Why your family’s secret language is good for kids

‘That whoa-whoa is chasing the hodgie!’ Your household’s familect can strengthen bonds and develop language skills.

Louise Gleeson’s kids call each other out when someone’s acting like a “quallum,” offer a heartfelt “ozee-chicken” in response to a bad hair day, and perk up when their grandmother is on her way with “nunch.”

These aren’t words plucked from a dialect spoken in some far-flung land. “They’re part of a secret language that no one outside our circle can understand,” laughs Gleeson, a mother of four in Toronto. And while some words like “nunch” date back to Gleeson’s childhood, stemming from her Cantonese mother’s mispronunciation of “lunch,” she can’t recall the exact origins of others. (In case you’re wondering, “quallum” means “jerk,” and “ozee-chicken” translates to “it’s stressful, but it’ll be OK.”)

The secret words and phrases shared exclusively among the members of a household are what linguists call familect (sometimes called familylect). And though it might just sound like a family being silly, building a familect can have emotional benefits for kids and adults.

“When people speak the same language, it creates a sense of family and unity,” says Deborah Tannen, a professor at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don’t Understand. “And its very use communicates something about the intimacy of the relationship.”

Here’s why those secret words you thought were just goofy actually mean a lot—and how your family can continue to build its familect.

The science behind familects

Encompassing everything from words and expressions to nicknames and anecdotes, familects draw on in-jokes, shared history, and popular media to establish a family’s identity. Even voice play, or putting on pretend voices, can be part of a familect.

Because they’re typically confined to the private sphere, familects haven’t been studied as thoroughly as languages associated with other tight-knit groups—like dialects spoken in a geographic region or sociolects known among members of the same social group. One of the most extensive familect studies was conducted by Cynthia Gordon, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of Making Meanings, Creating Family, who observed four families in the Washington, D.C., area over several days and listened to weeks of conversations recorded by her subjects.

Despite superficial similarities in the families she studied, Gordon was struck by how distinct their familects were. “Each of these families was really its own little unique social world, and that world was being constructed through language,” she says.

Much of the wordplay in family slang centers around kids—from cute mispronunciations that become a permanent part of the family lexicon to terms that describe a childhood ritual. “Rocks and rubs,” for example, referred to a child’s bedtime routine in one of the households Gordon observed, in which a parent rocked the child, read a book to her, then rubbed her back for a few minutes as she fell asleep.

“The phrase was unique to the family,” Gordon says.

Like other types of slang, familect is a living, breathing entity that evolves as a family changes. For example, when Gordon checked back with the family years later, she discovered that “rocks and rubs” had morphed into “minutes,” or the brief time parents spent connecting with their children right before bed.

Kids often contribute directly to a familect. When Kate Wehr’s three-year-old son was learning to talk, he loved repeating sounds. Words invented during that period—whoa-whoa, bawk-bawk, and ruff-ruff—are now the family’s regular terms for horse, chicken, and dog. And “hodgies,” a word for helicopter originated by her brother decades ago, has spanned generations. “We were living near an Army base [at the time] and saw them constantly,” says Wehr, a mother of five in Montana.

But parents contribute to the family lexicon, too, says Christine Mallinson, a professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “They’ll introduce words based on where they grew up, bringing their own dialect background to it as well.”

Gordon agrees, noting that in places where multilingualism is common, family language thrives. “How a family integrates English and Spanish in the privacy of their own home, for example, or pronounces things in a particular way, affects their familect,” she says.

Juliet Martinez, a writer and mother of two in Pittsburgh, has experienced this firsthand. Her husband, whose family emigrated from Mexico, delights in mispronouncing Spanish words like huango (correctly pronounced WAHN-goh), meaning loose or floppy (and mispronounced WANG-goh), then sticking them into casual conversation: “That chair is wango,” or wobbly.

The benefits of familects

Experts say familect helps us forge connections to family members, creating a cohesive unit bound by a shared, secret language. Gordon explains that the familect concept extends the current research on dinner table interaction, which emphasizes the importance of talking as a way for parents and children to connect.

“Language is a resource that human beings use to tie themselves to other people—and in familect’s case, to bind themselves into a family,” she says. In particular, it’s the repetition of familect terms, in different contexts and situations, that reinforces this connection between family members. Every time a family nickname is used, for example, it recalls the history of the nickname, and the fact that it’s something they all share.

But familect’s true power lies in its ability to draw people back together.

“You can use familect terms as a way of reaching out and creating solidarity after you’ve had an argument,” Gordon says. Post-conflict, familect becomes shorthand for reaffirming family commitments and connections. And for adult siblings who haven’t seen each other for a long time, Tannen suggests, using familect expressions together can instantly transport them back to their childhood memories.

For kids, familect is also a great introduction to the creative possibilities of language. For instance, Mallinson’s children regularly play with words that sneak their way into the family vernacular. Her nine-year-old daughter likes to switch up family nicknames: Mots (mother), dots (father), zots (brother), and tots (herself) recently transformed to nimo, dito, zito, and tito. And “Mr. Chubs” is now the family nickname for “bumblebee,” something her seven-year-old son adopted.

Practicing these skills, Mallinson says, is the perfect training ground for a lifelong love of and facility for language. “Kids are naturally delighted by language and all the weird things you can do with it,” she says.

She adds that in families with a bilingual parent, familect can help maintain a little bit of linguistic heritage. Martinez’s kids may not speak Spanish fluently, for example, but they still have access to some of their father’s culture and language through their family dialect.

Creating your own familect

Although familects often develop spontaneously, parents can deliberately cultivate this shared language with a few simple ideas.

Talk … a lot. Often all that’s needed to encourage a shared language is exposure. “Families develop familect because they talk to each other all the time,” Tannen says. “And any people who communicate regularly do develop particular ways of referring to things.” The key is to remain vigilant, ready to pounce on any turns of phrase or funny expressions that come up, and fold them into your family lexicon.

Tell family stories. Because some familect terms come from family stories, Gordon says they’re a good place to start. For example, you could describe what it was like when you were a child, which could spark questions and additional conversation, unearthing a treasure trove of family slang. Or you could reveal, for instance, what Grandma used to call cookies and encourage children to incorporate it into the familect. Even if their grandmother isn’t physically present, sharing her unique perspective and voice creates a connection.

Create a familect dictionary. Gleeson’s family keeps a dictionary of familect words on their refrigerator, which serves as both a historical record and a concrete representation of their bond. Each entry includes the word and its definition. “But it has to be something that we’re all starting to incorporate into our language and that gets used a lot,” Gleeson says. And everyone needs to agree to the spelling—at times a challenging requirement for words that were initially only spoken. “So even listening to them negotiate whether they think there should be a q, or k, or w is quite fascinating,” Gleeson laughs.

Have a game night. For a fun challenge, adapt any game using words from your familect. Host a Mad-Libs-style competition to see who can include the most familect terms in a sentence. The exercise will force everyone to think about how each term is used: Is it a verb or a noun? Does it describe a noun or an action? (These interactive fill-in-the-blank stories can get you started.) Or hunker down for a night of Scrabble, using your familect dictionary as the final arbiter of acceptable words.

“Language is something you can carry with you wherever you go,” Gordon says. “You don't have to carry around photographs or mementos for family solidarity. You have these words that—when you use them—recall all these family memories.”

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