Carnival of Genealogy: The Language of Families

My family has several linguistic oddities.

When The World’s Smartest Sister was a toddler, she couldn’t pronounce the word “brother.”  It always came out as “bubbas.” Her two older siblings were her “bubbas.”   As  she grew older and more adept at the language, we kept the word “bubbas” as a term of endearment.  Later when we acquired The World’s Greatest Cat, we constructed a “language” for him based on the types of mispronunciation that created “bubbas.”  Thus, when he was a kitten, he was a “kikken.”  And since we loved him so much, he was “Kikken Bubbas.”

So when Top Cat “spoke,” it was not in plain English as my current pets do, but instead in this strange patois that evolved from a two year old’s attempt to identify her siblings.

But unique family language is not confined to exotic words or sentence structure.  Aphorisms may also be unique to families.  Do you know what “I wish cotton was a monkey” means?

My mother, a keen commentator on the ills of the world, when confronted with something that contradicts her sensibilities, will declare, “That’s wrong; that’s wrong as two left feet!”

“Tell the truth and shame the devil,” is one of my father’s favorites.

Some families have retained some, most or all of the languages of the places from which they immigrated, either recently or remotely.  I find little evidence of this in my family.  We all have spoken “standard English” as far as I can tell since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. (Although my uncle Herman Walker’s wife Ida Mouton could be heard now and again to speak a bit of Louisiana French, I don’t know that anyone else in the family learned a foreing language until I went to a German kindergarten; ja, auf Deutsch!).  Later, when we moved to Albuquerque, all of the children learned Spanish.

In her devotion to her children’s speech, my mother was almost like an immigrant mother, desiring her children to achieve in the New World.  Diction and enunciation were as important to her as vocabulary; she took pride in hearing people say, “Your children speak so well.”  (Some of you are thinking about that and may take some righteous indignation at perhaps one of the ways this might be interpreted).  She herself has that variety of Midwestern accent that hears and says “wash” as “warsh,” and “York” as “Yark.”  My father, a Texan, would be very hard to place on the basis of accent alone.

I think we used the term “icebox” to mean refrigerator well into my teen years.  An expression of contempt: “I’m not stud’ing you.” I wonder how many generations that goes back?

Today I attended a potluck luncheon at my mother-in-law’s seniors-only apartment complex.  Two-thirds of the residents are “Russians.”  (At one point at my table, a woman from Poland said to the gentleman next to me, “My mother is from Russia, like you.” The man’s nostrils flared and he slapped the table with his napkin.  “Not Russia! Ukraine! Not Russia!”).   A man on the other side of me pushed a two-liter plastic bottle toward me and said simply, “Russian beverage.”  It tasted like Dr Pepper, root beer and Coca-cola combined. A brown-skinned woman seat across from me explained how “international” her family is: mother from Spain, father from Italy, husband from Mexico, children born in Chile.   “I tell them [her children] they are stew beef!” she said, being nice enough to explain to me that “stew beef” has “everything in it.”   The Polish woman said, “Why must Russia and Georgia fight?”   Dead silence.   Then someone behind me said in Russian-accented English, “Let’s hope it stops soon.”

The manager of the complex, herself the daughter of Russian immigrants, stood up and said, “Let’s all sing a hymn.” The crowd chose “How Great Thou Art.”  Voices blended, I could hear only melody, and not that some were singing in Russian and others in English.


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4 Responses to “Carnival of Genealogy: The Language of Families”

  • allie mantin says:

    “I wish Cotton was a monkey.” One of my favorite lines from the Little Rascals!

  • Mechie says:

    Hiya Craig!

    Your post made me chuckle – “Tell the truth & shame the Devil” is also one of my personal sayings! I think every Family inherits their own ‘special’ & unique language.

    My Grandma Annie’s were so well known – I’ve begun to gather & document them! Here, I’ll leave you with my ABSOLUTE favorite Annie quote…

    “Chile, a cow will need his tail to fan flies for more than one summer!”

    Dare to guess?



  • Donna says:


    I love what you’ve done with the place – nice redecorating job! I enjoyed your language musings. My niece has a friend who’s brother is also “Bubba” – likely for the same reason. I have no idea what his actual name is because everyone calls him Bubba!


  • Fascinating post, Craig. It’s been so interesting reading about all the genea-bloggers’ family languages!

    I can tell you why that Ukrainian gentleman took offense at being called Russian. The Communist Russian government literally starved the Ukraine into submission about 75 years ago. Millions perished in one of the most awful genocide events in history. A Ukrainian being called a Russian is as offensive as calling a German Jew a Nazi.

August 2008
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