Keetcha, Sungit, and Incidental Language Learning
One day last year I came home from the library with the only Ukrainian and Tagalog language textbooks I could find. I had a very specific goal for those books: my boyfriend and I would learn each other’s heritage language and eventually be able to have secret conversations in public. But Modern Ukrainian and Beginning Tagalog sat on my coffee table, performing admirably as coffee table books, until I eventually I lugged them back to the library and paid my overdue fine.
Language learning for me has always been a formal, purposeful endeavour, framed by classroom instruction and homework and juicy textbooks full of exercises and answers. Of course I’d done a lot of learning outside of the classroom when I lived in China, but even then I rarely relaxed, always intent on my learning and aware of my progress. So I didn’t even notice that throughout our relationship Brian and I had been weaving our languages together without even trying.
The language sharing began with a term of endearment—but not for each other. From the beginning of our relationship, I have called Brian’s cat Keetcha—the word my family uses for cat, a diminutive that implies a small cat but not quite a kitten. It’s not really a “proper” word; look up “cat” or “kitten” in the dictionary and you’ll find a bunch of similar-sounding words, but not that one. It’s probably a carry-over from the regional Ukrainian my grandparents brought with them to Canada. It’s been shaped by my not-quite-accurate transliteration, and now its history is recorded in the hundreds of texts that Brian and I have sent each other about our Keetcha.
Lately, language lessons have been occurring in the most mundane situations. As we walked home from the grocery store a few months ago, Brian said that the cashier was sungit. He searched for a translation and came up with cranky, but didn’t really feel satisfied. So he scrunched up his face in a sour expression and showed me exactly what it means. I can’t get that last vowel sound quite right, but every time I say it I can see Brian’s sungit face, and it’s a lot better than the definition I got when I looked the word up online: inclemency. Sungit is quickly becoming my favourite new Tagalog word, even beating the first word Brian ever taught me: muta—eye crud.
Will I ever speak Tagalog fluently? Likely not. Will Brian ever carry on a conversation in Ukrainian? It’s possible. But it doesn’t really matter. Building a couplelect is a private and intimate way to share and acknowledge childhood and family and heritage. Every time we swap words, I’m drawing on Saturday-morning language classes and Brian’s recalling family gatherings. And slowly, we’re crafting that secret language I had hoped to find inside a textbook.