Codeswitching and Context

Linguistics 314 Term Project

December 9, 1996


Since you are reading this document, you must have accessed it in one of two ways:
  1. you found the link here from my home page or
  2. you opened it directly from the address I posted on the Linguistics 314 confer.

Already this means that some of you will be reading the words I type in different contexts. Those of you who came directly to this URL are perhaps picturing me as you know me from class. On the other hand, for those who came via my home page, my high school graduation photo is fresh in your mind, and you may even have paused to read about some of my other interests, so you have a slightly different image of my identity. Depending on how long this page exists, you may even be a complete stranger who found your way here by surfing, in which case the information presented on my home page may be all you know about me.

This leads to a dilemma on my part: How do I present myself, if I cannot be certain of your perception of me? Do I launch into a scholarly lecture, appropriate for those who know me only in the context of the classroom? Do I continue in the informal tone established on my home page? Or do I take extra care to avoid or define any technical terminology, for those websurfers who may not have a background in linguistics?

The situation becomes even more complex when I consider other possibilities. If you are one of my friends from Forever Knight fandom who knows me informally as Pod the NatPacker and views me in reference to FK activities, should I pepper my examples with French and Spanish, as is seen on the show? If you are a member of my Society for Creative Anachronism acting troupe who is accustomed to seeing me in Medieval garb, should I quote from the plays we have performed? If you are a fellow Due South fan who last saw me at the RCW 139 convention in Toronto and remembers me posing with the Riviera, should I bring up the subject of Canadianisms?

Context can be a tricky business under normal circumstances; here on the Web, where there are few (if any) of the common cues, it is even more so. Codeswitching--changing from one language or lexicon to another--is highly context dependent. [For further discussion of the definitions and uses of codeswitching, see this page on codeswitching and interlanguage in bilingual development.]


Codeswitching is generally defined as the phenomenon wherein a bi- or multilingual speaker shifts from one language to another in the course of a conversation. As with many definitions, however, there is considerable flexibility (or, depending on how you look at it, ambiguity). To begin with, how strict is the definition of "language"? Do dialects count? What about technical jargon? How much is a matter of style and presentation?

Second, how extensive must the shift be to distinguish codeswitching from the closely related practice of borrowing? Does one foreign word suffice? Two? An entire phrase? [For information on this point, there is an interesting abstract about lone nouns.]

For a concrete example of codeswitching in action, I will use my household. All the members of my immediate family are native English speakers, but my mother is of Mexican descent and speaks Spanish fluently, and my father speaks adequate Spanish. While my brothers and I were growing up, we were constantly exposed to Spanish words and phrases in the course of everyday conversation.

This should give you some idea of the reasons people might codeswitch. There are many others, including politeness, a need to convey precise information, humor, as a shortcut to lengthy explanations, and to establish solidarity.


To switch or not to switch? As I pointed out in the introduction, if I wanted to target this document toward a particular--known--audience, I would use a characteristic style and vocabulary. I am currently using a format that I believe to be the most accessible to the widest possible variety of readers. Elsewhere on my home page I expect specific audiences, and so I alter my technique accordingly. The following is an excerpt that deals with language in a quite different way:

She can speak any language. If it's foreign to Earth, it might take her a few seconds to locate and learn it. To contact her, just talk into the air. She cannot communicate where she has no speakers (this includes telepathy), and a person would need to stand in front of one of her cameras to communicate using sign language of any form--and would have to be in the Imaging Chamber or holding a handlink to receive a nonverbal response. She can change her voice, if she wishes, though she's rather vain and so far has only done this to emulate Tron.
[Source: "NatPackers' Guide to the Universe"]

As you can see, if you are not a member of the target audience, some of the vocabulary might as well be from a foreign language. [BTW, if you find that you are part of the target audience for the excerpt, feel free to drop me a line about it.]

Taking speech out of its intended context can be mystifying, but it can also be entertaining. I demonstrated in class the practice of compiling quote lists, using Professor Lawler as a subject. If you would like to refresh your memory, you are welcome to visit the page of Professor Lawler's Pearls of Linguistic Wisdom.

That list of quotes, of course, was collected in a classroom setting. If you are interested in seeing what kinds of lists can be generated in other situations, try my NatPack Page. I hope this has proved properly enlightening. And now, in conclusion...

[back to my home page]