Secret bilingual language

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My wife and I used to have a private language that was full of bilingual, cryptic references such as the following:

Yáo Shùn Yǔ 尧舜禹 (the names of three ancient, wise, Chinese rulers) || sānmíngzhì 三明治 ("three wise rulers"), the Chinese transcription of English "sandwich".

Thus, if we wished to ask each other, "Do you want to eat a sandwich?", we might say "Nǐ yào bùyào chī yī ge Yáo Shùn Yǔ? 你要不要吃一个尧舜禹?".  That sort of word play was usually just for fun or to avoid a word that was transcribed into Mandarin from some other language.

But we also resorted to such coded language when we didn't want to say something directly, such as "I love you", which Li-ching considered to be ròumá 肉麻 ("mawkish; maudlin"), whether spoken in Mandarin ("wǒ ài nǐ 我爱你") or in English.  Instead, we would say "sān gè zì 三个字" or "three words".

Howard Goldblatt told me that he and his wife, Sylvia, employ similar language.  For example, instead of saying "me too", which seems banal to them, they would say "rice rabbit", which in Mandarin would be "mǐ tù 米兔".

I suspect that monolingual couples also develop such private, coded language between themselves that only they can understand.  But when involving two or more languages, this kind of verbal wit becomes all the more delightful.

All of this may sound silly to outsiders, but to the people who engage in them, these word games make the quotidian zestful.


  1. GretchenJoanna said,

    April 27, 2017 @ 7:46 pm

    I think it is a charming and lovingly creative practice, and that you are generous to share your custom.

  2. Jenny Chu said,

    April 27, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

    We employ a lower, baser form us language fun in our household. The most popular method is speaking English with bits of grammar from other languages (including ones we only know a tiny bit of).

    – Mấy giờ rồi? (Vietnamese) + "Quelle heure est-il?" = "How many hours is he?"
    – Over-applying constructions like "X 唔 X 呀?" in forms such as "Din- 唔 dinner?"
    – Fun with fake German: "Have you awaygeputten the dishes an?"

  3. Yuval said,

    April 27, 2017 @ 8:22 pm

    We turned 'je ne sais pas' into a participle adjective in the PU'AL template. "What's that thing over there?" "I'm meʒunsap" (= I don't know).

  4. TM said,

    April 27, 2017 @ 8:39 pm

    My wife and I refer to a headache as a "coconut ache" – sakit kepala in Indonesian spoonerised into sakit kelapa and then translated into English.

  5. Andrew Marsden said,

    April 27, 2017 @ 8:49 pm

    I can't think of any good examples now, but my mother and I both speak French and smatterings of German. My mum also speaks some degree of Italian, and I also speak small amounts of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch. By comparison, my stepdad and half-brother don't speak anything other than English, (and a tiny amount of Japanese on my brother's behalf, as he's a Pokémon-obsessed 10yo).

    So my mum and I often engage in navel-gazing conversations around and in those languages, and I know it's led to some weirdly specific in-jokes, but I can't think of an example that would be easy to explain and a context in which it would be used.

  6. Joyce Melton said,

    April 28, 2017 @ 12:04 am

    My brother and I do something similar in a tangential way, making up nonsense song lyrics in a mix of English and Bad Spanish. Like:

    Why don't we never have pancakes?
    Hace un largo tiempo.
    Que hora despiertaste?
    Tienes ocho medias verdes.
    It's been such a long time."

  7. Keith said,

    April 28, 2017 @ 2:16 am

    I think a lot of people do this.
    Supposedly monolingual people will often have some knowledge of a local or non-standard form of language (dialect, topolect, patois, whatever you want to call it) and call upon that vocabulary. Or they will use allusion, pun and rhyme to avoid either taboo words or to hide the meaning of a phrase. I think that adults discussing sex, illness and death when children are in earshot is a good example of this.
    But it's not only to hide information from humans… When I was a child, I had a dog who recognized the word "walk" and would start getting excited and bark if anybody used that word (like, "who wants to take the dog for a walk?"). So we started spelling out the word ("who wants to take the dog for a W. A. L. K.?"). And of course he also learned to associate that set of sounds with being taken out for a walk. So then we had to vary the phrase much more, using terms like "a promenade", "a trot round the block", "a daily constitutional", and so on.

  8. Big C said,

    April 28, 2017 @ 8:04 am

    My best friend and I used to say "I am an Australian" for "me too" – from the French "moi aussi." We thought it was terrifically amusing!

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 28, 2017 @ 9:28 am

    Our dog paid attention when anyone spelled anything.

    Ap-parent-ly some British people have a term for hiding things from children by using a foreign language: pas devant (les enfants).

    I've heard two or three people say their parents used their first or ancestral language to hide things, but I remember only one person saying she learned her parents' first language "in self-defense".

    My friends and I did a lot of playful language mixing in high school and college, but the one that was most like Prof. Mair's examples was a friend's phrase "dos malo" (= two bad = too bad).

  10. Chinook Man PhD said,

    April 28, 2017 @ 9:36 am

    A Spokane Tribe elder told me of her elders speaking Chinook Jargon instead of Salish around her and the other kids, as a secret language.

    One of my brothers and I (natively anglophones) approximate this with our code. We use proper Spanish grammar but pronounce the words per English spelling rules. "¿Qué haces?" becomes [kju hejsəz]…

  11. Michael Carasik said,

    April 28, 2017 @ 11:15 am

    I realized we could get married when she said to me, "He didn't really grok the ikkar of it."

  12. julie lee said,

    April 28, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

    My two little brothers, Chinese, made imaginative use of the little English they had. If they met me on the street they'd greet me with the Chinese words "高低 gao di" which in English means "high low"–"hello" in their private code.

    As little boys, they'd always be tumbling on the floor, wrestling in mock-combat. Every now and then one would sit on top of the other, holding him down, and shouting: "Se3 不 se3 ! Ren1 不 ren1! De3 不 de3 !" (the numbers are for the Mandarin tones), which means "Se not se, ren not ren, de not de", or "Are you going to se, are you going to ren, are you going to de"—or "Are you going to surrender !?" –a combination of Chinese grammar, Chinese tones, and English.

  13. Doc Rock said,

    April 28, 2017 @ 2:42 pm

    My wife majored in Spanish and also studied some Portuguese and Italian. She learned German during the four years we lived there. She also picked up a good bit of every day Japanese during four years there. I majored in Korean studies with minors in Japanese and Chinese [classical]. I started out as a classics major, but also did some Russian and Spanish and also dabbled in Mongolian and Old Turkic & Uygur as well. Our conversation is often peppered with German, Japanese, and Spanish. We both are fairly good in German, but since my son went to German schools when young and was fluent, we had to resort to other linguistic subterfuges to talk around things in front of him. Japanese and Spanish with some German and Yiddish seem to be our "secret bilingual" source languages with some Mandarin thrown in that she's learned from my repetition. Howard Goldblatt? Wow, I haven't seen Howard in over forty years when we were both at Indiana. Time flies and old friends and colleagues are missed.

  14. cliff arroyo said,

    April 28, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

    I used to sometimes carry out short conversations with a Polish friend in English but pronounced as if the words were Polish

    I don't know ['idont knof]

    are you ready? ['are jou re'adi] but with Polish y for the final vowel)

    I forget how it started or exactly when we stopped.

  15. Jenny Chu said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 5:35 am

    @Michael Carasik it was true love indeed

  16. Bonnie(刘玉如) said,

    April 29, 2017 @ 9:29 pm

    According to the passage, we know that the author and his wife created a special language of their own. This language is associated with Mandarin, which makes them very interesting and lovely to get along with. They also found that many couples have this code language, but it seems a bit silly to many outsiders, but they don't care about what others think.
    In my opinion, there is a very common code language between husband and wife, because it can greatly enhance the feelings of them. On the one hand, along with the increase of time, many couples fall into deep boredom. As we all know, after a short period of time after the marriage of sweet life, everything will become dull. It will cause very serious consequences if there is no communication between husband and wife . As we can see, the rising divorce rate is not without reason. On the other hand, with the promotion of the use of social tools, many people addicted to mobile phones can not extricate themselves. Less and less concerned about the feelings of the partners, leading to marital happiness. Therefore, this kind of coding language between husband and wife can greatly increase the communication between each other and make love more stable. Last but not the least, I think the language is a kind of emotion and a symbol of a happy life. To some extent, when we saw a couple with such a fun way to communicate, we will feel the emptiness of deep love between them that we will not to associate with social tools brought about the cold lonely.
    From what has been discussed above, we can clearly draw a conclusion that the special language of couples makes life more meaningful. With the development of science and technology, this sweet coding language will play an more and more important role in our daily life . Only in this way can we get rid of the mobile phone to disturb our normal life.

  17. stephenl said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 3:49 pm

    I speak terrible german, and I have some German friends I speak it with. I found that, because my language skills are so poor, my attempts at humour tend to be at a phonetic/phonological level (playing with sounds or spellings), which has resulted in a lot of language/orthographic-level running gags, rather than more higher-level references that I tend to get when I'm speaking english with people.

  18. Luo Xiaochun said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 11:32 pm

    The author and his wife created their own communication method by using language filled with bilingual, cryptic references to talk to each other indirectly sometimes. From my point of view, their secret language is full of delight and creativity.
    On the one hand, to somebody who is interested in such coded language, it is such special language that is the spice of life, in that trying something new adds joy to our lives, to some extent. There is no doubt that it is up to you to think this kind of word play is foolish or not. Somebody may feel that sometimes it is shy or bored to express your ideas directly. In most cases, such word game is just for fun, that someone who engages in it can discover and feel.
    On the other hand, to some degree, such secret language shows the rethink of knowledge, the using of imagination, and profound observation. Someone may think that such coded language has characteristics of mechanical applying as well as semantic ambiguity, however, I think it is characterized by newness, vitality, humor and creativity. Everyday language is a communication code which has flexible adaptation.
    Sheehan ever said,” Joy’ s name is to create.” It can not be denied that creating such coded, special and brings joy to the author and his wife. I think, sometimes, our lives need variety.

  19. Lydia said,

    April 30, 2017 @ 11:50 pm

    The above article shows that not only the monolingual couples but also the bilingual couples are fond of using their private and coded language that seems to be incomprehensible to other people who are not engage in it.But the author thinks, for the people who use coded language, it is interesting. From my point of view, there are lots of advantages by using coded language .
    Today, coded language is widely used all over the world, especially in Internet. As for the bilingual between native language and foreign language, the code language often made by the similar pronunciation. For example, the young Chinese will say "狗带“ to replace "go die ";“ 西柚” means "see you".This kind of coded language maybe so silly to outsiders but I think it is so interesting that can make somebody laugh. In addition, some coded languages are created by saying quickly so as to some syllables are omitted. For instance, Chinese will say" 你造吗?"(你知道吗)to express "Do you know? Or "我宣你”(我喜欢你)means "I like you." I think people can save time and avoid awkward by expressing something in this way.As for me, when I want to express gratitude to my friends on Inernet, I tend to say "么么哒" because I think "Thank you" is quite polite and formal. A proper coded language can enhance the affection between people and avert something embarrassed.
    Of course, we can't always use coded language because people who don't engage in it will be obscure. What's more, even if people can understand or it has some advantages , it can't be used in some formal occasions. All in all, the language we use should be chosen according to different situations and different people.

  20. Vicky(廖明霞) said,

    May 1, 2017 @ 5:45 am

    The short passage tells the interesting secret bilingual language for couples . The author resorts to word play with transcription into Mandarin from some other language ,saying these private language can benefit the relationships of couples. But some outsiders may hold the opinion that it is a little silly. As a matter of fact, creating secret language is beneficial for couples. And it is also helpful to understanding the fascination of language.
    There is no doubt that language is a direct tool for communication. There will be a lot of fun if language is made differently between couples. In many cases, it is important for couples to communicate with each other, especially having some special words that others do not know. With such a communicating way, couples can increase a lot of fun for both. Apart from that, communicating with some special words can express the unique way of getting along that belong to each other.
    In addition, with the rapid development of social network, people are indulged in communicating with mobile phones or internet instead of face to face communication, which may result in some problems. As for couples, It , to some extend, will have negative impact on their relationship. So, creating some private language will produce unexpected effect for the relationship. Last but not least, employing secret language can appreciate the fascination of different language, which will bring a lot of fun to life. It not only applies to couples ,but also others who need communication.
    In conclusion, secret language (or we can call code language) is very interesting. It is a good way for people, especially couples to make use of it to make fun. Ahe same time,it is very helpful to learn about different language.

  21. BZ said,

    May 1, 2017 @ 12:29 pm

    My mom and I (and to a certain extent my brother) have something like this in English, Russian, and even a smattering of Yiddish. For example, instead of "I'm eating" we say "I am" because it's much shorter and similar to the Russian "Ya Yem". The past tense of this is naturally "I L" (you need to know Russian grammar to get this).

  22. Cyndy said,

    May 1, 2017 @ 7:48 pm

    My brother and I would whistle the tones of Chinese, in much exaggerated fashion, while at play among Pakistani kids, as a form of coded communication.
    2 + 1 + 4 = 回家喽!Huí jiā lòu! (Come home!)
    1 + 4 + 4 = 吃饭喽!Chīfàn lòu! (Dinnertime!)
    1 + 0 + 4 + 3 = 妈妈叫你!Māma jiào nǐ! (Mom wants you!)
    Of course, we were doing this in the Fuzhou dialect, which sounds completely different, but it's the same idea.

  23. Lori said,

    May 1, 2017 @ 11:38 pm

    The passage tells us that the author and his wife share some private language between themselves that only they can understand. They use coded language just for fun or when they do not want to say something directly. For example, they would say "sān gè zì 三个字" or "three words" to express “I love you”. Some people may hold the opinion that it sounds stupid, but the couple believe that private language makes life full of beauty and activity when people find the right way to use it. That’s how it seems to me. Coded language is a lovely and attractive creative practice.
    Coded language, to some extent, can only be understood between you and your partner or friend, which creates a sense of mystery because nobody knows what you are talking. The two parties reach a tacit understanding by sharing the same cue or signal.
    Moreover, as a communication tool, coded language can create a lot of fun. With the development of the Internet, coded language is commonly used by people. In China, for example, young people would say “Scare baby to death.(吓死宝宝了)” instead of saying “You scare me.” Or they would say “Male and female servants do not!(臣妾做不到啊)”to express “I can’t do that!”In addition, when people cannot understand why their friend did that in such a stranger way, they would express “You urban folks are really born to mock!(你们城里人真会玩)”In this way, embarrassment and awkwardness can be avoided and you can get a lot of fun.
    In brief, there are great pleasure we can derive from coded language. When you are engaging in them, the word games will become very interesting.

  24. Zoe Zhong said,

    May 2, 2017 @ 12:41 am

    Most people always do such things, both monolingual people and bilingual people. And sometimes these private and coded languages are used among people those who have closed relationships or those who have same interests and common topics.
    I think that is an interesting way to indicate there is a special link among people. People usually express their feelings in such private and coded language when talking something that is improper, even sounds rude to discuss in public. Take some network catchwords for instance. Some netizens chat with each other using “尼玛”“艹”“MD”(all of these mean F**K YOU),“484撒”(means you are a stupid person),or “○○××”(a euphemism to say having sex). How interesting expressions they are! Nowadays people have more passion to create different expressions, which shows their wisdom, although not all of these expressions have positive meanings. When people who do not know each other use these coded languages tacitly, they may feel more comfortable to talk to each other because they are playing the same word game which means there is a link among them. The private and coded languages bring people closer.
    Bilingual learners play such game as well. There are always some funny chinglish expressions happened ,like “you can you up, no can no bibi”. My friends and I have learned Japanese together. Sometimes our communications will use several languages to express our feelings, including Chinese , English, Japanese, and some Chinese dialects. We feel it is a comfortable way for us to communicate. Communication has no boundary. Everybody can have their own way to talk. And some tacit languages can enable each other be more closer. That is why people use private and coded lanuage.

  25. FFF said,

    May 3, 2017 @ 3:06 am

    The passage mainly tells us that Chinese people like using animals to praise other people, but in America, many phrases or words related to animals have derogatory sence.
    As we all know, there is a cultural difference between Chinese and English. In addition to the example of cattle, there are many animal words expressing different meaning between the two cultures. For example, the word “dragon” symbolizes “noble”, because in history, Chinese people compared dragon to emperor or their God, and now, all Chinese are the “descendents of the Dragon”. But the situation is totally contrary in America. They think “dragon” is a “monster”, symbolizing evil. Actually, not all the English words of animals contain bad meaning and not all animals words in China are commendatory. In English, “top dog” means winner; “lucky dog” means lucky man, while in Chinese, some words related to “dog” are derogatory such as “gou zai zi”,”gou dong xi”,”gou zui li tu bu chu xiang ya”. What’s more, except the animal words, weather the same colour words or political words, even except the words, weather the same gestures or behaviors, many same things produce different or contrary results under the different cultural backgrounds.It is the difference that shows unique charm of Chinese culture and western culture.
    All in all, there are many interest phenomenons of cultural differences. In order to avoid making a fool of yourselves when you need to face or communicate with foreigners, you might as well study some foreign cultural knowledge before that.

  26. Jack said,

    May 4, 2017 @ 3:12 pm

    Is somebody using this article for a course and having people leave their reactions in the comments?

  27. JamieCCCC said,

    May 6, 2017 @ 12:51 am

    The passage tells us that couples will develop a private language which only they can understand. Some couples use it for fun and to avoid some words that were transcribed into Mandarin from other language. Others want to be special or do not want to say something directly. Although word games may sound silly to outsiders, it makes their quotidian life zestful.

    No others words but appreciation can best describe my feeling after reading the passage with the following reasons. First of all, coded language is bilingual and cryptic that just can be understood by its maker while others cannot understand what they are talking about. They can express themselves more easily by using another word instead of some words that they are too shy to speak in peacetime so that they can communicate with each other better. With a unique communication mode, couples have a special way to communicate with their spouses which is different from other communication. On the other hand, word games play an important role in sustaining a marriage. As we know, the divorce rate on nowadays is still keeping rising. And the time which People tire of their spouses has been shorter than ever before when the danger point was the seven-year itch. Word games are funny and make the dull life become more delightful. Therefore, using secret bilingual language can refresh their marriage which has been unalterable for years. It goes without saying that only if couples have a private language can they enjoy their marriage to the most.
    From what is mentioned above, it can be safely concluded that coded language serves as a good helper in the part of couples’ marriage and there is no doubt that it is worth for couples to develop their own secret bilingual language.

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