The secret language of twin babies

[By Humphrey M Kapau]

Twin babies – whether monozygotic (i.e. identical) or dizygotic twins (i.e. fraternal) – usually develop a secret language that only the two of them can understand.

This bizarre language phenomenon is called ‘cryptophasia’. Using this secret language, little twins can actually talk about you in your presence while you are there cheering and giving them hugs for being jovial babies. Just imagine your twin babies conspiring to cry in the night so that you become a watchman in your own home! To add salt to injury, you could actually be there as a parent, smiling to your own night sentence of ‘sleepless night without possibility of parole’, all because your little twins are speaking a secret code only common to most twins. Welcome to cryptophasia – the secret language of twins!

Though cryptophasia is a fascinating language scenario and a marvel to observe, it is also known to delay the acquisition of ‘real’ natural human language (e.g. Soli and English) in twins. Owing to the aforesaid, Jacques (2017) notes that cryptophasia is actually regarded as a language disorder peculiar to twins and not to singletons (i.e. non-twins). This is because cryptophasia-speaking twins sometimes tend to be so comfortable with it such that they delay learning the real human language around them compared to singletons.

In a bid to mitigate the impact of cryptophasia on twin babies’ acquisition of real human language, a number of studies in the area of linguistics concerned with language disorders and their therapy (i.e. clinical linguistics) have been conducted in order to identify early signs of cryptophasia and linguistic remedies for such. Such studies have focused on helping parents identify features/signs of cryptophasia and help their twin babies acquire normal human language at the same rate as singletons.

In today’s article, I will look at the characteristics of cryptophasia and how to linguistically handle it in your twins.

What is cryptophasia?

Cryptophasia comes from two Greek words, notably, ‘crypto’ – which means ‘secret/invisible’; and ‘phasia’ – translated to mean ‘speech/language’. It is a form of secret language by which some twin babies (close to 50 per cent of them globally) – identical or fraternal – communicate with each other (Jacques, 2017). Even more interesting is that no two sets of twins can speak the same code of cryptophasia unless they grow up in the same linguistic environment. This is because although babies have innate ability to acquire language even when faced with a poverty of stimulus (POS), the language they acquire is actually also determined by the linguistic environment they find themselves in (see Skinner, 1957; Chomsky, 1965; Kapau, 2021c).

Though known to cause “poor cognitive and language functioning, and highly dependent relationships” (Thorpe, 2001:43), the good news is that cryptophasia usually disappears before or by around the age of three when the twins have learnt the ‘real’ language(s) around them, such that adult twins don’t even know they once used it. Some literature also refers to cryptophasia as an idiosyncratic form of ‘idioglossia’ (i.e. idioglossia refers to any language known by one person or very few people, typically two people – see Jacques, 2017). Other scholars simply call cryptophasia as ‘twin language’ (Bakker, 1987; Lackman, 2011).

The major cause of cryptophasia is decreased social interactivity between parents and their twins, forcing each “twin to [babysit the other and rely] on a partner who seems to understand him and uses the same type of speech as he does” (Bishop & Bishop,1998; Jarzynski, 2011:3). This comes about as a result of parents being often exhausted from the double chores of twin parenting compared to singleton parenting. Consequently, some twins end up developing their own twin language in early infancy while singletons don’t.

Hints that your twin babies use cryptophasia

Firstly, during babbling stage, cryptophasia sounds gibberish and incomprehensive to anyone who speaks real human language. Funny thing is, you might actually mistake it for normal babbling that all babies undergo as a way of overcoming sound errors (‘phonological delays’) when learning their mother tongue (Jarzynski, 2011). However, if twins engaged in a babbling conversation are able to convey language functions like making requests between them, then you most likely are witnessing cryptophasia because their code is mutually intelligible (they can understand each other).

It is true that all babies babble but when your twins’ gibberish language yields communication outcomes between them (for example, if they are able to strike a sensible babbling conversation yielding outcomes like passing a toy to each other), then communication is taking place between those fellas. Who knows, maybe they even discuss your looks…hahaha!

Secondly, such twin babies may accompany their secret code with various meaning-making body movements (i.e. locutionary acts) that propose particular functions of meaning and expectations (i.e. illocutionary acts) to yield specific reactions from the other twin in relation to that linguistic function (i.e. perlocutionary acts). For example, wouldn’t it shock you to see one of the twins blinking its eyes (locutionary act) to request the other to ‘cry’ (illocutionary act) and the other twin responds by crying (perlocutionary act) so that you attend to them?

Although it is known that babies are naturally restless, the body gestures in cryptophasia conversations would display a coordinated gestural language that is equally mutually intelligible to twins but foreign to the conventional gestural language in society (Bakker, 1987; Lackman, 2011).

Thirdly, cryptophasia relies heavily on arbitrariness. In linguistics, ‘arbitrariness’ refers to the idea that language is conventional – anything can mean anything as long as the users of a language agree (Malmkjaer, 1991). For instance, there is nothing special about the label ‘sugar’ except that we agreed to call it that way. If we wanted, we could call it ‘COVID-19’ but it would still have its quality of sweetness. Get the meaning of arbitrariness?

So…past the babbling stage, twin babies speaking twin language tend to refer to items based on some conventional agreement between them (Randall, 2016). For example, they can refer to an object based on the experience they had with it. If you bought them a cup from Manda Hill Mall, they may start referring to ‘cup’ as ‘Manda Hill’. If they observe that you use a spoon to give them some syrup, they may associate the concept of ‘spoon’ with giving and ‘syrup’ with all medicines. As they grow to the next stage of language development where they are able to phrase simple sentences, they may end up constructing sentences like ‘spoon Manda Hill syrup no’ to mean ‘Give me a cup without medicine in it’.

Even more, as the twin babies later manage to learn some bit of their mother tongue, they may be in a position to use the mother tongue to crudely interpret to someone what they are trying to communicate in their secret language. This ability to use one language to discuss another language (e.g. using Venda to discuss Portuguese) is a property of human language called ‘reflexiveness’ in linguistics. In such cases, the language that is used to discuss another language is called a ‘metalanguage’ while the language being talked about is technically called the ‘target/subject language’ (e.g. when you use English to discuss Tonga, English is the metalanguage while Tonga is the subject/target language). In cases where twins delay dropping cryptophasia, it is known that they can use a metalanguage to discuss cryptophasia, the target/subject language (Jarzynski, 2011).

Lastly, Bakker (1987), cited by Randall (2016:1) notes that in the process of abandoning cryptophasia and adopting a mother tongue, such twins tend to flout sentence order of their mother tongue and adopt a “free-flowing nature between sentential S-Subject, V-Verb and O-Object, fronting key words first.” For example, they won’t say ‘Harriet(S) wants(V) water(O)’ but would rather say ‘water(O) Harriet(S) wants(V)’ if what is most important is ‘water’; or say ‘Harriet(S) water(O) wants(V)’ if what is most important is ‘Harriet’. Also, their sentences tend to lack conjugated verbs (e.g. lack of be-verb forms like ‘are’, ‘is’ and ‘am’) and pronouns.

Linguistic handling of cryptophasia

Cryptophasia is cute and not harmful to twins but you still need to look out for signs of delayed speech. To handle it, normalise talking to your twins in your mother tongue; introduce them to other kids; encourage each twin to speak for themselves; motivate them to ask questions; and consult a speech pathologist to monitor your twins’ language development where needed (see Bakker,1987; Jarzynski,2011; Randall,2016; Betz & Simpson,2020).

For now, sit back and enjoy those under-three-year-olds use cryptophasia to probably talk about how you almost fainted seeing Zambia failing to qualify for AfCON tourney for the third time in a row. I am itching to hear your language experiences with twins. Thank you for your overwhelming support of this column.

The author is a systemic functional linguist and Special Research Fellow (PhD) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His other research fields include neurolinguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, semiotics, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, African languages and literature. He has also taught language at UNZA. Email: hmksettings@rocketmail.com, WhatsApp: +260 956 315380.

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