The Family Language



What are some of the words your children used, either made-up or mispronounced, that have made it into your family language? I know a lot of families who eat Ba-skeddi and meatballs pretty often. We have a couple in our house: noo-doos, because my youngest son loved noodles. And there's okie-meals, because my older son liked oatmeal. The years go by and the children aren't children anymore, but once in a while my son will still ask for parmesan noodoos with dinner.

If your family speaks English as a second language, you probably get a lot of first-language words sprinkling your English conversations. I noticed as my Holland Grandma aged, more and more Dutch crept into her speech. And she never did use the English pronoun, "I". She always referred to herself as "ik". There was something very charming about it. My Mom has a problem with migraine heddecks. She gets them often, and takes what she calls a "silly pill" for her heddecks. Silly pills render her unavailable for conversation for a few hours at least.

Then you get the family members who mispronounce words well into adulthood. My hubby's Grandpa once visited Hawallayah. You know? The place with the white sands and palm trees and flower leis? Hawallayah. A beloved aunt is very good at this business of making up words that are similar to real words. Flustrated, orienated, and Meeyanite are all her words. There are quite a few Meeyanites in the community where they have a summer house. Meeyanites have some things in common with the Amish, but are a bit less strict, I think?

We also have a dear family member who does not believe in silent letters. Sword is pronounced using all five letters. Some people leave letters out of one word, only to save it and add it to another word. Like those folks back east, who pahk the cah in the garage because it's a good idea-r.

I read somewhere recently that the sounds we use to pause, ah, um, er....are cultural. Other languages have different audible pauses. I never thought of that! How interesting. I thought "um" was universal. Then there is the nonsense word that means "nothing". I might say, thingamabob or whatchamacallit. My Mom's word for that is .... hold on to yourself.... "dingus". Yes. Dingus.

Since I am the youngest child, my distracted mother has actually introduced me to people as "Dingus". Larry McMurtry used that same word in a very different way in his book "Lonesome Dove." A stampede started just as one of the cowboys had stepped off his horse to pee. He didn't even have time to button up before he had to be back in the saddle. The trail crew was teasing him for having to ride with his dingus flopping. And this is the word my Mother uses, to this day, to mean a fleegiemawhatzus. Or whatsername, the youngest of her brood, whose name escapes her.

Words are such interesting things. I well remember an English class I had in high school. This is a true story. The teacher was lecturing about word connotation, and how the same words used by a different person or at a different time can impart a very different meaning. At that moment, our school principal Mr. B walked in the door and said in his powerful voice, "What are you talking about in here? Makin' it in the bathtub?"

No surprise that the class exploded in laughter. So the principal dropped off the book he was bringing to our teacher, and left, wondering what was so dang funny. The teacher, also laughing, told us how that was a perfect example of connotation. "Making it in the bathtub" in Mr. B's generation referred to making bootleg gin in the bathtub. It had nothing to do with the "making it" anywhere(!) that we had in mind. He also said that the phrase "making it in the bathtub" had become a catchall in that generation for doing anything you ought not. I suppose that part worked for both interpretations of the phrase?

In later years, I was neighbors and friends with a kind woman who had lost her hearing when she was two years old. I knew a little American Sign Language, and was taking a class at the college to learn more. We would walk and talk and she helped me learn much faster than signing to myself in the mirror would have done. She was constantly amazed by American English idioms. Amazed enough that she bought a book about them.

I had never stopped to think about our idioms before, but thanks to her, I had my eyes opened. A couple times a week she would ask me what some phrase meant. I'll be there with bells on. Do that again and I'll give you what-for. Over a barrel, under wraps, a smile for an umbrella and a dog day afternoon. You can think of a bazillion, too. Most of her questions for me were about the idioms and slang words that they don't print in those books. Some of them, I had to go home and ask my husband, and then try not to blush when I explained as best I could. Thank God I don't blush.

One interesting thing about learning sign language was about signing what you mean, and not the words exactly. Like the word "turn". You can turn around, turn up, turn over, turn over a new leaf, turn red and turn someone down, all before you turn in for the night. I didn't retain much of the language, but I did retain the habit of looking at my own words from that point of view.

It's a more interesting world because of the flavor of our words. The words we use tell others so very much about us. I have always contended, especially with my children, that the use of profanity decreases the perceived intelligence of the user by several points for each vulgar word used. I am not so foolish as to think that my young men don't cuss, but they know when to turn it off.

I like to hear someone speak when they use words which convey their thoughts clearly, colorfully, and creatively. I enjoy accents, all types, as long as they are not so thick that I can not understand the person. I was once a stickler for grammar and punctuation, but years pass and when I'm writing for pleasure, I get lazy about such things. Spelling still matters to me, though.

My children have good vocabularies. They use language well. They include a few foreign words in their speech, but mostly just names of foods. My son's letters home are wonderful. He tells a story very well. It's all because we have a national language with a rich heritage and family language with an equally rich heritage. Expressed in words....our words.