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?

Language is at once both a banal standardized system which requires work to master and a numinous corpus saturated with abstruse power. Though it lives in our mouths, coils like a parasite in our minds, and though we use it nearly as often as our own lungs, nothing about it seems to encourage intimacy. Scholarship? Sure. Respect? Yes. But a simple and warm familiarity? It wouldn’t seem so. To some degree this makes sense in that its roots are so deeply buried in our past that it might as well be a force of nature . And yet, be this all as it may, each and every mind is an incubator of language and each household a nursery. In these private places, cut-off from the ears of society, we giddily break the rules and bend language to our whims, compulsively coining new words, and naming things as though it were the first day of creation.

It seems to me that every household has its own private lexicon, filled with obtuse usages, alternate grammars, and esoteric slang. Am I mistaken in this? I know that in my household language is constantly morphing with new words being invented or co-opted, becoming prominent or falling out of use. It’s as if language was a kinky sex act, our enjoyment and particular proclivities something to be kept private and out of general ear-shot. I’ve occasionally found myself using a word or phrase from my private lexicon only to stop myself short or else be met with blank faces. It’s embarrassing somehow when one slips out.

It would appear a quite complex strata actually. There are the notions which float around in the primordial ooze of our consciousness never quite coalescing into words. There are the words so peculiar and intimate that they never actually reach our mouths but which none the less enjoy regular usage in our minds. Then there is the language which is shared between lovers, private words, often whispered like incantations, which define in some way the intimacy of a bedroom but hold no power beyond those walls or moments. Then there is the language of family or the language of a household. This is simultaneously shared and private, displaying in its microcosm the same ability to evolve and proliferate as language at large, but which remains cut-off like a Galapagos of wild syllables.

I think great catalysts in household languages are pets. It seems as though every pet owner calls his beloved little friend by a myriad of names, any name, in fact, but the one they initially chose. For example my cat’s are named Newton and Henry. What do my girlfriend and I actually call them?

Newton: Newtie, The Newts, The Belly, Lemon, Little Bull, Dew Beard, Dewbie, Ankle-Head, Nappy Dread, The Dust Brother, Chunk, Stankly, The Stink, etc, etc.

Henry: Fluffkin, Fuzzlet, Fuzzy-Pants, Manatee, The Griz, Gristle(e), Gristle-bee, Grozells, Grizbane, Hiney, Heinz, Heinrich, Doodie, The Doods, Martha Washington, etc, etc.

These of course do not in and of themselves constitute anything approaching a secret language, I only share them as an aside, there being a whole shorthand used in place of common nouns, verbs, and concepts used in my household. I’ll share just a couple of minor examples to illustrate-


This is a word which is related to the pet names above but is altogether more versatile. It sums up in two syllables any delighted surprise at seeing (usually on the television) some furry creature of interest. So rather than saying, for instance, “look honey! A very cute / strange / noteworthy member of the animal kingdom has made an unexpected appearance on the television, stop picking your nose and take a look for yourself.” Either of us can simply call out, “Stoony!” and the other will know instantly that our attention is required, front and center. Likewise the word can be used in plural form to note the appearance of a whole herd / pride / cete / litter / troup / etc. Dropping the “y” and adding an “s” at the end denotes familiarity as when it’s used for one of our own pets, or on occasion, one another, e.g. “Hey Stoons.” Lastly this word forms the root of further mutations such as the ever popular “Stoonhauser.”

We have a whole gamut of words which can substitute for saying “I love you.” We’ve co-opted three from Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall . These are–


I use all three fairly often. Other substitutions are–


Both of which are shortened versions of longer phrases since “elephant shoes” and “olive juice” are famously observed to so closely mimic the lip movements of saying “I love you.” After 8 years of expressing that sentiment the words can feel almost meaningless, so this little bit of differentiation (both from the norm, and from other instances of its use) adds something. When leaving the apartment in the morning I might say “Elephant” and be treated, in kind, to the response of “Olives.” No more need be said. Our household shorthand accomplishing in two words what would otherwise take 7, and with added value to boot thanks to its exclusivity.

As I said these are only a couple examples. It would seem that in my household at least the language which has emerged was guided by two main evolutionary factors: economy and amusement. If a word makes expressing ourselves simpler it sticks or alternately if something makes us laugh it sticks. What the factors are in other households I have no idea.

I have to imagine every home, everywhere, has its own strain of language subtly different from the norm, guided by its own principles. I imagine that when a word or peculiar usage actually makes the leap from a person’s mind into this testing ground of the home that perhaps .05% might make it out into the world and language at large as slang. That leaves a lot of playful and weird wordage which we keep behind closed doors away from the ears of our neighbors. It boggles the mind. If we marched out into the day using these mutated versions of our mother-tongues we’d all look at one another as if we were speaking nonsense, but it wouldn’t be true. Any word which has an intended meaning, agreed upon and understood by even two people, can’t be properly called nonsense can it? What we’d be speaking would be a billion subtly different dialects.

Admittedly I may be imagining all of this. Perhaps every household is not like mine. Perhaps other people put their energy into finding the most precise and perfect existing words to express themselves rather than just coining their own willy-nilly. But as monolithic and as much like work as language can feel when we are first introduced to it, as careful and polite as we are taught to be with our words in public, I can’t help but assume that, at home, people are as naughty and playful and weird with their words as they are with everything else.

Am I mistaken? You tell me.

09.21. filed under: !. observations. people. 20