Funky Family Phrases



The Sick Canary Theory and The Volkswagen Theory

At one point in my life I heard these phrases everyday and thought everyone knew them.

When my mother was young, her parents told her she could get a bird. In the store, she picked out the sickest of the lot because she felt sorry for it and wanted to help it. The thing promptly died after she got it home, leaving my mom bird-less.

The Sick Canary Theory described any situation where we bought or otherwise got attached to something or someone broken, thinking we could fix or save it (like a slacker boyfriend). Pain resulted for both the sucker who chose the bird and the sick canary the sucker wasn’t equipped to help.

We also had The Volkswagen Theory. In this my mother said she would never own one of those goofy beetle bug cars with the engine in the back (Apologies to bug owners everywhere. I happen to like those round rumbling cars).

Of course, one day we got a Volkswagen that ran so well even Mom admitted it was a fine vehicle. So if we ever said we would never do or have something (like in an anti-bucket list) we’d always say, “Ah-ah-ah! Remember The Volkswagen Theory!”

When I studied linguistics in school, I discovered that within languages there are many variations. A popular quiz like this one in the New York Times fairly accurately pinpoints the region you are from based on the words you use and how you pronounce them.

I remember in those classes the professors and studies I read said that people even develop speech styles within their own families. You might notice this when meeting a brother or sister of someone you’ve known for a long time. I was thinking of this scholarly reason when I came up with the idea for this post on my own family’s funky phrases.

Aside from our phrases, we had crazy fun names of cars: Creepy Cream for the Chevy Nova, Blue Beast for the Ford Grenada,Blueberry for the Honda CRX my dad drove all over the state, and Buttercup for the Volkswagen dasher that broke mom’s anti-VW will.

How about you? What things do you say in your family that only your family ‘gets?’ Maybe we were alone in our idiosyncratic speech. Somehow I’d doubt that, and  I’d love to know your family’s word stories.

Mother Tongue Tuesday: Dari


What better day than April Fools’ to start a series on a complex and virtually impossible to pin down topic like world languages?

In spite of the risks that I will get them wrong and look like that fool, I have the marvelous opportunity to learn about many languages because of my job teaching English as a second language. And although I’ve been doing this job for 20 years, the world is so full of languages, I still get new students speaking languages I know next to nothing about. 

Whenever someone walks in with a language new to me, I zip back to my office computer to look it up before I see the student in the next class. Part of this is to help my students. When I know more about their language, I am better able to help them learn English.

Of course, I also don’t like looking ignorant and am plain curious.

So here it is. My first Mother Tongue Tuesday post. These are not my Mother Tongues. And, while I’ve studied a few of the languages quite a bit, most of them I only know a few words in (see my post on learning Russian–which I am not keeping up with very well). If you see I’ve made an error with a language, I’d love for you to set me straight (gently, of course).

For the most part, I’ll use Ethnologue, the UCLA Language Materials Project and Wikipedia as sources, especially if I have not studied the language extensively and do not know someone I can easily ask. I’ll try to put up videos so you can hear the language and keep my fingers crossed that those videos are accurate. 

I don’t know how many Tuesdays I can keep this up. When I get to an end of the languages my students have spoken over the years, I’ll let you know. If I’m still having fun, I may continue with languages I’ve never been able to hear in person.

Dari: Language of the Afghans

“I didn’t know that,” my husband said when I told him they speak the same language in Afghanistan that they do in Iran. Which — it turns out is not entirely true but mostly. What I’m writing here is not hard to find out but I never bothered to look until I met my newest student from Afghanistan with her soft eyes and careful handwriting.

After I got to my computer, I learned that many like my student speak Dari, which is written in a Persian script very similar to what the Arabic speakers use. I carefully tried to copy this script for her the other day, not realizing that I was writing it backwards — left to right instead of right to left. I’m impressed she could figure out what I was doing . Imagine watching someone writing English backwards and figuring out what they were doing!

Here is the breakdown on Dari:

Language family: Indo-European (Dari is in the same language family as English, meaning it’s much more similar to my first language than Arabic, which is Afro-Asiatic.)

Where they speak Dari: Afghanistan and Eastern Iran

Famous person who speaks/spoke Dari: The poet Rumi (Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī)

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” – Rumi

Dari Tidbits:

Sometimes also called Persian or Farsi although there is a Persian-Farsi and a Persian-Dari

Dari adds a bit to the end of words for the indefinite pronoun (a/an). This looks like:

book = ketab

a book = ketabey

(I found this article bit of grammar at

And here is a rather scratchy sounding video of someone teaching Dari if you’d like to hear it: