Tag Archives: oikolect

oikolect

As I was cooking today, I was thankful that the spatch I was using was silicon so it was like a… hmm, a spatula. Sorry, I mean the spatula was like a rubber scraper. Oh… I guess I mean the turner, or pancake flipper, or something, was like a rubber scraper. Apparently the use of spatula (spatch for short) I grew up with, to refer to any of a wide variety of kitchen implements with a broad flat part and a handle, is nonstandard, and officially only some specific kind of thing is a spatula. Well, it’s my kitchen, and you can’t stop me… as long as I’m not writing a cookbook or something like that.

We all have usages that are particular to our families, and we may not even know that some of them are idiosyncratic. There are particular uses of specific words (or even entire words that other people don’t use), preferred words for things (I have learned to call a remote control a clicker to assimilate to my wife’s terminology), ways of saying things (my typical vowel slur to my wife, /jɐ̃iʔɘʔ/, meaning “you gonna eat that?”), and also certain expected locutionary turns: for instance, in my childhood, as the car pulled into our driveway after a family trip, my brother and I would typically sing (to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”) “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here…”

You should not be surprised that there is a word for this kind of thing.

You know, of course, that a particular variety of a language as spoken by everyone in a particular region (or similar cultural division) is a dialect; you may or may not know that the equivalent as spoken by people in a specific social set (for example the factory workers in a particular small town, or the British upper class) is a sociolect; you might have heard that the particular speech patterns and vocabulary preferences of an individual are that person’s idiolect. All of these have -lect in common, which is from Greek λεκτος, derived from λέγω (legó), ‘I speak’. So what is the variety spoken by a family or within a particular household? 

It’s an oikolect.

That’s not because your family are oiks (though they may be). It’s because Greek for “home’ or ‘hearth’ or similar is οἶκος (oikos) – which, when it passed through Latin, became the root œco-, which generally shows up in English as eco-, as in economy, ecology, et cetera. It turns out that the home – the oikos – can be more broadly defined than you might think. And also that home economics is, etymologically, redundant.

But oikolect is not extensible to everything covered by an economy or ecology. It’s just you and those weirdos who you grew up with and/or grew up with you – and, as the case may be, those weirdos who currently share your domestic space. It’s yet another way that the language you use helps define your affiliations and belongings.