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


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