April 06, 2006

Onghornlay rofessionalpay

A few days ago, Arnold Zwicky imagined someone calling the Grammar Hotline with a question about Pig Latin solecisms. Now Michael Kaplan at Sorting it All Out has provided a real-life example from the history of Microsoft product development.

You see, we had just shipped Windows Server 2003 a little while ago, a product which had its name changed at the last minute from Windows .NET Server 2003 ... to Windows Server 2003. I never heard from any authoritative source, but some people claimed the last minute name change cost the company a ton of money since the name string was hard-coded in so many places.

So anyway, to avoid this problem in the future (the expense, not the name changes themselves; just ask anyone who worked on Office XP about those last minute name alterations in products!), some work was done to make sure the name was stored in a more central location.

And to test this, there were several early internal builds that, to test this centralization, had the name of the product (at the time Longhorn Professional) translated into Pig Latin, so that any place that had the name unchanged would be considered a bug. ...

Now to why the Language Log post made me think of it -- because the Pig Latinized version of the name was onghornlay rofessionalpay, rather than onghornlay ofessionalpray, as some might expect. :-) ...

It's too bad no one called in to Grammar Lady to get an official answer on the gramaticality of the fake Longhorn name. :-)

Problems like this come up frequently, in fact. They might not make it to the inbox of grammar mavens, but I use similar cases in my intro linguistics course, to help make the point that children's language games are based on their implicit understanding of phonology, not on spelling.

One example comes form a Spanish game called "Jerigonza" or "Jeringonza," which involves replacing every vowel V with the sequence VpV. About a decade ago, searching the nascent web for "Jerigonza" used to turn up a C program for turning Spanish text into Jerigonza, written by a student at the Universidad Católica de Chile. However, this program applied the Jerigonza rule literally to spelling, and so it didn't behave the way that most Spanish-speaking children would. Because the program applied the V-to-VpV change to every orthographic vowel, it turned the (three-syllable) Spanish word escuela "school" into the (eight-syllable) Jerigonza word epescupuepelapa.

Spanish-speaking children -- who often learn the jerigonza game before they learn to read -- would think in terms of the categories of their natural and internal phonology, rather than in terms of letters of the alphabet. In the letter sequence "ue" in Spanish spelling, the "u" letter is actually pronounced as a glide /w/, which in phonological terms is a consonant rather than a vowel. Thus we might write the pronunciation of escuela as /e-skwe-la/, with three syllables, not four, even though there are four vowel letters in the word. In the same form of quasi-phonetic writing, the jerigonza version would be /e-pe skwe-pe la-pa/, with six syllables, not /e-pe sku-pu e-pe la-pa/, with eight. Most Spanish-speaking children would produce the six-syllable form -- though I've found that there are a few who have learned to apply the jerigonza rules to spelling instead of to sound.

[Update: Matthew Stuckwisch writes in to correct the syllabification of my Jerigonza example:

While it is true that Spanish favours CV-CV-CV-CV constructs, in the case of double consonants, they don't always both go to the following syllable. So, escuela would be (using your phonetic orthography) /es-kwe-la/ and the two jerigonza versions would be /e-pes kwe-pe la-pa/ and /e-pes ku-pu e-pe la-pa/ respectively: Spanish speakers tend to have quite a difficult time saying English words like "scram" and "school" without say "ehscram" or "ehschool" since /sk/ isn't a native construct within a syllable for them.

Yes, that's obviously right. I got the Jerigonza forms from native Spanish speakers, but of course the cited syllabification was my own, and I should have known better.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 6, 2006 08:32 AM