written letters to his friends using it.

Like every language there are rules.  Words that begin with a consonant (or cluster of consonants, like “th” or “st”) use that beginning sound with “ay” at the end.  If the word begins with a vowel or silent consonant the new second syllable will be just “ay”, as in “as” = “as-ay”.  “The” can be problematic, but once you rattle off the words that follow, no one will notice.  Compound words, such as “bookstore” are split into their components, then Pig Latinized:  “ook-bay ore-stay”.

Other languages have similar wordplays.  French has “verlan” or “l’envers” (backwards), where a word is written syllabically backwards, thus “Merci” becomes “cimer” and “bizarre” changes to “zarbi”.

The origins of Pig Latin are unknown, but medieval monks played around with real Latin and that’s where the name supposedly came from.  There are mentions of it in American magazines from the late 1800s.  Sometimes, though, Pig Latin gets confused with Dog Latin.

Dog Latin, sometimes referred to as mock Latin, is an imitation of Latin.  This is a jargon meant for poking fun at scholarly endeavors, or used to sound erudite.  Dog Latin translates English words into Latin-sounding ones, without regard to grammar concerns (conjugation, declension, etc.)  It often mixes correct Latin with Latinized English words. 

Mostly used for comic effect, Dog Latin names have been used in movies, plays and comics.  Think Naugthtius Maximus or Incontinetia Buttox from Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  Most recently and famously, there are the spells used in the Harry Potter series (Expelliarmus – the disarming charm, or Specialis Revelio – causing an object to show its magical properties). 

Dog Latin is also used for phrases, one of the most popular being Illegitimi non carborundum (Don’t let the bastards grind you down).   More frequently it is used in a serious context to convert a proper noun into a mass one, such as Shakespeareana or Freudiana, to denote works associated with Shakespeare or Freud, respectively. 

Yet another form of faux Latin is Lorem Ipsum.  Actually a form of Dog Latin, it is derived from a real Latin passage from Cicero.  Used in graphic design and publishing as a placeholder text, or filler text, it stands in for the text element in a layout.  It is meant to be nonsensical and unreadable.  This way the focus is on the layout and not on the meaning of the text, which might distract the viewer if it were something understandable. 

Lorem Ipsum in a layout.

The text is a section of a Latin text by Cicero, sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 of De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (The Extremes of Good and Evil), but the words are altered, added, or removed altogether.  Some versions have letters that didn’t exist in Latin – k, w, and z – and use them in nonsense words so that the text looks more like English.  A Latin translation of the term may be something along the lines of “pain itself”.  (Dolorem is pain, suffering, misery, or grief; ipsum means “itself”).

The text has been used since the 1500s.  Cicero’s original work was a treatise on the theory of ethics, as the title implies, which was popular during the Renaissance.  Lorem Ipsum became popular again in the 1960s, and now can even be found in publishing software.

O-say e-thay ext-nay ime-tay ou-yay ant-way o-tay ool-fay our-yay riends-fay, ry-tay ig-pay atin-lay!


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