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The Secret Life of Language: How To Understand Gibberish

Arts & Culture | February 12, 2015

There’s a thirteen-year-old boy at a sleep-away camp in California, and he’s getting ready for bed.

“Hey,” he says to his new roommate, pointing to a pair of fleece sweatpants on the floor. “Can you pass me my nightsuit?”

His roommate looks at him with incredulous eyes. “Your what?”

“My nightsuit,” the boy responds, oblivious. It takes him days to sort out that what most people call “pajamas,” he has been calling “nightsuits” his entire life.

Many students bring things like this to college: words or phrases that their parents have used so reliably that it seems impossible that other people haven’t heard them before. Often, students won’t even know that they’ve been raised on their own sub-version of their native tongue until they get out of their usual circles.

So the question is: are these “real” words?

In the world of linguistics, there are several ideas bouncing around about what counts as a “real” word and what does not. We know that a word made up by one person can easily carry meaning for another. The best demonstration of this phenomenon is an experiment by Wolfgang Köhler, a Gestalt psychologist who drew two shapes and asked his participants which was a maluma and which was a takete.

maluma-takete

The majority of people agreed that the shape on the left was a maluma, since in English we tend to associate vowels and rounded mouth-shapes with rounded items, and the “sharper” word, takete, with the shape that has more points and corners. Oddly, the human mind can take nonsensical words and shapes and figure out how to pair them up.

So, are “maluma” and “takete” real words?

Some people would say no, because these words aren’t in the dictionary. Those who make this argument frequently worry that the English language is quickly dying. It pains them when newfangled words take the place of more antiquated ones. They fear the utter demolition of the language as we know it, soon to be replaced with texting abbreviations and warped pronunciations. In their eyes, recognizing words like “nightsuit” poses a real threat to the beauty of the English language. They grumble to anyone who will listen at bars and birthday parties that it’s unfair for a bunch of millennials to determine the future of our language. Don’t the French have a board of officials that takes care of their language, they wonder? Why don’t we have that?

Others would argue that yes, maluma and takete are real words. They carry meaning. They bring up associations. What is a word but a series of letters, arranged in a format that could logically belong to one language or another?

“If a community of speakers is using a word and knows what it means, it’s real,” University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan, who specializes in the English language, said in her TED talk. “That word might be slangy, that word might be informal, that word might be a word that you think is illogical or unnecessary. But that word that we’re using, that word is real.”

Just like nightsuit.

Languages are living things. They grow and change with the people that use them. And this isn’t new.

If you’re terrified about OMG’s presence in the Oxford English Dictionary, read on. While it wasn’t put in print until 2011, John Arbuthnot Fisher, a British navy admiral, coined the term in 1917 while writing his memoirs. He was talking about his hopes to be knighted, and—probably since Morse code was on the rise at the time—he abbreviated “Oh! My God!” to O.M.G.

Feel better?

Though the backstory seems to lend credibility to the oft-scorned “OMG,” it’s important for us to examine why. Why is it okay for an old white baron to invent words, but not for parents to raise their kids with a unique way of saying “pajamas”? Why do a team of dictionary writers get to determine what is real?

The next time you put on your pajamas, take an extra second to look at them and think about what else you could call them.

Image by Alex Brown (Flickr via Creative Commons).