Secret Languages: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Ones. #1 Familect

We all have a secret language or slang words that are often referred to within our home lives. It’s a collection of naturally invented words and phrases that comes from living in close quarters with family or close friends. This common type of secret language within family groups is known as a familect, family slang, or kitchen table lingo

A familect is a home dialect in which those living within the same household apply private meanings to specific words. It reveals the creative and playful nature of language, as a family decides their own unique verbiage for certain things. These slang words attribute meaning to words, actions, and events as a way to maintain inside jokes amongst the group members. 

PR specialist Hamish Thomson who has been working on a new dictionary that he called “Famguage” provides us with a selection of entries: “One of my kids coined the term ‘argubating’, which means arguing a point in a self-indulgent, unproductive way. We also have ‘wookthack’, which for complicated reasons means ‘a rucksack from Derbyshire’.”

This secret set of vocabulary words can also be attributed to any group of close friends and even within business groups. The collective experience of people sharing an environment and growing its own language together, highlights the emotional connectivity of language. The commonly understood collection of invented words or phrase meanings within an intimate group is a powerful aspect of language.

The Origins and Uses of Familect

One of the earliest researchers on the topic of familects is Cynthia Gordon, a professor at Georgetown University. A professor of linguistics, she pioneered the research on familects by discussing it in her book, Making Meanings, Creating Family. In her book, Cynthia Gordon navigates the strange world of family discourse and the varying uses of language. She says that listening to other families’ recordings can help reveal a different aspect to emotional connectivity through language. 

Familects fall within the non-public and intimate register for communication, where intonation and non-verbal messages are more prominent. This is the most common form of communication between family members and close friends. Familects tend to gain their vocabulary formations through slips of the tongue and other word inventions created by the group. 

The concept of family-language invention came from the idea that time is precious and children are the architects of new words. As they play with new sounds and meanings, their creations can be passed down to the generations. Familects typically gain their vocabulary from the youngest members of the family, as children learn to talk. These mispronounced words through the learning experience are often adopted and kept by the other family members, forming a familect. Another book showcasing the uniqueness of familect is in The English Project’s Kitchen Table Lingo, a bible of family slang words. The book highlights the words people have been coining at some point in time that never make it into the dictionary. David Crystal, the book’s afterword author and blog writer, talks about the various home dialects found in the book. He believes everyone has a story to tell and the use of these slang words helps validate the importance of familects.

Is This Secret Language Good For Society?

We all have a secret language we use in our home lives. We all have a collection of words and phrases stemming from living in close quarters with our families over time. Familects can also occur within a massive family unit, as an extension of home. These family-language terms are used in the building stages of close relationships. As couples or friends navigate the boundaries of intimacy, they may use these terms to show affection. The personal meanings of these words help strengthen our emotional connection to one another. The uniqueness of familects shows the emotional importance and connectivity of secret languages in shaping our societies.

If the use of secret jargon confirms a person’s inside status within a group, then familects can serve a similar function. Unlike jargon, which is typical in more professional group dynamics, familects are often playful and can create a sense of belonging. We all speak differently and in different contexts depending on the purpose of our conversations. Familects are often closer to euphemisms than they are to neologisms, as they also tend to have an emotional resonance.

In her book, Cynthia Gordon explains that sharing one’s familect is an act of welcoming strangers into one’s clan. Fragments of in-group language help us feel connected, reaffirming a sense of family or close network. It can also help us establish our identity and connect with others. When people use familect expressions, they reinforce the stories and memories that bind them together. 

Challenges for Translators

Familect expressions create a unique set of challenges for translators. The most widely recognized methods for translating slang terms include cultural equivalence, literal translation, stylistic compensation, stylistic softening, and omission.

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