Secret languages of couples
September 16, 2014 5:22 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a (Tolstoy?) quote about how couples develop a private language based on shared references and experiences, and how it's tragic when a couple breaks up because this language is lost.

A while ago (maybe 10 years or so) I read something -- could've been an essay, article, short story, or novel, I'm not sure -- that referred to such a quote. So I've never seen the original source, and I'm only half-remembering the secondary reference, which was something like: "I think it was Tolstoy who wrote that it's a tragedy when a couple splits up, because their whole private language is lost forever."

I'm not sure about the Tolstoy part, and there was surely some more description in there about the private/secret language being referenced. The general idea is that over time, couples develop a shorthand "Darmok and Jalad" method of communication that is unintelligible to anyone else.

This seems like a long shot, but does this ring any bells for anyone? I'd be interested in finding either the original quote or my half-remembered secondary source. Thanks.
posted by Paul the Octopus to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
You may be remembering the movie "The Last Station" that details Tolstoy's relationship with his wife. In the Boston Globe's movie review, the reviewer actually touches on the idea of a shared language that you address in your question. The article beautifully states, "The film contrasts the pleasures of young lust with the rich, knowing intimacy of married love, with sequences between the author and his wife that convey a lifetime’s experience in a couple’s coded private language."

If you are interested in the interior language of relationships, you may also want to explore Stephen King's Lisey's Story. Despite most of my preconceived notions about King, I found this book to be a heartbreakingly moving look at the power of shared languages that develop within relationships.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 6:38 PM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

The nearest I know is Norman Rush coined "idioverse" for just this thing in Mating -- read to the very end of this Paris Review interview.
posted by vers at 6:42 PM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I can't help you with the Tolstoy quote, but the title story in Matthew Johnson's Irregular Verbs and Other Stories is on essentially the same topic, and your mention of "Darmok" makes me think you might find an SF/F take on it relevant:
That night Sendiri realized he had forgotten a word. He had been dozing, half-asleep, the smell of the squid curing in the thatch above reminding him of his and Kesepi's last fishing trip together, when suddenly he could not remember the word for the moment, at the end of the long season before the goatfish run, when you think you will die if you have another bite of dried fish. He couldn't remember which of them had coined it, one of a hundred thousand words they shared, but he knew that it was gone.
The whole story is also collected in this online magazine.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:56 PM on September 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have a vague feeling that this might come up in the cute dinner party in Anna Karenina where Levin and Kitty play the game with the word-thingies.
posted by grobstein at 7:19 PM on September 16, 2014

Oh, hey, here's another lead for you. On the off-chance someone somewhere discussed a connection between the quote you're looking for and Vygotsky's similar concept of inner speech, I googled for Tolstoy + inner speech and got a likely hit [Vygotsky himself!] that mentions something like this appearing in Childhood, Adolescence, and Youth. There may well be more places where the idea pops up.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:40 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aha, here's one translation of the quote Vygotsky may have had in mind, and here's another (slightly corrected) from this OCRed version:
Independently of the common, more or less developed, faculties of the human mind, of sentiment, and artistic feeling, there exists a private faculty, more or less developed in various circles of society, and especially in families, which I call "understanding." The essence of this faculty consists in a conventional feeling of measure, and in a conventional one-sided view of things. Two people of the same circle, or of the same family, who possess this faculty, permit the expression of sentiment to a certain point, after which they both see nothing but empty phrases; they see at exactly the same moment where praise ends and irony begins, where enthusiasm ends and hypocrisy begins, which to people with different understanding may appear quite otherwise. People with the same understanding are impressed by every object, more especially by its ridiculous, or beautiful, or nasty side. To facilitate this equal understanding among the members of the same circle or family, there establishes itself a conventional language, conventional expressions, and even words, which define those shades of meaning that do not exist for others. In our family, this understanding was highly developed between papa and us brothers.
That doesn't seem like an exact match for your search, so maybe Tolstoy addresses this elsewhere too.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 8:16 PM on September 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Kundera.
posted by bookworm4125 at 8:28 PM on September 16, 2014

From Beard's Roman Women by Anthony Burgess:
“the end of a marriage . . . was also the end of a civilization. More than twenty-six years spent in constructing a mythology, a joint memory bank, a language, a signaling system of grunt and touch—all gone, wasted.”
posted by thatwhichfalls at 8:38 PM on September 16, 2014 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for your thoughtful responses, everyone. I've read Lisey's Story, and that may well be the source I'm remembering, although I couldn't find the quote on a quick skim through my copy. I haven't read many of your other suggestions but I look forward to doing so. Bookworm4125, can you point me to a specific chapter or section in Unbearable Lightness? I have a copy that I've never read, but I've opened it up once or twice and it's possible I might have seen the quote in there.
posted by Paul the Octopus at 10:29 PM on September 16, 2014

There's also something by William James I think about how you have a different way of communicating with every person you meet. Not sure what it's in.
posted by sully75 at 4:58 AM on September 17, 2014

I have a vague feeling that this might come up in the cute dinner party in Anna Karenina where Levin and Kitty play the game with the word-thingies.

This is the scene you're referring to, Levin's reconciliation with Kitty and proposal. It's along similar lines as the OP's question but doesn't quite fit --- they're at a dinner party where people had been playing a parlour game involving writing in chalk on a baize cloth. After dinner, Levin takes the chalk and writes down just the first initials of the words of a question he wants but is afraid to ask Kitty, and she's able to understand what he means and they conduct a whole conversation in this manner.
posted by Diablevert at 6:37 AM on September 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a scene near the start of Ford Madox Ford's Some Do Not... (the first volume of Parade's End) that deals with this; Sylvia has gotten a telegram from her estranged husband Christopher Tietjens:
'What does this mean?' [Father Consett] asked. He had returned to the first sheet. "This here: "Accept resumption yoke"?' he read, breathlessly.

'Sylvia,' Mrs. Satterthwaite said, 'go and light the spirit lamp for some tea. We shall want it.'

'You'd think I was a district messenger boy,' Sylvia said as she rose. 'Why don't you keep your maid up? . . . It's a way we had of referring to our . . . union,'' she explained to the Father.

'There was sympathy enough between you and him then,' he said, 'to have bywords for things. It was that I wanted to know. I understood the words.'
posted by languagehat at 9:50 AM on September 17, 2014

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