‘Couple Dialects’

Old Couple


Couples speak their own languages.  Whether these could be called ‘dialects’ or not is up for debate. But couples certainly seem to engage in code shifting, the act of changing one’s mode of speech depending on context.  They engage in different styles of discourse depending on whether they are happy, angry, argumentative, conciliatory or any other emotion possible.

Be they dialects, languages or lingos, couple-speak is one of the more peculiar phenomena of human interaction.   Although perhaps never studied, I’ve often wondered if couple language differs by region, ethnicity, sexual orientation and culture the same way dialects do.

There are, of course, couple-centric phrases typical of certain English dialects.  This is particularly true of terms of endearment: note American Southern/Irish ‘darlin,’ British ‘love,’ and pan-dialectical ‘babe.’  Of course, few of these are exclusively romantic (or particular to an exact region).  Coversely, other romantic nicknames sound obscure outside of the couple to which they are heard (my wife calls me ‘buddy’).

A type of etymology unique to couple-speak is ‘baby talk,’ the cutesy, playful, and not a little infantile mode of expression that lovers engage in. Adults are reluctant to discuss their own use of baby talk with their significant others, of course.  (Many would rather discuss their sex life.)  Yet it’s a common type of communication in relationships. It may, in fact, contribute to one’s mental health, as this Women’s Health article suggests:

Whether it’s baby talk or coded conversation (“It’s getting chilly.” Translation: “Let’s leave now.”), the overall message is: The two of you are tight. “You are saying, symbolically, that you care enough about the other person and the relationship to develop your own way of speaking,” says Carol Bruess, Ph.D., the director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota …”You’ve got your own private world, your own mini culture.”

My impression is that ‘silly’ or ‘baby’ talk has a way of insinuating itself into adult conversation.  My wife and I got into the habit, silly as it sounds, of adding ‘-s’ onto singular nouns: ‘You want to go to the stores?’  Of course, lo and behold, what became a staple of playful discourse became quite serious: ‘We need to go to the stores, we’re really running low on breads!’

Baby talk among couples is a good example of the way facetious speech often evolves to become quite sincere.  This has intriguing implications: if childish speech can make it into the adult conversation of couples, what other linguistic ‘jokes’ become fully-fledged dialect features?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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11 Responses to ‘Couple Dialects’

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    In terms of evolution, some behaviors piggy-back on already existing behaviors. In dogs, for example, dominance displays often involve humping, which piggy-backs on already existing sexual behaviors. Why would evolution create a completely new behavior, when it can borrow from an already existing one? The smile may piggy-back on aggressive teeth-baring displays (in humans and chimps).

    Lover communication may piggy-back on mother-child communication. Some suggest that kissing may have its roots in mothers chewing food first before sharing it with their children (mouth to mouth). This is before Gerber’s baby food, of course (or even the mortal and pestle). Human infants can’t eat solid food immediately once they’re weened.
    Since humans have the longest childhood before puberty of any animal, it makes sense that the mother-child behaviors would piggy-back on our next most important intimate relationship.

    • Ellen K. says:

      I know this is totally off topic, but whether children can eat solid foot immediately once they are weaned depends entirely on when they are weaned. There are plenty of children in the world who have been eating solid food for quite a while by the time they are weaned. Early weaning is a cultural thing, not a biological thing.

      • Charles Sullivan says:

        Good point, Ellen. I stand corrected.

      • dw says:

        I should think so. My daughter was weaned at the age of one year old: in many (perhaps most) non-industrialized societies this would be considered absurdly early. She was eating non-liquidized solid foods well before then: probably by nine months.

        • Charles Sullivan says:

          Nonetheless, it’s still reasonable that lip-to-lip kissing may have it’s origin in premastication.

  2. NemaVeze says:

    I thought this post was going to be about what’s happened to my Philadelphia accent under the influence of my Bostonian spouse. (I’m losing my cot-caught distinction in some instances.)

    For what it’s worth, she calls me “dude.”

    • trawicks says:

      Funny: my Philadelphian wife has similarly lost much of the distinction betw. ‘cot’ and ‘caught’)! Although I’m from New England, I think this came from her college years in Western PA, where the merger also occurs.

  3. Laura says:

    A possible meta-example: my (Québecois) husband and (U.S., midwestern) I have a phrase, “fish in a basket,” that we use to indicate grammar/language features that we know are correct but can’t explain. Its origin is a hilariously circular conversation we once had in which he tried to explain what a creel is for (Me: “Why are you putting the fish in that basket?” Him: “Because that’s the basket where you put the fish”). We now use it whenever one of us corrects the other’s French/English (respectively) and can’t give a cogent reason for the correction. It’s just…fish in a basket!

  4. AL says:

    Going back to your post about internet lingo, that has crept into adult speech as well. (Okay, fine, it’s debatable whether my 25-30 year-old friends and I are actually “adults.”) But we are known to regularly use lolspeak in actual conversation.

    • trawicks says:

      I’ve said it before, but I suspect the evolution from facetious to sincere is an important factor in language change. I’ve noticed more and more sincere uses of ‘y’all’ among Northerners in the past decade, and I suspect this trend began with ‘y’all’ being used ironically. The same is probably true of lolspeak.

  5. Mark says:

    Over several years I got into the habit of speaking for my wife’s cat. It’s gotten so that both of us act almost like we believe it’s him talking. I suppose it’s like the way people treat a ventriloquist’s dummy. I’m not sure this has anything to do with couples speak other than my reluctance to do it in front of anyone else. Of course, her cat does have quite a peculiar way of talking.