Emory Report
February 6, 2006
Volume 58, Number 18


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February 6, 2006
Gordon: ‘Familylects’ help households define identity

BY Rachel robertson

"Buppie!” “That’s a yuck-yuck.” “Brush choppers.”

Confused yet? These specialized words and phrases, not easily understood by outsiders, are examples of private family language, or “familylects.” The word “buppie,” for instance, was coined by a 3-year-old to signal an imminent temper tantrum.

Cynthia Gordon, postdoctoral fellow at the MARIAL Center, found in a study of families around Washington that family members often incorporate such child-invented words into their vocabulary. In this case, the father—alerted to his daughter’s discontent—muttered to himself, “Please, no buppie.”

Gordon took advantage of some unusual data to expand on the definition of familylect, a term mentioned previously but not clearly defined in the academic literature. In the study (designed by her graduate adviser at Georgetown University, Deborah Tannen, and collaborator Shari Kendall from Texas A&M University), four families participated by continuously recording daily conversations of both parents for a week. Although a week may not seem a long time in the span of a person’s life, it is considerably longer than a typical linguistic study, which may record only a single dinnertime conversation. Gordon, then a graduate research assistant, helped with data collection and linguistic transcription—which involves not only typing every spoken word from the recordings, but also marking important features such as intonation and loudness.

During the painstaking transcription process, Gordon began to notice several types of repetition, including family-specific words. Listening to a week’s worth of conversations allowed her to uncover other, more subtle familylect components by comparing different conversations across time and location with different participants.

For example, in one family, the 2000 presidential election was a major event (both parents had jobs that would be affected by the outcome). Gordon took note of repeated phrases and topics of conversation related to the candidates. Al Gore was referred to as “Daddy’s friend,” while George W. Bush was “the man Daddy doesn’t like.” The family also talked often about other negative aspects of Bush’s campaign and personal history. In a recently published paper, Gordon argued that these and other “linguistic strategies” helped the family to create its unique identity.

“It might seem that [the families] would be the same,” Gordon said, explaining that all four families were white, middle class and with dual incomes. “They were, in fact, quite different in terms of their familylects; each family used language differently to create a different family culture.”

Another family’s identity was shaped by the parents’ careers as actors. “[The parents] would take on pretend voices to play with [their daughter],” Gordon said. “They would also take on pretend voices at times when communicating with each other, which rarely happened in the other families. So, that’s something that—in this group of families, at least—was unique to this family and helped define them as a family.”

She also recognized routines and rituals as important in creating a family culture. One husband and wife repeated an interaction in which the first would say, “Yes, my love,” and the other returned, “Yes, my dove.” Gordon noticed this routine could take on special meaning (such as serving as an apology or a request for favor) but, importantly, it also affirmed their relationship.

To create a consistent environment, families often have daily rituals, like the bed-time routine one family called “rock and rubs,” in which a parent rocked the child and then put her in bed and rubbed her back.
“These smaller rituals are important,” Gordon said. “Maybe you don’t recognize them as being as important as big events, like weddings, but they have symbolic significance for the families in their everyday lives. So I think they have certain similarities with the bigger rituals.”

What is the importance of all these repetitions? Although she’s still working on that answer, Gordon said, “My hypothesis is that it binds family members together and works to create a shared sense of family identity.”

She also hopes that her work will speak to the theoretical paradigms of “framing” (how people construct meaning in conversation) and “intertextuality,” or the idea that all conversations and texts are related to things that came before.

With more than a million transcribed words, Gordon possesses a wealth of data she will continue to explore—as long as she herself does not tire of the repetition.

“That week,” she said, “which the families lived once, I have lived many times.”