Inside the secret world of identical twins

by Angela Cuming / 27 October, 2018

Three-year-old Tommy and Henry are not just identical, they're mirror images of each other. And like many twins, they have a secret language they use that no one – not even mum – can understand. Angela Cuming details what it's like to live with two small humans who happily exist in their own little world.

To look at them, not much to give it away. Two bright, bubbly little identical twin boys, running along the beach and squealing in delight at the waves. There are whoops of laughter and shouts when cold water licks toes, and tears when a precious teddy is dropped in the sand but listen a little closer and something is missing.

There is noise, but no words. Not words we can understand anyway. Forged by an almost supernatural bond, Tommy and Henry have developed their own language. Its official name is Cryptophasia – literally “secret speech” – but we know it by its more common name, twin talk.

It has been three years since Tommy and Henry were born and three years of waiting for them to talk. Three years of waiting for them to let us into their mysterious little world.

At first we weren’t really aware of Tommy and Henry’s own little language. Babies babble, and in the whirl with their older brother our bright, happy little twins toddled contentedly along in life.

But still, no words. By their first birthday, then their second, there was nothing. There was no "mama’" or ‘"dada’’, not a "no’’ or a "want’’ or a "bye-bye’’. A check of my diary at the time records major milestones: crawling, sitting up, first steps, first wave.

It didn’t help that their older brother Charlie was a precocious talker. He was 18-months-old when the twins were born and was already a real chatterbox. Looking back, I think we figured that we’d do all the same things with the twins that we’d done with him – the storybooks and singing and playgroups - and that the speech would just happen.

But then, nothing.

All that happened was they began to grow closer and closer. They wanted to be together, always and at any cost.

The twins just after they were born. They were screaming and crying - but settled as soon as they were placed together. Photo / Angela Cuming

Born at 34-weeks, they spent their formative weeks in the NICU, where kind-hearted night nurses would sneak them into the same incubator to soothe cries (it was not standard practice due to the danger of overheating) and at home, they slept best when together.

They first shared a cot, cuddled together always. When they grew too big they went into a cot each, by themselves, but Tommy would wake every night, banging his head against the mattress, waking us and his twin up. For months his nocturnal antics haunted us until one day, in a fit of tired frustration, we dismantled the cots and left the mattresses on the floor. That night Tommy crawled over to his twin, curled into him like a cat and slept soundly, all night long. The whole time all he wanted was to be next to his brother. We felt so foolish for not realising sooner.

They do all the other things you’d expect identical twins to do. When one cries the other cries, when one goes to sleep the other follows them to their shared bedroom. Henry especially seems lost without his twin brother. On the odd occasion he’s been up and about during the day without Tommy, he wanders from rooms to room looking lost. When Henry fractured his elbow and spent the night in hospital, he roamed the corridors at 3am calling his twin’s name.

It had not been an easy – or safe – pregnancy. There were twice-weekly scans to make sure both were still alive. They shared only one placenta (most twins have one each) because the embryo had split quite late – probably by up to two weeks. Any later and they would have been conjoined. Instead, they are what’s known as "mirror twins”. A rare type of identical twinning, mirror twins, when facing, are the mirror image of each other. Tommy and Henry are textbook examples. Their cowlicks and whorls of their hair run in opposite directions, and one is left-handed and the other right. Mirror twins use different parts of their brains, like two halves of one whole. Tommy’s loud, messy and can’t sit; Henry is quiet, neat as a pin and can lounge about all day. But they are strikingly similar in so many other ways – I still get them mixed up now and then, mostly when they are out of the bath and running around covered only in bubbles.

"Almost as much isn’t known about cryptophasia as there is known," says mum Angela.

"Almost as much isn’t known about cryptophasia as there is known," says mum Angela.

Daily life with them is a whirl of giggles and babbles and peels of laughter, but little, if any, words. Tommy will wave and say "hello’’, or say “where’s Charlie?” when he wants his big brother, but that’s about it. Sometimes he will point and say “what’s this?”, but not often. Twin Henry is even more reticent to talk. He’s happiest outside looking at the clouds or picking flowers, speech not high on his list of priorities.

We get by without them talking. They are such contented little things that – as strange as it sounds – it’s almost as if there’s no pressing need for them to talk. They wander off to bed when they are tired, and they always sleep at the same time, and in the same bed. When they wake up in the morning we give them milk and breakfast, and they are happiest at home, playing with their toys or with their big brother. I know their routines so well I can tell when they are hungry or tired, and if they want something they will grab my hand and guide me to it.

Taking them out anywhere can be a little tough. It’s hard to explain things to them like ‘please don’t play near the water’ or ‘come back over here’. They exist in their own little world. They are happiest at home, dancing around the living room to the Baby Shark song or watching the ships come into Port Otago, or playing hide and seek and having their toes tickled and cheeks kissed.

And here’s the thing. There is nothing causing their speech delay other than the fact they are unusually close identical twins. Their hearing has been checked and is fine. Speech therapists and child development specialists have assessed them and tested them and monitored them and all come away slightly scratching their heads, all saying the same thing: perfectly healthy, normal, happy little boys who can speak, but choose not to because they prefer to use their own secret language.

Tommy (left...maybe?) and Henry at daycare, happily playing together. Photo / Angela Cuming

Tommy (left...maybe?) and Henry at daycare, happily playing together. Photo / Angela Cuming

The kicker is they can talk. Real, proper talking. You hear them all the time when they think you aren’t looking.

They will walk down the stairs and count them, all the way up to 20 and beyond. They know all the shapes and colours and letters of the alphabet. Show them a pack of 200 flashcards and they can name everything from a rainbow to a tugboat to a chair. They will sing along to nursery rhymes word perfect. And get one alone and they will start to “talk” out of sheer necessity but as soon as their twin is back by their side you can literally hear the twin talk come creeping back into their speech and then, a minute or two later, we are back to watching a movie with subtitles.

And while they don’t talk the days are filled with noise from them. They are constantly chattering to each other and to themselves in their own little language. Lots of chirrups and other, joy-filled little sounds, all with the tone and inflections of “normal” speech.

It can get frustrating. And lonely. They don’t call me “mummy”, there’s no “I love you” or “pick me up, mama”. On a more practical level, there are things like having to guess what they want to eat because they won’t tell me (although Tommy helpfully does say “pizza!”)  and it can take three or four guesses before I put something on the television they want to watch. Recently, I had them out at a playground and Henry was crying and crying and I couldn’t work out why. Turned out all he wanted was a sip of water. I laughed because I didn’t want them to see me cry. There are more serious issues, too, like when they are sick or hurt and they can’t tell me what’s wrong.

The twins only like to sleep together. Photo / Angela Cuming

We’ve tried everything we can to encourage their speech. At age two they were formally assessed by a speech therapist and child development specialist who agreed that yes, while they didn’t talk much (“language-delayed” was the lovely euphemism) they were otherwise happy, healthy, normal toddlers who would start to talk when they were good and ready. We carried on with things, did all the activities suggest like daycare and playgrounds so they could be around other, speaking, children but the twin talk continued.

The latest speech therapist to assess Tommy and Henry concluded they don’t have a “speech disorder” as such, just that they have their own way of pronouncing words that no one else can understand.

Not helping is the lack of definitive answers from the scientific and medical professionals when it comes to twin talk. Almost as much isn’t known about cryptophasia as there is known.

Just as no one really knows why identical twins are formed (‘embryo collapse’ is the best science has come up with), no one really knows why twins develop cryptophasia, or even exactly what it is. Rarely is it the complete invention of an entirely new language, though. Most often, and as I suspect is the case with Tommy and Henry, already close twins mispronounce words and make inside references.

As Queensland University of Technology psychologist Karen Thorpe told Slate, it's like "the conversations between married couples where words are invented and abbreviated or restricted codes are used because full explanations are redundant”.

Quoted in the article is something from the French writer Michael Tournier that I think best sums it up: “When two individuals laugh together – and only then – they come near to the mystery of cryptophasia. At such times they are using a pseudo-language, laughter, based on a common ground – stemming from a concatenation of shared experience – which, unintelligible in itself, has as its function to narrow the distance between their respective positions." Who doesn't like an inside joke? Who wouldn't be tempted to live one's whole life lost in one?

And so we continue to wait for our beautiful little twins to let us in on their inside joke. Precious words I may have once taken for granted have become golden moments in our whānau. “Mummy, mummy, Tommy just said dinosaur!” Charlie will shout proudly from the toy-filled bathtub, the word never repeated but the small victory celebrated as though he’d just recited Shakespeare.

There have been other moments, too, that fill me with hope that their world will soon unlock. Henry, out of the blue, saying “daddy” in a voice so clear we thought it was his older brother talking. Requests for “milk” before bedtime. One day Tommy, sick from a fever touched my cheek and said: “I love you”.

I would wait an eternity to hear those words again.

When the twins were not yet 12-months-old they were examined by a paediatrician who specialised in identical twins. As he wrote up his notes, I grilled him with questions and concerns about Tommy and Henry. If they had the exact same DNA why did they have different tastes in food? Would they have ESP? Did he think it was weird that they have essentially the same, photocopied brain but were two different humans?

He put down his pen, turned to me, and I drew my twins closer to me, rocking them in their pram.

“You know, I’ve been on this earth a while now and I’ve seen all sorts of things and, well, there are some things that medicine and science can’t explain,” he said.

“So my advice is to just enjoy your twins and let them be. Enjoy them. Sometimes there won’t be an answer for why they are the way they are, and that’s okay.”

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