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.

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