How to linguistics #2.2: cracking the code

Code-switching is one of my favorite pastimes. I do it all the time. You do it all the time, too. Code-switching is—surprise surprise—switching back and forth between codes. A code is a system two or more people use to communicate with each other. You might be thinking that normal people would call this ‘language’, but

  1. non-verbal communication also exists (think gestures and facial expressions);
  2. ‘language’ is actually a pretty fuzzy term scientifically speaking, for reasons I just typed a long paragraph about, which I then deleted because I wouldn’t want you to nod off halfway through the first paragraph;
  3. even within a strictly verbal context, the term ‘code’ refers not only to language on a whole but also to more specific varieties of language such as dialect, style (formality), and register (jargon).

As you go about your day, you intuitively adjust your language use to the people you encounter—that’s right, accommodation, we’ve covered this already. You don’t talk about subdural hematomas with your five-year-old daughter and most people don’t call their boss “bro”. Such everyday language adjustments fall within a broad interpretation of code-switching.

Other, more narrow interpretations use the term code-switching to refer to the mixing of codes within a single conversation or sentence, which is where it gets interesting. It gets even more interesting when we limit our scope to the most hardcore version of code-switching, namely bilingual code-switching: switching back and forth between two languages within a single conversation or (most interesting) within a single sentence.

Bilingual Continue reading

How to linguistics #2.1: you talkin’ to me?

Sociolinguistics is the subfield of linguistics that aims to reveal and explain the different ways in which language is used in its social context(s). It is also the field that contains three of my favorite linguistic phenomena, namely politeness, accommodation, and code-switching. I know that these are three of my favorite linguistic phenomena because I am slightly nerdy and also because if you were to ask my mom or my little sister about any of these, you would get surprisingly accurate answers, which means I must have spent too many dinners orating about them.

The term ‘code-switching’ in particular has wormed its way into our collective vocabulary; in our household, it’s not uncommon to be interrupted by someone yelling “Code-switch!” at you when you are innocuously incorporating a string of English words in a Dutch sentence or vice versa. (More on bilingual code-switching and its flip side, language interference, in how to sociolinguistics #2.2, forthcoming.)

I’ve written about politeness in language before. Code-switching and accommodation are interrelated concepts, as code-switching is one of the many ways in which accommodation can occur, and accommodation is one of the many reasons why code-switching might occur. Up first: accommodation. Continue reading

How to linguistics #1: the bare bones

One of the first things you learn in Statistics class is that correlation does not imply causation. The field of linguistics has a tagline of its own: “descriptivism yay, prescriptivism nay”. (This is not the way my professor phrased it, but it’s been almost half a decade since I took Linguistics 101, so I may need to take some liberties here.)

Crudely stated, prescriptivism is concerned with how language should be used, the underlying idea being that usages can be correct and incorrect. A prescriptivist might say singular ‘they’, as in “someone forgot their wallet”, is wrong; it should be “someone forgot his or her wallet”. Descriptivism, on the other hand, is concerned with how language is actually used, in the real world, by real speakers. (I’m a huge fan of singular they. I use it all the time.) Prescriptivism has no place in the scientific – therefore objective – study of language, but it does have a place in aforementioned real world. Continue reading

Holy trinities and double whammies

One of the things I was most excited about when I got accepted into a Master’s program called ‘Translation in Theory and Practice’ was not having to dread the Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions anymore. The Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions is as follows:

  1. How are you?
  2. What do you do/study?
  3. What do you want to be when you grow up? (Rarely phrased this way, but exactly what it boils down to.)

The first question usually has a relatively straight-forward answer, but the other two form a double whammy. When I was in college, it was pretty much impossible for me to answer the second question succinctly—which is sort of the point of “small” talk. Pursuing a liberal arts degree in a country that hosts only a handful of liberal arts colleges puts a considerable strain on your ability to converse with people you don’t know all that well but know well enough to, you know, have to converse with them. Continue reading

A house is a house is a house

Once upon a time there were two people who thought it would be a good idea to buy a house built in 1924.

Those people were my parents, and that house is the house I’ve been staying at since graduating college. It’s a nice house, a big house, but allow me contextualize that year, 1924. That’s before ballpoint pens were invented. Before the legendary Leonard Cohen graced this earth with his presence. Perhaps most shocking of all, it’s before IKEA was founded. How does one even furnish a house without the help of IKEA?

Old houses have their charm, but they require upkeep. The only act of home improvement I personally find absolutely essential is getting a WiFi system that doesn’t conk out whenever it feels like it, with a signal that reaches all remote corners of the house, i.e. my room, preferably all the way to my bed. Alas, my parents consider matters such as painting and gardening to be of much more pressing concern. Continue reading

The curse of constant connectivity

ImageIt’s a truth universally acknowledged: we’re all addicted to our smartphones.

We’re slaves to Twitter, ensnared in Facebook’s mighty jaws. We Instagram each meal we eat. The moment we get distracted from a task at hand, every second we spend waiting for our train to show up—we grasp at every opportunity to whip out our cell phones. We wake up to blink blearily at WhatsApp messages our friends sent us at 3 AM. Maybe they’re out drinking; maybe they’re in a different time zone. Hell, maybe they just felt like texting us in the dead of night. “It’s always beer o’clock somewhere,” has turned into “It’s always social media o’clock somewhere.”

Sources in support of this claim are everywhere. Can’t take a step without stumbling straight onto a heartfelt complaint about the superficiality of communication in this age of constant connectivity. See also: YouTube. Continue reading

The stubborn language whore in the attic

In the Netherlands you can take pretty much as long as you like to finish university. Where I live, it’s not unusual to run into guys – they’re usually guys – in their late twenties who have been studying for eight years and still haven’t gotten their Bachelor’s degree. The Dutch government once tried to remedy this situation by implementing a langstudeerboete, a fine for students with a study delay, but it got dismissed almost the minute it went through.

This reminded me of the following. In my hometown, there’s an alley which used to be a no-bike zone. The Dutch are big on cycling, obviously, and when it comes to cycling, traffic rules tend to be ignored. Red lights? One-way lanes? Ha! Similarly, the idea of a no-bike zone simply does not exist in the Dutch conceptual system. Flocks of school kids, students on rattling hand-me-downs, mothers with toddlers front and back, elderly couples on tandem bicycles; everyone cycled through the no-bike alley. For a while cops guarded it on both sides to fine every culprit, but to no avail. We persevered in our fundamental right as Dutch people to turn the world into one big bike lane until, one day, the cops were replaced with this sign:

Cycling permitted; bonus points for not knocking pedestrians off their feet.

There’s this Dutch proverb, de aanhouder wint – literally ‘the one who persists wins’. The Dutch are stubborn. We do not bend to legislation; legislation bends to us.

To return to the subject of studying:  Continue reading