I absolutely have to pass on this AskMetaFilter comment by the learned and much-traveled polyglot zaelic; one begins to get a feel for how he came by his polyglottery:

In my family, when we spoke English we were generally being nice. For the nasty backbiting stuff we had a pool of languages that would always leave somebody out of the loop – Hungarian, Yiddish, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish. I learned Romanian completely through the bitter invective of my Grandmother, who hadn’t taught it to her own kids, who in turn, used Russian as a secret language of hate. As adults it came as a surprise to find everybody in the family was fully conversant in Spanish — no one ever told anybody else, because it was only used to whisper nasty comments about people in private. And my Mom has just started to teach me abusive language in Turkish that she learned in the 1940s working at her family’s Sephardic Turkish restaurant in Budapest.

Wow. And I thought it was impressive that my mother’s parents could lapse into Norwegian when they didn’t want the kids to understand.
If any of you have similar anecdotes, the microphone is, as always, open.


  1. In my family my mother and my grandmother would switch to Italian to speak at the dinner table without the rest of the family understanding. My father (not Italian) eventually knew what they were talking about, and us kids knew when we were being talked about. To this day, I only really know any Italian by feel, so to speak.

  2. Back in Europe, growing up (and speaking mostly Hungarian at home), we used Romanian for the nasty bits, too. Later, with the smattering of Spanish I learned, along with French, I used Spanish for swearing. More recently, we have been using Italian when we don’t want the kids to understand, but, my older one, who is studying French at the university level now, is catching on fast. So now I am learning Spanish earnestly again — not for swearing, but conversing and reading literature in the original.

  3. How about languages of laughter?
    My mother, like many of the Mennonites who settled southern British Columbia, grew up in a diglossia of Low and High German. The parents (my grandparents) generally spoke Low German to each other, and standard German to the children, so my mom and siblings understood both but only comfortably spoke High German. German was also the language of church and the Bible.
    However, jokes were always in Low German. To this day, at family reunions relatives switch to Low German to tell jokes. My mom tries explaining them in English to me, but it never makes sense; apparently Low German is the best language for jokes and puns in the world, and you just can’t translate most of it.

  4. My grandparents used to speak German or Yiddish (depending on the side of the family) when they wanted to keep the kids out of the loop.
    My sister and I used to speak French or Hebrew when we wanted to keep the parents out of the loop.
    My parents just can’t win 😉

  5. We’ve got a family friend who fell in love with Turkish language and culture, moved there for a while, got married, and moved back.
    And they often speak Turkish to each other.
    A few weeks ago, my mom and this couple were in a car driving someplace, and the couple starts arguing over something in Turkish. My mother doesn’t speak the language, but she thought she could guess what they were arguing about, so she interjected “Look, she’s right, there isn’t enough room to get past the truck here” (or whatever traffic-related thing it was).
    And the husband’s jaw dropped. “You didn’t tell me she speaks Turkish!”

  6. When I was a kid, I was under a Danish physiotherapist (in England), who had a German assistant. Whenever they wanted to discuss their patients in front of them they went into Danish. After a while my mother, who was with me on these occasions, had to admit that her mother was Danish and she could follow the conversation.

  7. Only being sesquilingual myself I don’t really have that much choice in invective. I have noticed though, that even though I don’t speak and barely read German, it has become my language of choice, when I feel I cannot make my point online without swearing. I suppose it’s a sort of pseudo-bowdlerisation. I get to let out steam, hopefully without anyone taking offence.

  8. “Motivational speaker”: a practitioner of activity aimed to motivate studying of languages.

  9. My parents would speak Hebrew when they argued; my brother and I remain monoglots to this day.

  10. This is a link to an interesting article (in Russian) by Бурыкин Алексей Алексеевич: “Ментальность, языковое поведение и национально-русское двуязычие (язык меньшинства как “тайный язык” в отечественном социокультурном контексте)”.
    “Тема “тайного языка”, то есть языка, который в двуязычном социуме утрачивает свою основную коммуникативную функцию, без преувеличения является одной из любимых тем социолингвистики. В уже цитированном труде У.Вайнрайха мы читаем: “Устаревающий язык, по-видимому, обречен на то, что ему сообщаются особые коннотации, и он применяется уже в специализированных функциях даже после того, как свою главную, коммуникативную роль он утратит. В условиях быстро развивающейся смены языка он приобретает определенное эзотерическое значение. С другой стороны, первое поколение, при котором происходит смена языка, стремится изучить устаревающий язык в степени, достаточной для того, чтобы лишить его этой роли. Так, многие дети иммигрантов в США “знают” язык родителей ровно настолько, чтобы понимать, что от них пытаются скрыть” (Вайнрайх 1979, 161, 180 прим 19).”

  11. My parents spoke French when they wanted to have a private discussion in front of us or talk about us. Once we started to pick up on it, they started learning Swahili and using that instead.
    We kids, in turn, spoke Pig Latin and something we called “doubletalk” that consists of putting an “yb” in every syllable: dybubybletybalk.

  12. My parents never learned to speak good Dutch but when they want to gossip with me & my brothers about my grandparents in their presence they try, and turn out to be much more eloquent & foulmouthed than everybody thinks. Between themselves they only speak Italian, so I guess they will have to take a long walk with steam coming out of their ears if they want to have a good heart-to-heart rant about their parents.

  13. yeah, zaelic’s cool

  14. I’m just back from Bordeaux, where the local branch of the Spanish side of my family met with the Madrid branch. We are all fluent in Spanish; however, usually the Madrid folks can make private comments in Russian, while the Bordeaux residents enjoy being the only ones to speak French. This time, my presence spoiled the fun, since I can understand all of it. I felt such a nuisance 🙂

  15. jhg ug ukguj guguggjg

  16. Kobi Haron says

    Years ago I worked with an Ethiopian born computer engineer who was a resident of Berlin, Germany. As a member of the Ethiopian communist party he went to Poland to study electronics some years before that. He came to dislike communism so he defected to Germany. There he joined our company that sold Israeli made medical gadgetry. One of our people who was a native of Poland would go from time to time to Berlin, and these two used to swear at their German customers in Polish. I hear BTW that Polish has a vast store of invective.

  17. Mayaxenia says

    One of my dearest friends’ maternal relatives were Lithuanian-Hungarian (yes, quite strange), so in both languages she only learned how to curse (she skipped the racial epithets). Later she also learned some Korean, Slovene and Uzbek,
    making her potential repertoire impressive indeed. But she is a very sweet girl from the Mid-west, so she does not engage in that sort of things anyway…
    When ex-Yugos do it, the risk is always great. One acquiantance told me he saw a woman on the street, and being a superficial Homo Balcanicus, he commented upon her ugliness. She turned around and said: “It’s your frigging father who’s ugly!”

  18. What a great story! (Have you seen this article on Yugoslav swearing?)

  19. J A Gioia says

    My grandparents and their brothers and sisters used Italian when they didn’t want i ragazzi to know what they were discussing. Having heard Italian my whole life, my pronunciation is light years ahead of my vocabulary, something that’s only a problem in Italy.
    I’ll add that, though from a mezzogiorno family, they spoke the correct Florentine tongue. (The women were teachers and one great uncle had been Woodrow Wilson’s Italian interpreter.) However, they would lapse into Neapolitan, I came to realize, when invictive demanded something stronger than the Florentine, or English supplied.

  20. Similar to Mayaxenia: occasionally I overhear Dutch visitors to the US in a private conversation — next restaurant table, sort of thing — speaking on the assumption that nobody can understand what they’re saying. This might be OK in some particularly obscure language, but Dutch speakers are more common in the US than you might think. When I’m departing their proximity I generally throw some comment at them in Dutch about their subject matter. My brother did this once to two guys discussing an obviously very confidential business strategy, saying “Well, I think that’s an excellent plan” when he got up to go. The consternation on their faces was priceless, he said.

  21. Jimmy Ho says

    As a Parisian, I quickly learned to avoid those things, at least in public: you can never assume that the African woman sitting next to you doesn’t speak Chinese or that the blond-haired Scandinavian tourist asking for directions won’t understand them in Greek. In fact, my “default” assumption is now that everybody can understand what I say, no matter which language I use.

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