'Familect' Is The Inside Joke Language We All Have At Home - Here's What To Know

You know that embarrassing pet name your mom has been calling you since you were 11? Or that weird saying your family uses when answering each other's phone calls? It's almost like you and your loved ones created a brand new, secret dialect — because you basically did. Those made-up vocabulary words, nonsensical phrases, strange nicknames, and references to inside jokes are known as a "familect," according to linguists.

A viral TikTok video by creator Eleanor Stern helped open our eyes to the concept. In the clip, Stern highlights a 2021 article in The Atlantic written by computational linguist Kathryn Hymes that discussed the familects people use at home. In short, Hymes says that these household dialects form when people live together under one roof, where they regularly communicate and connect through — sometimes newly invented — language.

Stern gives an example from her own life, explaining that the people in her household have started replacing the n's in words with m's. And chances are, you can think of a few examples from your own family too. But why do we create familects in the first place? Here's what those goofy names and intentional mispronunciations mean.

Familects convey closeness, but not all families have one

The made-up words and unique phrases found in many families' private familects might sound funny, but they can serve a few important functions. First, family lexicon — similar to slang — may form out of necessity. "Slang was the language of hustlers, swindlers, and peddlers," Tony Thorne, a lexicographer, told National Geographic. "They all used slang because they wanted to hide what they were saying, and they had to invent new words for new kinds of crime." Similarly, a family's original dinner recipe may require a new term to describe it, or a small child's simplified version of a hard-to-pronounce word may eventually be adopted by the whole family.

However, the main reason families use familect seems to relate to connection. "Familects help us feel like family," Kathryn Hymes writes in The Atlantic. "When people use familect terms, they reinforce the stories, rituals, and memories that hold them together as a group."

Familect is often playful and affectionate, so you might hear it most often in close-knit families or among siblings who are close in age and joke around the way friends would. And this brings up an important point: Not every family has a familect. A YouGovAmerica survey found that over 40% of people say they don't speak differently with family members. Though this doesn't mean these families aren't as connected, necessarily, it might signal that they choose to connect and express shared meaning in other ways.

Distinct dialects can form outside of families too

Sweet pet names, silly made-up phrases, secret code — if familect seems to have a lot in common with how you and your significant other talk, that's because familect can form in romantic relationships too. Carol Bruess, director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, told The Cut, "Couples create 'rituals of connection' to keep their 'culture of two' strong, private language being one type of those rituals." According to Bruess, using a shared dialect is a sign your emotional connection with your significant other is strong.

Familects exist in other relationships too. "Any group of people that has extended contact over time and sees itself as distinctive is going to have some specialized uses of language," Cynthia Gordon, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, explained in the article in The Atlantic. That means you might notice familect forming between you and your roommates, close friends, or even co-workers, as long as you share some sort of positive connection.

Next time your mom calls you by a cringy nickname or your friend makes fun of the baby talk you use with your S.O., just embrace it — your familect is a reminder of where you belong, after all.