The Familect of Culture Study

This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribingPaid Subscribers: If you haven’t activated your invitation to Sidechannel, email me for a new one. If you’re curious, read more about it here.

Here is Steve. Aka: Stove, Stoveeno, Stove the Bove, Stovine the Bovine, Green Bean, Green Beaner

And here is Peggy. Aka: Pegs, Peego, Peegs, Leegs, Peeg-a-Leeg, Three Leg Pegs

You don’t need to live with someone else to come up with pet names (for your actual pet, or for other people). But as this wonderful piece by computational linguist Kathryn Hymes explains, pet names are part of larger “familects,” developed within households: shorthands and word substitutions overlaid with weird jokes, lingual play, and absurdity and undergirded by hours and months and years and decades of time spent in each other’s company. In other words: the language of actual intimacy, the sort we cultivate with kin and close kith.

In our household, our familect is deeply bizarre, fairly dirty, often includes physical accompaniments (a specific weird dance move you do when requested a specific item in the house), and also evokes a mythic “pooplegänger” which is what happens when a dark double, clothed in your poop, haunts your every move.

Familect can be so intimate as to be exclusionary: only you and others who’ve put in the hours can understand. (Just this afternoon, I said “Oh no” in a particular tone of voice to my best friend, and she replied “The air is filling with sand,” which is an exchange we have been doing for twenty one amazing years in reference to a line in The English Patient). You likely have bits of familect just as strange as the pooplegänger: phrases and words that, when explained to others, have about the same effect as explaining your very weird, very elaborate dream. The logic, the meaning, so often falls apart entirely.

The last year of isolation and hyper-intimacy has had the same effect on familect as fertilizer on a dandelion. As the barriers between public and private have disintegrated, our private words and phrases and ticks are creeping into our ‘normal’ speech. I mean here I am, admitting the existence of the pooplegänger in a public forum. We spend more time talking with each other, in our intimate spaces and using our familect, than in public space, where we have to use the lingua franca of speech unlaced with inside references. It’s like when you’ve been learning a new language long enough to start dreaming in it. Our primary dialect has become a familect.

Anyone who’s lived alone for an extended period of time will tell you that this behavior is not limited to couples or parents and kids: when your main companion is your own mind, your pet, and/or your plants, you develop a language with them, too. Pets understand much of that language — my dogs answer to all of the names listed above. And your personal language is just the accumulated product of communicating with your own brain and body. (I am not, for instance, the only person who cracks myself up while talking to that same self).

The commonality of all of these lingual behaviors is, again, intimacy. With your partner, with your kids, with your parents…but also with your pet, your environs, your own mind. Some people, for various reasons, find hanging out with their own minds unbearable, and I understand that. There can be a real loneliness to being the only speaker of a language. But there can be a richness to it, too — particularly if you’ve developed love and affection for your own mind, your own habits, and the way you move through the world. You could call that confidence, I suppose, but I don’t know if that’s quite right. Having a robust personal language allows you to way name and, by extension, ratify your own experiences and reactions and objects. You develop authority and authorship of your own life. As personal language grows more refined and expansive, you have more to, well, talk to yourself about.

Writing serves a similar function — and so, too, does building, making, creating, music-making. They’re ways to communicate, sometimes without what we might traditionally recognize as “words.” They let us harness and shoot off feelings. Sometimes I’m upset or disturbed or confused by something, and don’t have the words to speak aloud about it, but I can sit down and start writing and arrive at the language — which then, through after significant editing, does double-duty communicating to myself and to others.

On this site, the mix of that language — plus a community of readers in daily and weekly conversation with one another, building, refining, and sharing understandings and priorities — creates what linguists call a discourse community. I think of it, too, as the beginnings of a Culture Study familect.

This familect began to take shape in the subscriber threads in the early months of the newsletter, which continue every week, alongside more elaborated conversations in Sidechannel. There are in-jokes, recurring themes, made-up words, old references, and a cast of characters and cultural touchstones. Its themes are legible in the recurring thread topics and the specific channel rooms, which focus on specific culture consumption, productivity, class, and work culture, but also different ways of thinking through our place and value in the world (#spinsters, #thirdculturekids) and community (#kin-chosen-family). Topics expand and refine; some are temporarily archived and replaced by others.

I’m not claiming any of this as novel. It’s just our iteration. And all of it feels like we’re trying, trying, to find the vocabulary to communicate with each other: to make ourselves visible and knowable while also seeing and knowing others; to cultivate fellowship and intimacy when it remains elusive elsewhere; to avoid the exclusion that sometimes accompanies familect; to remain intentional about welcoming people with less fluency. (Thus far, I’ve seen this happen in ostensibly frivolous ways (around, say, Ted Lasso or Ben Affleck and J-Lo history) but also when it comes to weightier concepts (like abolition, disability rights, and housing)).

It’s significant, of course, that much of our conversation about building community in the spaces and places where we live is taking place…online. Some of us have never seen it modeled or felt included within a real, robust community; others yearn for a previous experience that’s simply not reproducible. We’re looking for more cogent ways describe the lack and hope, the problem and the cure.

I know that part of what we’re doing here is finding support and encouragement as we try to bolster those relationships. And part, too, is refining our thinking (and schedules, and ideas about work, and the role of collectivism, just generally) in a way that makes the soil of our lives fertile for other forms of community to actually germinate and grow.

That’s the continued work of this community, which, to be clear, builds on and is in continued conversation with so many others. As a subscriber recently put it to me, “I love what we’re building.” I do too. I’m continually looking for — and periodically finding — the language to express just how much.


Things I Read and Loved This Week:


If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version. One of the perks = weirdly fun/interesting/generative discussion threads, just for subscribers, every week. Last week’s Friday thread: what would you do if you had UBI and your industry had to treat you with respect?

The other perk: Sidechannel. Read more about it here.

If you are a contingent worker or un- or under-employed, just email and I’ll give you a free subscription, no questions asked. If you’d like to underwrite one of those subscriptions, you can donate one here.

If you’re reading this in your inbox, you can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Feel free to comment below — and you can always reach me at annehelenpetersen@gmail.com.