Subscriber OnlyYour Family

‘When my son was learning to speak, something strange and adorable started to happen’

I’ve been thinking about the secret language we shared – what a shame it would be to lose it, or let it be forgotten

When our son was learning to speak, something strange and adorable started to happen. For some reason he began replacing “F” sounds with “S” sounds. So if something made him laugh, it wasn’t “funny”, it was “sunny”. Fun became sun. Frog became srog. Coffee became cossee.

This was five years ago, and he grew out of it, but many of these mispronunciations remain in our family’s lexicon. And they’re not the only ones. If we added them up there might be hundreds of words, phrases, private jokes and context-sensitive references that anyone outside of our family would be confused by. Snoff, beebs, doney, snind – these are all words only we understand. I call my daughter Beb, although I only have a vague memory of where it came from.

Is this behaviour odd? We often joke that it might be.

I’ve been thinking about this secret language for a while now. What a shame it would be to lose it, or let it be forgotten. This needs to be studied. It needs to be examined. Surely we’re not the only family who speaks this way? Wait a second... maybe I could be the one to study it. Maybe I could explore a whole new branch of linguistics dedicated to the recording and understanding of this fascinating secret language.

Within 30 seconds of looking it up online I discover, of course, we’re not the only family that speaks this way. And, of course, linguists and academics have already been studying it.

Having a shared, secret language helps kids (and grown-ups) to develop powerful bonds and a deep sense of belonging

They even have a name for it – familect.

A National Geographic article from 2021 describes this particular familial form of communication as “encompassing everything from words and expressions to nicknames and anecdotes”, and it draws on “in-jokes, shared history and popular media to establish a family’s identity”.

Even funny voices and silly sounds can be part of a family’s familect, but because of the inherently private nature of these exchanges, they haven’t been studied as widely as other dialects.

So now we know – your family is as weird as mine.

And there’s more good news – these familects are great for our kids in all sorts of ways. First of all, their use instils a love of language. Or rather, they help them to explore the love of language they already have. Kids inherently understand the flexibility and elasticity of words; keeping funny-sounding words they have invented in daily life gives them the confidence to communicate comfortably.

More importantly, having a shared, secret language helps kids (and grown-ups) to develop powerful bonds and a deep sense of belonging. In that same National Geographic article, Cynthia Gordon, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, is quoted: “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.”

So even something as simple as using a family nickname can recall a long, shared history and a sense of comfort and belonging in a child. You might not believe it, but those affectionate little names you call your kids will have a long-lasting, positive impact on their lives.

These words and phrases with secret meanings can affect us as adults in unexpected ways, too. Gordon goes on to say, “You can use familect terms as a way of reaching out and creating solidarity after you’ve had an argument.”

The more you think about your own familect, the more you realise the extent to which it constitutes how we communicate behind closed doors

In other words, if two grown-up siblings have a falling out, one of the surest ways to heal the rift is through the use of familect – words or expressions only they know the meaning of. The mere mention of some specifically daft turn of phrase can roll back the years to a shared childhood in an instant.

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.

And the more you think about your own familect, the more you realise the extent to which it constitutes how we communicate behind closed doors. Give it a shot. Try to pay attention. Write these secret words down. Keep your own familect alive.

You’ll be glad you did, because the bond goes both ways.

As I grow older, no matter where I am, if something makes me laugh I’ll remember – it’s not funny. It’s sunny.

Read More

Recommended