Friday, August 15, 2008

Our Family Language

Every family has its own unique language, words and phrases that have been passed down through the generations from the Old Country and influenced by the dialects and idioms of the various regions that family lived in once they arrived in North America.

I can think of two phrases that were used frequently when I was a child in the Alaskan Native community of Klawock, an old Tlinget fishing village on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. The first was "I jokes!" This was said after you had teased someone or had made a joke. Although spoken in English, it obviously was incorrect grammar. Probably it was a form of pidgin English spoken by my playmates' grandparents and great-grandparents when they were children in the early 1900s, and had simply been handed down over the generations. I remember my parents trying to break me of this phrase by telling me that I should say "I'm joking," but that sounded odd to my ears; stiff and almost pretentious.

Another phrase that was often used by my parents was a Tlinget phrase which sounded like "ee shawn". Now, I know that is not the proper Tlinget spelling of it, but what it meant was "you poor little thing" in a very sarcastic way. If I was whining about something, you can be sure I would hear "ee shawn"!

There are lots of phrases and words that are unique to the family I have now, my husband and children, and extended to the in-laws. Some of these are words with made-up definitions that come from our favorite group game, Balderdash!, which we play almost every night when we go on our annual camping trip to the lake. The adults and kids (who are now either young adults or teenagers) will sit around in the cabin with their drinks and snacks and one person will read a word from a card. Everyone has to make up a definition and secretly write it down on a scrap of paper, along with their name. The reader must write down the correct definition from the back of the card. Then everyone gives their definition to the reader, who mixes up the scraps of paper. He or she then reads each definition, without revealing the identity of the one who wrote it, and everyone votes on the ones they think are the real definition. If a person guesses the true definition, they get two points. If someone votes that one of the fake definitions is real, the author of that definition gets a point. Then the person to the left of the reader becomes the next reader. The game continues until someone reaches an agreed-upon amount (say, 50 points).

We love this game because we get so silly that sometimes we're laughing until the tears run down our faces. One of these times, to be sure, we're going to be asked by another group at the resort to quiet down! Some of the made-up definitions sound so good, and sometimes the real ones sound ridiculous. I remember my brother-in-law made up the following definition for succaleg: "a Yale sporting cheer chanted by fans at games." We still yell "succaleg, succaleg!" at each other when we go camping! And then there's kiddle, which someone else "defined" as a type of greeting done by touching elbows. Every once in a while, my daughter and her cousin will walk up to each other, touch elbows, say "kiddle" and start giggling.

Family languages can be annoying or entertaining. What words or phrases does your family use?

Written for the 54th Carnival of Genealogy.
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