Students thinking scientifically about syllabic structure – Pig Latin

Because some of the linguistics problem-solving activities and exercises may be unfamiliar, we discuss here the reasoning behind such linguistics “problem sets.” An examination of constrained sets of language data can reveal a puzzle to be solved; students engaged in such linguistic inquiry will be doing the following:


• Making observations and collecting data

• Generalizing across data and formulating testable hypotheses

• Testing hypotheses by searching for counterexamples

• Defining categories and terminology when necessary

• Constructing models to represent ideas


What follows is this section is an example of this sort of inquiry at work with some unusual material for the secondary classroom: Pig Latin. Many middle schoolers are familiar with made-up language games, called ludlings (from Latin ludus ‘game’ and lingua ‘language’), but likely have never been asked to account for the rule which governs such ways of speaking. Arranging data in groups of words that start with vowels, then consonants, and finally, consonant clusters, forces students to keep revising their ideas about Pig Latin.


Linguistics Problem Set: Pig Latin


Eventually, students come up with something along the lines of this:

Initial hypothesis:

If it starts with a vowel, add –ay. If it starts with a consonant, move all the letters up to the vowel sound to the end and add –ay.


At this point, it’s a good idea to discuss the idea of parsimony– how it’s important to express scientific ideas with as few steps as possible– and suggest that they focus on sound, not letters. To satisfy this goal of parsimony, students are introduced to the idea of ordered rules, which leads to a hypothesis along the lines of this...

Revised hypothesis:

Add /ay/ to the end of the word.

If the word begins with consonants, insert them before /ay/.


When the notion of syllabic structure is introduced later, students are given a language to make their theories more parsimonious.

Revised expert hypothesis:

Move the onset to the end and add –ay.


For more on this see Denham, Kristin. 2006. Ludlings Teach Language Diversity and Change: From Pig Latin to Ubby Dubby. Paper presented at the conference of the NCTE, Pittsburgh PA. Can be found here.