It’s Greek to Me

NOTE:  I’m in a foreign country and language is on my mind. 


Family language  isn’t easily learned.

My father told me once that when his second wife’s daughter came to visit, the conversation flew in directions he couldn’t comprehend.  He didn’t understand the feelings expressed or the words his wife and stepdaughter used to communicate. The manner in which they related was as foreign to him as the family language they used.

I get it.

Family language is immutably  linked to family patterns and cannot easily be spoken like a native.  Fluency is next to impossible.  Some languages are more similar than others.  My husband’s father and I could understand each other.  But mother’s  family language?  It’s was like an Italian woman talking to a  German.  Not a lot of cognates!

Day-to-day living doesn’t highlight the differences.  Misunderstandings are more apt to be blamed on behaviors than on language barriers without our realizing how the two are entangled.  It probably makes life difficult from time to time without our realizing it.

It’s most obvious when trouble comes.  Here’s a scenario:

My husband’s brother was in the hospital.  (This involves three family languages: mine, my husband’s and his brother’s wife’s.) From the get go, I’m confused.

Why didn’t my sister-in-law call my husband first?  The message is relayed to me through her family, and then relayed through me to my husband and his sister.  There’s so much opportunity for poor translation.

And then why did my husband call me for updates instead of calling his brother or his brother’s wife? And why, when the all-clear bell rang, did my husband’s sister just say, “Well, good.  I’m glad he’s fine.”

Are you following this?

The upshot was that I was fairly pissed at my husband for not calling his brother and he and I were once again mystified at each other.

Oh, I know all of the rationales.  No, that sound as if I think they were wrong.  They weren’t wrong, they were just speaking a different family language which includes patterns I don’t recognize.

I know how it would go in my language.  If my husband went into the hospital for an emergency, I would call one of my children first and let them translate to their siblings until I could speak with each of them.  Then I would call his brother and sister because they are his first family.  I’m pretty sure what would happen next since my language is used most often in our family.  According to the severity, the kids would either come running or they would be on the phone incessantly with me, each other, and their dad if he were available; .  The men might call less frequently and be less likely to arrive because they tend to be bilingual and have retained more of their father’s language.

My husband’s brother (or maybe his wife) would call and ask me to keep them informed.  They might call the hospital (can you do that anymore?) for updates in order not to bother me.  If it were serious, his brother might vacillate.  If my husband were near death he would ask me, “Do you think I should come?”

My husband’s sister lives in town, so it would be different.  She would call.  And if she weren’t working and it were a lingering stay at the hospital, she would certainly be there.  (She learned more of her father’s language.  NOTE: See below for long story.)

In the meantime, my husband would wonder why he was getting so much attention.  He’d be frightened and think that the eagles were gathering for his demise.  I, a survivor of multiple deathbed scenes (both real and unreal) with my parents and sisters, would want everyone to do whatever they felt they SHOULD do in case it really was a deathbed scene.

You can see the opportunities for misunderstanding.  And all because there is never a truly successful inculcation of one family language into another.

The wonderful thing is that love breaks the language barriers.

*NOTE:My husband’s father was a sentimental guy.  I don’t know if that was intensified by his alcoholism, but he showed his emotions.

On the other hand, my husband’s mother was a stoic like her mother.  In fact, when her mother was dying, the priest called me. (To have known my number, he had to have talked with one of her children.)  I called my husband and rushed to her bedside. I sat alone with her.  When my husband arrived I questioned him about where his mother and her local siblings were,  he looked at me as if I were losing my mind and said, “They’re at work.”

Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that?


  1. I don’t have a family language. I have one language I speak with my mom and another one I speak with my dad, and yet other ones I speak with my grandmoms. There are other languages I use with my good friends. My parents have their own language between each other I don’t always get. I think I feel the most comfortable in the language I speak with my mom.


  2. When I met my birth family I discovered that yes, there is a family way of being and conversing and even what you consider funny. Despite being brought up somewhere else I knew my family by how alike we were in how we thought and communicated.


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