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

Please stop damaging my face, if you don’t mind

Every now and then, university teaches me about concepts that are not currently in mainstream use, but really should be. Take the linguistic concept of face, for example. Not only is it applicable to many real-life situations, it’s also a lot of fun to tell people they’re hurting your negative face.

Ever wondered why people say, “It’s quite chilly in here, isn’t it?” instead of “Close the goddamn window”? Or wondered what the most effective way to get rid of a person is? Or what exactly the term “saving face” is supposed to mean? This crash course on face explains it all. Continue reading