Code-Switching: The Creative Art of Combining Languages (1)


One of the joys of living in north London, where native English speakers are in the minority, is the bus ride home. There are so many languages spoken my own borough of Haringey – Greek Cypriot, Polish, Serbo-Croat, Cantonese, Punjabi, to list only a few – that sitting on the bus can often feel like being on holiday, even after the most arduous and Anglophone of days in the office.

But what’s even more of a treat, admittedly a bit rarer, is to hear speakers changing between two or more languages within the same conversation. I could be sat listening to two teenage girls from Indonesia speak Dutch when suddenly – as if by magic – I can understand them. Of course, it’s not because I’ve magically learned a whole new language, but because they’ve switched to my own mother tongue. And just as soon as I’ve realised I’m not the genius linguist I thought I was, they’ve changed back to Dutch…

Because most of the world speaks more than one language this code-switching, as linguists call it, is actually pretty common. Indeed, linguists have studied the phenomenon all over the world: from Cantonese-English switching in Hong Kong, to Spanish-English switching in LA, to Lwidhako-Swahili switching in East Africa. Researchers at Birkbeck College, London, have even done quite a bit of work studying Greek Cypriot-English switching in Haringey (Gardner-Chloros, 2009). On YouTube, you can find quite a few examples of code-switching in action, including this one between Japanese and English.

Switching can happen without any additional pause or break between sentences, or even mid-sentence, or occasionally even within individual words. Code-switching can range from insertion of single foreign words into a ‘matrix’ of another language, to a constant alternation between two languages where neither seems to be predominant.

And, humans being humans, there are a myriad of social and cultural factors that drive code-switching. They range from the practical, such as using a word from another language that conveys the desired meaning more efficiently or effectively than any word in the speaker’s native language (a ‘mot juste’), to the emotional – to enhance or diminish the emotional force of an utterance for either the speaker or listener. At the a community level, code-switching can even be used to create a ‘third’ language, for example amongst a community of second generation immigrants, which is deliberately distinct to that of their parents, as well as that of the mainstream language community.

One thing is for sure, when you look closely, there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening when people code-switch – and on a variety of linguistic levels as well.

This example comes via my partner, who was brought up in a large Chinese community in Vancouver, Canada. A boy she was baby-sitting at the time was speaking on the phone to his parents, in Mandarin Chinese, about an unhappy incident at school. He book-ended the story with an emotive:

‘Piss wo off!’

Lexically, the sentence is mostly in English, hinging around the phrasal verb ‘piss off’. Only the object of the sentence ‘wo’ (meaning ‘I’ or ‘me’) is in Chinese. However, the grammar is more interesting than it might seem at first. First of all, the subject of the sentence (‘it’ or ‘this situation’) is not spoken and is only implied: only Chinese, not English, allows dropping of the subject pronoun like this. Secondly, the verb is not conjugated as would be required by English, but is employed in its root form as it would be in Mandarin. Thirdly, Mandarin Chinese and English share a similar word order. However, the verb and adverb components of the phrasal verb are wrapped around the object as required by English syntax: such a pattern doesn’t exist in Chinese. So the question remains: what syntax is the speaker using – it is English or Mandarin? For linguists, it’s actually a difficult question to answer. Certainly, on the face of it, it’s a bit of both.

And then, what about the intended meaning?

Semantically, the situation seems relatively simple. Given the direct match in meaning between the Chinese pronoun ‘wo’ and the English ‘me’, the straight forward meaning of the utterance is that rendered in English as ‘it pisses me off’.

However, in terms of pragmatics – looking at the wider meaning based on the context of the utterance – there are more interesting questions. First of all, why did the speaker code-switch at all to English? Perhaps there was a greater emotional force for him in using the English verb ‘to piss off’. Or perhaps the speaker simply didn’t know a suitable equivalent in Chinese to convey the same meaning. Furthermore, because the speaker is a fluent speaker of English and Mandarin, why not completely switch to English? That is, why did he use ‘wo’ instead of ‘me’?

Because of the questions it throws up, code-switching is a lively and fertile field of research. But one thing that has been less-well studied is the role of code-switching in creativity and, equally, the role of creativity in code-switching.

Given combinations are at the heart of all linguistic creativity, when combining codes, creativity is never going to be far away. Code switching can be employed in all kinds of creative ways – from literature and film, and popular music, to branding and advertising. I’ll look at some of these in a later blog.

However, one way that we all use code-switching creatively is as a source of humour. And we don’t need to know French, or Spanish, or Chinese to do so. Because in its broadest sense, code-switching can be seen to include switching between forms of the same language – including different styles, dialects and registers. This style- or dialect- switching, as it is called, lends itself in particular to linguistic creativity.

Say, for instance, I am walking with friends. Someone has asked a throw-away question about a type of tree we’ve come across. I might reply:

‘It’s a coniferous red-wood, native to the Pacific North West region of the United States, growing up to 40 metres in height… or sommat like that.’

Halfway through my reply, I suddenly realise just how pompous I sound in my academic Standard English, and how inappropriate this is for my group of friends. I therefore switch to my native Midlands dialect (‘sommat’ meaning ‘something’) to make a joke of my apparent pomposity (before someone else can). I might even follow up with this self-effacing rhetorical question, involving another code-switch, this time to French:

‘Pompous? Moi?!

In literature, many authors have toyed with dialects and verbal styles in this way. Mark Twain, for example, often contrasted the various dialects of 19th Century America to comic affect. At around the same time, in Russia, satirical writer Nikolay Gogol was doing similar things with register and style. Here’s a translated excerpt from his classic short-story, ‘The Greatcoat’, where he is describing his hapless protagonists’ role as a low-grade civil servant (Chandler, 2005). Notice the deliberately un-subtle shift in register right at the end:

‘Had he been rewarded in accord with his zeal, he might perhaps, to his own astonishment, even have been promoted to state councillor, but all he got for his pains, in the words of his witty comrades, was a badge for his buttonhole and a haemorrhoid for his butt.’

In exactly this way, code-switching can be used creatively to deconstruct the various identities we present through language – as intellectual, sophisticated, well-off, high-class, and so on. By simply switching ‘code’ – language, dialect, style or register – we can bring anyone (including ourselves) right down to earth, often with very comic effect.

So, the next time someone with a college education responds to your intellectual insight with a cursory ‘whatevs!’, however annoying it might seem, you should remember that they are doing something linguistically sophisticated: they are code-switching.

And more importantly, it’s worth remembering that –  when it comes to creativity with language –  there’s no reason to stick with just one.



Chandler, R. (ed.) 2005. Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida. London: Penguin Books.

Gardner-Chloros, P. (2009) Code-Switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Phrasal verbs: Jazzing up the English language for 1000 years


I suppose it might be seen as strange to have a favourite aspect of a language. But, for me, all languages have quirks and idiosyncrasies that non native speakers should be jealous of. With French, I’m envious of the seemingly endless freedom to turn adjectives into nouns (like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables); with German, I can only gaze on greenly at its snaking compound nouns (like ‘Geschwindigkeitsbeschränkungen’). But, in English, it’s the humble phrasal verb that I love the best. From ‘give up’ to ‘take down’, they are the one aspect of my mother tongue that I would hold on to before any other. Because, when it comes to linguistic creativity, phrasal verbs have got it all sewn up.

Phrasal verbs have been a part of English since around about the Norman invasion, although they only really began to get fashionable in the 15th Century. Shakespeare, for example, dabbled in them a bit (Blake, 2002). In Much Ado About Nothing (III.1), for example, Beatrice declares to an absent Benedick:

‘If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee
To bind our loves up in a holy band.’

By the 18th Century, they were more common. In 1775, in the preface to his Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson makes a point of mentioning a ‘kind of composition more frequent in our language than perhaps any other’ (McArthur, 1989). Today, you can hear these ‘kinds of composition’ everywhere – from the minute you ‘wake up’ to the moment you ‘drop off’ to sleep.

Try on a few pop songs for size. How about ‘I Get Around’ by The Beach Boys, or ‘Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)’ by Wham!, or even ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ by The Beatles? That’s not to forget, of course, A-Ha’s phrasal-verbed classic, even if it does take a syntactic liberty in the refrain:

Take on me… Take me on.’

At the top of the charts, there’s Bob Dylan – surely one of the most frequent users of phrasal verbs in popular music. The classic ‘Tangled up in Blue’, from the album ‘Blood on the Tracks’, includes 13 phrasal verbs, not including the one in the refrain. One of them, ‘started into’, feels like a particularly Dylan-esque invention:

Tangled up in Blue’
Heading out for the East Coast, Lord knows I’ve paid some dues, Getting through…
Split up on a dark sad night, both agreeing it was best’
‘She was workin’ in a topless place, And I stopped in for a beer’
‘And later on as the crowd thinned out, I was just about to do the same’
‘I must admit I felt a little uneasy, When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe’
‘Then she opened up a book of poems, And handed it to me’
Pourin’ off of every page, Like it was written in my soul’
‘Then he started into dealing with slaves, And something inside of him died’
‘She had to sell everything she owned, And froze up inside’
‘And when finally the bottom fell out, I became withdrawn’
‘The only thing I knew how to do, was to keep on keepin’ on
‘So now I’m going back again, I got to get to her somehow’
‘But me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint’

At the heart of every phrasal verb is a very simple combination. In each one, a (typically) monosyllabic verb is combined with (depending on the context in which they appear) an adverbial particle or preposition. The most common of these propositions in phrasal verbs are ‘down’, ‘in’, ‘off’, ‘on’, ‘out’ and ‘up’. The most common verbs include ‘be’, ‘come’, ‘go’, ‘have’, ‘let’, ‘make’, ‘give’ and ‘get’.

Combining these two sets of words in English is extremely productive. ‘Get’, for example, loves to be paired up in phrasal verbs. It will cheerfully combine with all six of the propositions above to form ‘get in’, ‘get off’, ‘get on’, ‘get out’ and ‘get up’. (And that’s not to mention it’s other phrasal partnerships: ‘get down’, ‘get around’, ‘get through’, ‘get across’, ‘get ahead’, ‘get along’…)

Phrasal verbs can be transitive (‘I took off my hat’) or intransitive (‘I took off in my car’). In practice, their grammar can be a little nuanced – complicated enough for one linguist to have devoted 42 pages to it (Dixon, 1982). However, although there is some variation in where they sit next to object nouns and pronouns, syntactically phrasal verbs often look quite similar to (non-phrasal) verb-preposition combinations:

(1)           He ran over the road (on his way to the gym)
(2)           He ran over the boy (in his silver Mercedes)

One good way of differentiating a true phrasal verb from an impostor is to look at the sentence stress. Try saying the two sentences above out loud and you might notice that you put more of a stress on the word ‘over’ in sentence (2) compared to the non-phrasal sentence (1).

But the key thing that sets phrasal verbs apart is that they are, to a greater or lesser extent, idiomatic: that is, the meaning of a phrasal verb is more than the sum of its two component parts. In psycholinguistic terms, this means phrasal verbs must have their own entry in the mental lexicon, separate to that for its component words (Matlock and Heredia, 2002).

Although you do get phrasal verbs in other languages, they are most pervasive in English. And, because they are a ready made template for linguistic innovation, from the middle of the 19th Century they have only been getting more common (McArthur, 1989): ‘bottle out’, ‘man up’ or ‘slag off’, anyone? One newfangled phrasal verb was even nominated Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2003: the media favourite, ‘sex up’.

However, phrasal verbs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Because of their Germanic routes, they are mostly used colloquially. Since Dylan’s lyrics are at least 95% Germanic (Khalifa, 2007) it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s happy using them. But anyone who has ever written a formal document or letter in English will have found themselves eschewing the humble phrasal verb in favour of a less-familiar Latinate equivalent: ‘extinguishing’ a fire rather than ‘putting it out’, ‘continuing’ rather than ‘carrying on’, and so on. For no reason other than a desire to be a bit more like the Romans, phrasal verbs just don’t seem to be part of formal English style.

But to me, that’s a shame. Phrasal verbs shouldn’t be shunned, they should be embraced. For where would we be without the endless creative potential of the phrasal verb?

Without phrasal verbs, I would argue, English would be watered down, thinned out, dried up – certainly in need of jazzing up.


Blake, N. F. (2002) Phrasal verbs and associated forms in Shakespeare. Atlantis, 24, 25-39.
Dixon, R. M. W. (1982) The grammar of English phrasal verbs. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 1, 1-42.
Khalifa, J.-C. (2007) A Semantic and Syntactic Journey Through the Dylan Corpus. Oral Tradition, 22, 162-174.
Matlock, T. and Heredia, R. R. (2002). Understanding Phrasal Verbs in Monolinguals and Bilinguals. In Roberto R. Heredia and J. Altarriba (eds.), Bilingual Sentence Processing (pp. 251-274: Elsevier Science.
Mcarthur, T. (1989) The long-neglected phrasal verb. English Today, 5, 38-44.