Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Family Languages

Library Voices--"Family Night" (mp3)

If you think about it, most families develop their own languages. They adopt a way of speaking which, at least some of the time, has little meaning to anyone outside of the circle. Through the combination of shared experiences and a family-specific vocabulary, a kind of code, a series of short cuts enhances their internal communication.

It's pretty fascinating when you're in it; it's completely isolating (though probably not intentionally) and confusing when you aren't. Unless you know why the members of a family you aren't a part of quote specific lines from a movie or tv show, use words that you've never heard of, toss around nicknames with no context, utter pet phrases, it would be hard to know what's going on.

Within the family, it becomes so natural to use this language that sometimes they forget to filter it outside of their home or when others are around.

I've been thinking of this because my younger daughter's chapel talk was Monday. She has a special gift with language, that ability to create new words and concepts that may not seem to make sense until you think about them. She has, more than any of us, been responsible for developing our family language with her witticisms, retorts, misheard words and counterintuitive logic.

So when she says, "Mom, you're overtalking," we all know that means that my wife can get revved up on a topic at a time when the rest of us are shut or shutting down at the end of or the beginning of a long day.

Here are a few other examples of the family vocab. If we refer to someone as an NTAC, we know that this is an acronym for the phrase "No-Talent Ass Clown" from the movie Office Space, which we use mostly in its shortened form, courtesy of former teacher Dan Hatfield. If, when my daughter walks out of Little Caesar's, I demand a car slice, everyone knows that I believe that the best piece of carryout pizza is the one you eat in the car on the way home before it cools off too much. If my daughter at college refers to someone as having been shwasty, we all picture someone who's kind of drunk but not flat-out wasted. If one of us says "Alex is sleeping now," we all recall a goddaughter who used this statemet with her own father in order to avoided being confronted about something she had done wrong. When we say it, it means, gently, don't bother me.

We used to talk about having a danger word or phrase, something that a family member would say if he or she was in some kind of trouble. Also, in less serious circumstances, we talked about a phrase that would indicate that we wanted help getting out of a social situation. But neither of those happened, and the concept fell by the wayside.

Social critics want to claim that our language is being destroyed by the shortcuts that we take when we communicate through texts, tweets, and email, but the fact is that the family unit has been using communication shortcuts forever. And that's a good thing. I'm not sure that there is anything more intimate than shared communication, and all of the ways that a family strenghtens its bonds through the use of its own code add layer upon layer of connection and attachment.

What would be scary, and I know they must be out there, are the families that are so fractured and dysfunctional that they don't have a family language, the familes that don't have family jokes because they weren't allowed to laugh, that don't have special words because they weren't allowed to compare notes. At the core of any family language is its members' ability to laugh at and, yes, commemorate each other's weaknesses, flaws, slip-ups, and contradictions. And when you can do that with each other, you know you're close.

NOTE: As an aside, an interesting subset of this phenomenon develops when a group of friends are together for a long time. And I'm not talking about when they talk about things where "you had to be there" or "remember when," I'm talking about me and my friends, who turn other friends into specific action verbs and nicknames, as in "Okay, Miles" or "Man, you totally Chetted me." This becomes especially fun when a person-become-verb has a number of traits associated with him and we have to figure out which one was intended.


Anonymous said...

Another Emma-ism that has endured in our family language; "Daddy, you scared me like an asshole!"

troutking said...

Excellent post.

Thom Anon said...

One of ours referws to this Italian cousin of my wife's named Flavio, who they called Flip in English. Whenever one of us is leaving the house, say, for work or school, we'll often announce to the rest, "Catch you on the Flavio."

Innocent bystanders don't know what the hell we're talking about.

Anonymous said...

My parents, who read your blog, reminded me that my youngest daughter's phrase from several years ago, "you're noying me" gets thrown around whenever, well, whenever one of us is slightly bugging someone in the fam...