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.


Why do bilinguals code-switch?
Code-switching in fluent bilinguals is not the result of linguistic incompetence. Code-switches tend to be motivated, whether consciously or unconsciously. Some of the motivations that have been uncovered by sociolinguistic research are:

  • Lexical accessibility: sometimes a word is more readily available in one of the two languages, for example because it is shorter or easier to pronounce in that language, because it captures what you want to say so much better than its equivalent in the other language, or because you acquired knowledge about the topic in that specific language.
  • Emotional distance or, conversely, affection: a bilingual person may feel more comfortable discussing an embarrassing or painful topic in their second language because of the emotional distance this provides; similarly, affection might cause someone to instinctively revert to their mother tongue when babbling to babies or cute little animals.
  • Accommodation: you can exclude someone from a multi-participant conversation by switching to a language they don’t speak well or at all (divergence), or make someone feel welcome in a conversation by switching to their dominant language (convergence). You might converge to emphasize group identity (identification), or to acknowledge power relations in the conversation (solidarity); I’ve had professors who were native speakers of English, and, though they were also fluent in Dutch, I always automatically addressed them in their mother tongue as a sign of respect.

The laboratory of life
In his book The Stuff of Thought, America’s pet linguist Steven Pinker wrote that “one of the perquisites of research on basic cognitive processes is that you always have easy access to a specimen of the species you study, namely, yourself”. One of the perks of being interested in language is that you always have easy access to research data, namely the linguistic output of yourself and the people around you. This is also what’s so much fun about being a Dutch/English bilingual specifically: there are a lot of Dutch people who speak English at least well enough to do interesting, creative things on this particular ‘language junction’.

Take, for instance, the phrase “Dat maakt geen sense”, the literal translation of which is That makes no sense. Makes sense, right? “Dat”, that; “maakt”, makes; “geen”, no; sense, sense. Except sense is not a Dutch word—it’s a direct borrowing from English. A Dutch translation of sense in this sense (ha) would be “logica”, but the phrase “Dat maakt geen logica” doesn’t make any sense at all. No native Dutch speaker would ever say “Dat maakt geen logica”. What we say when we want to tell someone that something doesn’t make sense, we might say “Dat is niet logisch” (literally That is not logical).

…except this phrase is slightly different. In English, you can tell someone You’re making no sense. But in Dutch, “Je bent niet logisch” (literally You are not logical) doesn’t make sense. Again, no native speaker would utter this phrase. We would have to resort to a completely different construction, such as “Je praat onzin” (literally You speak nonsense à you’re speaking nonsense) or “Ik begrijp je niet” (literally I understand you not à I don’t understand you). Can you blame us for wanting to adopt that perfect little word, sense, and that beautiful, effective, multifunctional that makes no-construction?

This Dutch confiscation of an English word and sentence construction is clearly a code-switch motivated by lexical accessibility or convenience. It’s not as though the Dutch language is incapable of encoding the meaning of It makes no sense or You’re making no sense; it’s just that the English encoding is much more elegant and functional, and requires less cognitive effort for bilingual brains. The brain stumbles upon the English phrase first, and chooses to seize onto it rather than expend precious energy searching for a similarly appropriate Dutch equivalent. (And why should it, really? The English phrase is right there.)

Linguistic interference: code-switching gone wrong
Earlier, I said that code-switching is not the result of linguistic incompetence. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between code-switching (consciously or unconsciously motivated switches between two languages) and linguistic interference (when a bilingual’s languages unintentionally interfere with each other), though. It’s hard to justify the phrase “Ik ga shit done doen” (literally I go shit done do) in terms of motivated and explainable language creativity. It’s not just that shit and done are English words; it’s that done doen is successive use of the same verb, in different languages as well as in different forms: an English past participle and a Dutch infinitive. Creative, sure, but the next time this anonymous contributor to the Interesting Things People Do With Language note in my iPhone wants to let someone know she’s gonna go get shit done, she might want to consider trying to stick to one language.

Another example of linguistic interference—and the last one I will mention here, or else you’ll be stuck reading about interlingual eccentricities forever—is when the grammatical structure of one language is used as the scaffolding for a sentence in the other language. This happens to me embarrassingly often. “Terwijl ik moet aan mijn scriptie werken” (literally while I have to work on my thesis) is monolingual enough—no code-switch in sight!—but in Dutch, we like to send verbs all the way to the back of the sentence so they can all hang out together and form one big happy verb phrase. “Terwijl ik aan mijn scriptie moet werken” would be the natural Dutch word order here.

Life on the language junction is a continuous affair. We haven’t even covered false friends (words that look like they have the same meaning but don’t) or lacunae (lexical ‘gaps’ in a language, i.e. the lack of a term for a concept another language does have a term for) yet, or the endless source of amusement that is Dutch soccer manager Louis van Gaal’s epic ‘Dunglish’ (cringe-worthy Dutch interference in English). Those are matters for another day, though. Right now it’s high time to go get other shit done doen.

Image credit: speech balloon | bilingualmakes no sense | hola

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 do/be when you grow up? (This question is rarely phrased this way, but this is exactly what it boils down to.)

The first question can usually be answered in a relatively straight-forward manner, but the other two form a double whammy. When I was getting my BA, it was pretty much impossible for me to answer the second question succinctly— which is kind of the point of small talk. Getting a liberal arts degree in a country that contains 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 moved back into after graduating college. It’s a fine 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 got their charm, but they require upkeep. The only act of home improvement I personally find absolutely essential is getting a Wi-Fi system that doesn’t conk out whenever it feels like it, with a signal that reaches every remote corner 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


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

We’re slaves to Twitter, ensnared in Facebook’s mighty jaws. We Instagram every meal we eat. The instant our attention wanes from a task at hand, every second we spend waiting for our train to show up— we grasp at every opportunity to grab our cell phone. We wake up to blink blearily at the WhatsApp messages our friends send 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 turn on the television without stumbling straight onto a heartfelt complaint about the superficial and unrepresentative quality – or rather quantity – 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 usually get 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. Cops used to guard it on either side 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 by 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