I guess it’s not so secret any more: why linguists study children’s language games

Why would a linguist study children’s language games? It turns out that they can tell us a lot.

Screenshot 2016-04-08 13.19.56
Picture source: screen shot from the LINGUIST mailing list.

I subscribe to a mailing list that gets me news about current events in linguistics–upcoming conferences, tables of contents of new journal issues, fellowship opportunities–and notices about newly published books.  Often I look at some of this stuff and wonder: what the hell must non-linguists think when they see something like this?  Today’s email brought me an excellent example of the phenomenon: the book notice that you see above.  How could a Berber equivalent of the Pig Latin that most of us learned as kids (unless you’re French, in which case maybe you learnt Louchebem) possibly be worth a book-length treatment?  Actually, secret languages, also known as language games (described as game-like variants on some actual language, typically used by kids to mystify the uninitiated), can be quite interesting, from a linguistic point of view.  For example: in teaching introductory linguistics, many of my fellow grad students would use an example from Pig Latin to illustrate a non-intuitive fact about the English sound system.  In English, the sound that we spell ch is actually a combination of two sounds–t, as tip, and sh, as in ship.  Say t-ship with the t and the sh immediately next to each other–tship–and you’ll find that it comes out as chip.  If you survey a large class of Ohio State undergraduates, you’ll find some for whom the Pig Latin word for chip is ipchay.  For others, it’s shiptay.  What does that tell you?  For the Buckeyes (Ohio natives) with the shiptay form of chip, it’s pretty clear that ch is, on some level, represented mentally as the sequence of two sounds that it actually is.

Googling around a bit for examples of the use of secret languages in linguistic research, I came across this paper from Ruth Day at the famous Haskins Labs.  Day developed a simple secret language (take English words and substitute an r for every l and an l for every r) and taught it to subjects.  She also put them through what are known in the psychology literature as dichotic fusion tests.

normal bimodal distribution
Normal distribution (upper left): results cluster around a single typical value, plus or minus a bit.  Bimodal distribution (lower right): results fall into one of two groups, plus or minus a bit.  Picture source: click here.

Dichotic fusion tests assess how people process sounds.  They have an unusual property.  Most tests of sound processing have what’s called a normal distribution.  This means that there’s some typical result, and the results mostly cluster around that value.  In contrast, dichotic fusion tests are bimodally distributed–rather than everyone clustering around some typical value, people fall into one of two categories.  Day found that some of the subjects were good at learning the secret language, and some of them weren’t.  She also found a relationship between how people behave on dichotic fusion tests and how adept they are at learning the secret language: people who were good at learning the secret language mostly fell into one group on the dichotic fusion test, and people who were bad at learning the secret language mostly fell into the other group on the dichotic fusion test.  She speculates that this might be related to individual differences in how “bound” different speakers are by the nature of what the pioneering structural linguist Ferdinand de Saussure called langue and parole–two very different ways of categorizing language.  It’s not immediately obvious that these two different categories exist, and you could interpret Day’s experimental findings as being consistent with the hypothesis that they do.  (And, yes–linguistics as we know it today was invented by a French-speaking Swiss guy.  Even the English-language technical vocabulary of linguistics has kept Saussure’s original French terms, langue and parole.)

Language games are sometimes presented as a form of evidence regarding speakers’ models of syllable structure.  You didn’t know that you have a model of syllable structure?  That’s the nature of knowledge about language–it’s mostly not conscious, and, as we say, “not accessible to introspection”–meaning, even if you think about the rules of language and try to figure them out, you mostly can’t.  (If you’re an English speaker: can you explain when to use the and when to use a?  Probably not, but you certainly know, on some unconscious level, how to do so, and you certainly recognize when someone who doesn’t natively speak a language that has an equivalent of the and a messes them up in English.)  The ship-tay speakers were surprised to have this pointed out.  It wasn’t something that they were consciously aware of, but on some level, they seemed to “think” of ch as a sequence of t and sh. 

The French connection: there’s a form of slang in France called Verlan.  It’s not clear whether Verlan should be considered a secret language/language game as such, versus a form of slang, but even if it should be considered a slang, it is clear that its words are formed by a language game.  Phildange explained a bit about how it works in his comments on a recent post.  From a cross-linguistic perspective, it’s quite unusual.  If you observe secret languages from around the world, they tend to work on the basis of one or two of four different kinds of phonological processes (phenomena involving doing something to sounds):

  • insertion of sounds
  • rearrangement of sounds
  • substitution of sounds
  • deletion of sounds

From the perspective of this kind of classification, France’s Verlan is unusual in that it combines a multitude of different kinds of phonological processes.  For lots of details, see this set of lecture notes from Stuart Davis of Indiana University.

I hope that no Berbers were planning on using the waw/ra? secret language to pass messages around linguists in the future, as I guess it’s not so secret any more.  Are you thinking that the book about it would make a great Christmas present for someone?  You can pick up a copy here.

One thought on “I guess it’s not so secret any more: why linguists study children’s language games”

  1. Interesting thinking . You’re a bit of an intellectual hey ?
    A secret language that needs more than the understanding of a system is what we can call “classical slang”, the slang of gangsters that evolved from all sorts of outlaws slangs of the old centureis . In that slang, a word replaces another word . You nearly have to learn another language – only the vocabulary since grammar and conjugations, articles, pronouns, remain ordinary French . But a huge number of nouns and a great numbers of adjectives and verbs are French words used in a completely different meaning, plus some that only exist in this slang .
    A gangsters novel writer published a whole dictionnary “classical slang”/French .
    Some of this outlaws slang has penetrated the common language through the popular areas of Paris, when Paris still had its working class population before the 80s, and is now easily used by anybody .


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