A Billion Dialects

Or, our secret languages and private lexicons

Language. Isn’t our relationship with it strange? There is a sense somehow that language exists outside of us, that we are users of language only, consumers rather than manufacturers. When we are children language is offered to us as a fully formed quantity, to be learned and employed in just the way mathematics or chemistry are, replete with correct and incorrect solutions to the “problems” of expression. Language, of course, has the added characteristic of containing within itself “forbidden” ground– words and phrases which were you to utter them in polite company would illicit outrage, stern reproach, and disgust. Imagine, by way of comparison, stating the correlation coefficient between two variables at the dinner table only to be knocked up-side the head by an incensed Grandma. As adults most of us would seem to think about language only when searching our numb skulls for that elusive perfect word. And yet… behind closed doors?

09.21. filed under: !. observations. people.

I started to type a comment, but it turned into a monster.  I’ll write something with a little more care and post it at the usual organ tomorrow.

posted on 09.21 at 10:11 PMjackrusher

You’re not mistaken. Either that, or you and I are the only people who experience this phenomenon. I’ve created a vast library over the years, alone and married, and it is a sea-size soup of distorted spellings, intentional mispronounciations, patois, Creolizations of each language I have come across, and so on. I assume that everyone does the same.

Aside from being fun, and sidestepping the sure boredom of my daily routine, the entire practice is vital to my sanity. I am compelled to reinvent the language that I use and to make it personal and meaningful. It is something that the most-loved poem or adored voice of another cannot touch. It’s mine. Singular to the process of experiencing my life and the attempt to understand my own actions.

On the lighter side, silly pet names:

Daisy: Kray-Z, Lazy, Hazy, Lickmonster, Daisykins, Vomitron, Vomley

Samantha: Sammie, Slam, Slammy, Slambone, Slamulus, Clam, Clammy, Clammy Claws, Clamulus, Clamulizer, Clambone, Fatty, Coondoggy

Many of these can of course become verb forms, as in: I don’t understand why you’re clamulizing, Clammy.

posted on 09.22 at 06:15 AM.

Sir, you are on to something quite real.  It is interesting that we find the need to generate new language especially when dealing with animals.  Anyways I’m here to add a quote from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language,  which seems somehow relevant:

“Twins have often been observed to talk to each other in a way that is unintelligible to adults or other children.  The phenomenon has been variously labelled ‘cryptophasia’, ‘idioglossia’, or ‘autonomous speech’.  Estiamates of incidence are uncertain, but some have suggested that as many as 40% of twin pairs develop some form of private speech, especially in the second year…”

Wikipedia’s article on glossolalia also seems relevent, though it deals mostly with the Christian “speaking in tongues”.  One interesting quote is:

“The syllables that make up instances of glossolalia typically appear to be unpatterned reorganizations of phonemes from the primary language of the person uttering the syllables; thus, the glossolalia of people from Russia, the United Kingdom, and Brazil all sound quite different from each other, but vaguely resemble the Russian, English, and Portuguese languages, respectively. Many linguists generally regard most glossolalia as lacking any identifiable semantics, syntax, or morphology.”

Indeed, your neologisms show a structure of phonemic reorganization of the English language.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossolalia

posted on 09.22 at 04:19 PM.

You are absolutely right. With anyone who is dear to me, I inevitably have established some sort of shorthand.

My cats are typically called anything but their names too.

Figaro: Fig, Pig, Pigaro, Fig Newton, Figlet, Figness, etc.

Abby: Abbygirl, Abby Normal, AbFab, Abject, Abstruse, Abstrudel, etc.

posted on 09.22 at 04:39 PMJane

Anyone interested in the content of this post or following this discussion ought to read Jack’s response, Private Tongues, over at his site the Rhetorical Device. Very interesting.

posted on 09.22 at 07:16 PMjmorrison

The above-mentioned essay is part of a long series of rhetorical failures.  I always have too much to say, seldom get it trimmed to web-size, and have a hard time with tone.  Appy-polly-loggies.

To continue the discussion:

I would add to the idea of shared languages within a household the notion that we really have any number of sub-cultural dialects (special terms of art within a profession, in-jokes within a circle of friends, and so on); sort of a ven diagram of partially overlapping dialects, each of which is used to help demonstrate in-group status (in the primatological sense).

posted on 09.23 at 10:24 AMjackrusher

Jack I think you pretty much sum-up the truth of it when you say:

The taxonomy of language mirrors the taxonomy of species in stopping short of final granularity. English isn’t just English, but English as spoken by persons from this or that place, within this or that class, within this or that sub-culture, within this or that household, and, finally, within this or that brain.

Our ability to name, index, and catalog these subdivisions are simply not practical. Of course I might help by offering the following Sprachbund for the language spoken in my own particular home:

Lesser Northeastern-Anglo (Casualis-Comicus) Urban Couchese.

I think Kurt is also correct when he says that we are “compelled.”

Your other points, as well as D.L.T’s mention of cryptophasia and glossolalia, deserve deeper consideration, but I’m not the man for the job, not this rainy morning at least.

posted on 09.23 at 11:50 AMjmorrison

My childhood home harbored its own language also, primarily shared by me and my mother—and by extension, by anyone we happen to live with. Our domestic idiolect features satirical mangled place names (like Crapplebee’s, Unfriendly’s, or Booby Tuesday, to use just restaurant chains), heavy borrowings from and repeated references to family tv shows like the Simpsons and Seinfeld and the X-Files and Star Trek, back-formations, archaic or just unusual constructions and vocabulary used regularly in everyday situations (like “I’ll to town”, “doing one’s toilet”, “famishing”, “retire” for going to bed, “starkers” for naked), and coinages like “frightmare” or “rest” (which is the action performed in a restroom).

My mother’s family uses even more personal words and phrases that I don’t happen to share—some of them may be aspects of Southern speech, but others I’m sure are original. My grandfather’s term for sparrows, finches, and the like—Little Brown Jobs—I don’t think is original, but my family’s use of “Astorbilt” as a name for ritzy aristocrats, or the letters TH for “bath” (shorthand, I presume, from spelling out the word over the heads of dirty young children), I am fairly certain is.

Verbal originality is an essential aspect of my speech, which is one of the reasons I find it so frustrating to converse and express myself in French. Not only do I lack some basic vocabulary, but I am completely without the capacity for wordcraft and verbal ingenuity in another language, leaving my utterances stilted and without charm, and a large part of my personality utterly unexpressed.

Of course, as you have noted, a lot of this personal language is best left at home. While the specialized vocabulary and allusions obviously have to go, I still like to be archaic in public, depending of course on the company and its receptivity. Which in some places is depressingly low, I must admit.

posted on 09.23 at 11:27 PMbluewyvern

Interesting point about second languages Bluewyvern.

As for archaic use, I used the word “indeed” out loud in the office the other day, hardly archaic, and everyone reacted as though I had said “forsooth!” I just stood their wondering what was so funny.

posted on 09.25 at 08:46 AMjmorrison

I think what you’re saying here just serves to highlight what a loose construct the whole concept of “language” is, and “dialects” moreso. Language, despite efforts, is not something that can be nailed down.

We did a little of this in college. We talked about language developing in the mind and its theoretical hand-in-hand development of the brain. Language developed, the brain developed, language developed, etc. Later attempts to standardise language, while helpful in making the learning of reading and writing easier, have never and will never succeed in owning language. It is completely fluid and massively internal. We are language. Every simple concept is expressed through word structures learned at a young age. Imagine you have no language. Now try to conceptualise the day after the day after tomorrow. It a fundamental part of our ability to understand the world. A group of humans without language is way, way closer to animals than most of us would like to admit.

I’m rambling and I can’t think of a way to tighten this up. I guess what I’m saying is that everyone recognises language as a tool for communcation, but it’s also a tool for thinking, and since this makes it the putty with which we put shape on our day, of course it is almost infinitely varied and evolving. As is thinking.

Sorry if I’ve repeated anyone above.

posted on 09.26 at 07:36 AMPierce

  I think the sound-bite version of what you’re saying is Wittgenstein’s famous, “the limits of my language are the limits of my reality.”  This is the base on which is built Chomsky’s assertion that we think in language.  I believe we think using sensorimotor metaphors and then serialize our thoughts into something that we can turn into language, but that we’re only consciously aware of this latter part of the process and thus regard it as the whole enchilada (that is, I agree with Lakoff rather than Chomsky).

posted on 09.26 at 07:58 AMjackrusher

Ok, interesting. I will do some reading. Our work was definately Chomsky-orientated. I would have to say that “think in language” is a more comfortable concept than the other, but of course it’s very difficult to imagine outside the box if you’ve only ever been in the box. You’ve given me a starting point to explore this further. Thanks.

Does this mean (under Lakoff) that knowledge would be just a more discrete form of memory rather than something embedded in language learning? Surely the concept of higher numbers, facts, etc, must be language-based? I will read some. Food for thought.

posted on 09.26 at 09:21 AMPierce

Knowledge/memory: both emergent properties of clustered neurons in the current set of materialist dogma to which I subscribe.
Lakoff’s schtick is more or less based on the idea that our higher cognitive skills are complex adaptations of older (=evolutionarily) structures that developed to mediate between sense organs and motor skills in our ancestors.
A book of his that dives right into the meat of your question is _Where mathematics comes from: how the embodied mind brings mathematics into being_ (kind of an awful title), of which the New York Public Library has three copies on the shelf at this moment (possibly useless information, for instance if you’re typing these messages from, say, Kazakhstan).
Be forewarned that Lakoff shares Kant’s great failing: he produces mind-numbingly dull prose about exciting ideas.

posted on 09.26 at 09:40 AMjackrusher

Dublin, but I might take a look around. Any book with the word “mathematics” in the title and mind-numbingly dull prose has got to be a winner. Thanks for the information.

posted on 09.26 at 09:58 AMPierce

Pierce—if you mean the Dublin I think you do, my condolences on the loss of a national treasure: rumour has come to me that the Winding Stair is no more (many a short story did I write above An Life there).

posted on 09.26 at 10:23 AMjackrusher

Jack - It reopened a few weeks ago! I had it on good authority it was due to be a Starbucks (one of our first) but the deal must have soured somehow. I’m afraid that upstairs seems to have been reopened as a semi-upmarket restaurant rather than the old coffee shop. I haven’t been yet. Still, better than starbucks. You can read my reactionary rant at its initial closure here.

posted on 09.26 at 12:17 PMPierce

I’ve always considered the idea that thought is limited to language a bit odd, as I usually have trouble parsing my formless (“pure”) thoughts into words that can be spoken and understood by someone else, and (perhaps because of this) I am very aware of the all-encompassing wordless Concepts that froth in my head. Far less so in writing, as evidenced by this comment.

Should I simply fully open the pipes from my mind to my mouth, what comes out is noise and resembl flruevnufn, ghreyv, hakt, ktah op, thru8wem ghru état bleue yellowwords loaf drink picemsakeilakeivnop, unless I speak of well-defined domains and have a large collection of phrases at my disposal to build my speech with, like predefined lego bricks and pieces.

Languages shapes and defines. And since to define means to confine, some original meaning is lost. The bandwidth of language is usually not great enough to transmit ideas in a timely fashion. A fix for this comes in the form of expressions, which attach a history of information to a small phrase or sentence. The drawback is that one usually needs sufficient knowledge of the culture to which the expression belongs.

I’m reminded, for the third time this month, of an episode of Star Trek: TNG, wherein the Enterprise meets a ship from an unknown race, whose language has evolved to the extreme and uses expressions and proverbs almost exclusively. It got me thinking about how much of our own language is currently a common proverb, expression, or a word that used to have a different meaning from what is has today.

A good example is the word “expression”. The Dutch translation, “uitdrukking” is almost fully literal. Ex-pression. Uit-drukking. One presses outward, pushing the idea out of one’s mind and into the world.

Saying something of meaning in as few words as possible is a special craft indeed.

Temba, his arms wide.

posted on 09.27 at 05:12 AMWillem

Willem, That WAS an interesting epidode. It took Picard a frustratingly long time to get the hang of it (slow and steady wins the race, though).

Good info if slightly off-topic. Still might as well be hanged for sheep as a lamb.

Not Everyone has the natural talent to talk in proverbs so ‘be thankful for your given abilities’ PROVERBS 14:23

‘Mirab, his sails unfurled’

posted on 04.01 at 03:58 PMBody Language

Jack, The Winding Stair is indead no more. It’s beauty is forever gone * tips her hat *

posted on 04.25 at 04:12 PMSedu Beauty

We need a language to speak and the language needs us to exist. There you go !

posted on 06.18 at 02:58 PMDaily Magazine

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