Columns - 2010

    Pig Hebrew

    by Doug Brook
    Southern Jewish Life columnist

    Most Jewish rituals and scripture are written in Hebrew, and a little Aramaic. It can all sound Greek to the untrained ear, Greek with chest congestion.

    But even the most discerning ear might not understand the other ancient Jewish tongue, newly unearthed through the continued translation of the recently discovered, long-lost Mishnah tractate Bava Gump.

    Pig Hebrew's origins are difficult to trace, mainly because the letters are so oddly shaped that tracing them is very difficult. It might date back as far as ancient times, and presumably is at least several hours newer than Hebrew itself.

    How is Pig Hebrew spoken? To fully understand it, one can look at its more commonly known descendent, Pig Latin, which has easily surpassed Latin itself in terms of the number of native speakers in the modern world.

    Despite what you might think, Pig Latin's popularity spreads far beyond the playground. Thomas Jefferson wrote letters in Pig Latin, in which he complained that the Founding Fathers would not use his Pig Latin draft of the Declaration of Independence, which he figured the King of England would listen to just as much as the better-known language.

    In Pig Latin, the first consonant becomes the last consonant followed by an "ay." For example, "column" (English for "column") becomes "olumn-cay."

    Pig Hebrew works similarly, but because Hebrew is read from right to left, the reverse of Latin, the effect is opposite. Instead of taking the first consonant and making it the last one, followed by "-ay," Pig Hebrew takes the last consonant and makes it the first one, followed by the more appropriate "-oy."

    For example, "bayit" (Hebrew for "house") becomes "toy-bayi." "Shabbat" (Hebrew for "shabbat") becomes "toy-shabba." The Hebrew accent on the final syllable moves to the first syllable, and because so many Hebrew words end in "t," Jews seemed destined to toy around with Pig Hebrew for generations.

    For words that end in vowels, an "oy" is added to the beginning of the word. For example, "Chanukah" (Hebrew for "Hanukkah") would become the hit song "oy-Chanukah."

    Scholars initially thought that Yiddish might actually be a lingering vestige of Pig Hebrew, with "oy-bubbela" and the like. However, they soon realized that the Yiddish speakers were just complaining about their children a lot.

    But it would explain the origin of "oy-vey." Work it out. We'll wait.

    Of course, soldiers for occupying governments (Romans, Babylonskis, etc.) would not know Hebrew. For example, they ensured that Jews did not say the Shema just by listening for it phonetically during its usual part of the service. So the Jews moved it later, which is why it's stuck in the Musaf Kedushah.

    But while soldiers probably wouldn't understand Hebrew, they really wouldn't understand Pig Hebrew.

    Many great Jewish revolutionaries might have communicated in code using Pig Hebrew. For example, there is not a single shred of evidence anywhere indicating that the Bar Kochba Rebellion did not use Pig Hebrew extensively in the Second Century.

    Once, a Roman soldier speculated that the Jews were using something like Pig Latin to speak in code. His centurion shot him down, with a bow and arrow, saying, in Latin, "of course they're not; they won't let anything pork-related near their tongues."

    If Yiddish is not truly a remnant of Pig Hebrew, why didn't it survive through the millenia? Marketing. Our four fathers had a common perception that using Pig Hebrew was simply not kosher.

    Pareve Hebrew, an attempt to clean up Pig Hebrew, was considered to be of poor taste. Various promotional slogans, such as "Pig Hebrew - the other treif meat," were non-starters.

    But if two people independently coming up with the same idea means that the idea is a good one, Pig Hebrew was a great idea, because someone else more recently came up with something similar.

    Modern Hebrew spawned "the Bet Language," which is largely based on adding a "b" (Hebrew "bet") and its preceding vowel to every vowel in the word. The hit Israeli song "Abanibi," its title being Bet Language for "Ani," is a good example.

    Really, it's true. "Abanibi" won the 1978 Eurovision Song Contest, and apparently inspired Phil Collins who soon spawned the hit songs with meaningful titles such as, "Sussudio" and "Abacab."

    Ank-ay ou-yay or-fay eading-ray, and toy-Shabba moy-Shalo.

    Doug Brook is an iter-wray in Ilicon-say Alley-vay whose work in three years of Latin class more resembled Ig-pay Atin-lay. For more information, past columns, other writings, and more, visit For exclusive online content, become a fan at


    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.