Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Secret Language Decoded

My daughters, ages five and eight, often speak in a secret language only the two of them know so we grownups won’t understand what mischief they’re up to. I don’t have permission to tell you its name (that’s classified), but it’s a real language. So they say. When we try to isolate them individually and see if the terminology really matches up (it never does), they insist that there are just too many dialects for them to keep track of. Yeah. What. Ever.

It’s okay. My husband and I have our own secret language. We use it in front of the kids and most everyone else we know outside of our extended family. But ours is a real spoken language called Konkani (kōnk-er-nee"). It’s also the name of our community, which, funny, but has many nuanced dialects that sometimes don’t sound much like each other. None of them has an actual script, although some borrow the script of whatever local, majority languages they write in.

Now, if you’ve ever been in a public place where people are speaking a foreign language and you’re dying to know what they’re saying, you’ll hate this. But we can speak Konkani, our secret language, even in front of most Indian people without them quite knowing what we’re talking about. That’s because Konkani overlaps only a little here and there with other major Indian languages. Talk about secret. I can barely even understand other Konkani dialects. It works in reverse too, unfortunately. I can’t watch a Bollywood movie without subtitles, for example.

Surely I’ll be excommunicated for this, but what follows are some of my favorite Konkani words for which there are really no proper English translations:

Saadhook: I love this word, and others like it, even though I can think of very few instances where I could use them. Sadhook is the word for how my father and father in-law are related to each other. Can you think of a single word to describe that relationship in any other language? I don’t know of any, yet Konkani has a many such linguistic brainteasers. We have multiple words for sister in-law, depending on whether it’s your brother’s wife or sister’s husband’s sister (and so on). And for female cousin, be it your mother’s sister’s daughter, mother’s brother’s daughter, father’s sister’s daughter, or father’s brother’s daughter. Same thing for male cousin. Talk about precise, right? We don’t have a script, but we have eight different words to explain our first cousins.

Ushtaa: The meaning and sound of this word are both pretty lowbrow, so if any word will have me excommunicated, it’s probably this one. Ushtaa means saliva but also, and here’s the fun part, the word for any object (a glass or spoon, for example) that one person’s eaten or drunk from so that another person knows they’re not the first to eat or drink from it. It does not mean contagious or germy, only previously tasted … or something like that. I don’t know any translation for this concept that doesn’t require more than this one word, so talk about useful. My kids use “ushtaa” all the time (especially when someone’s sick), but since we speak English almost exclusively at home, my five-year-old still doesn’t believe this word is not English. Uh-oh.

Ul-sheekh: Another embarrassing word. In fact, it means something like embarrassing, only far, far worse. Awfully humiliating. To the nth degree. It’s very extreme and, as it turns out, quite handy.

Dristhi: This unique word has a universal meaning and plenty of counterparts, in almost every language and culture. In Hindi, it’s nazar. In Bengali, nojor. In Farsi, it’s cheshme bad or nazar zadan (notice the similarity with Hindi). In Hebrew, eyna hara. In Italian, malocchio. In Spanish, mal de ojo or mirada torva. In English, it’s the evil eye or jinx. Dristhi keeps us cautious, modest, and ever-watchful. (Exactly why I shouldn’t be sharing these secrets. On the Internet.)

So there you have it – Konkani secrets unveiled. Now it’s your turn. What interesting, unusual words can you share with us? Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with us.


  1. It's so interesting the way languages come up with specific words that don't translate easily, but reflect what a particular culture considers important. Farsi also has words that describe the relationships between family members much more specifically than English, and many of my Iranian relatives and friends find the "generic" "aunt" and "uncle" in English frustratingly vague.

  2. Do you remember living in Calcutta in Belvedere Estate ?