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.


17 thoughts on “Code-Switching: The Creative Art of Combining Languages (1)

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  8. I find code-switching fascinating. I don’t do it much myself, though I do a lot of dialect-switching between my native Canadian English and Scottish/British English. My sister, however, is bilingual and uses both French and English all the time at her job, so she does it all the time with people she knows are fluent in French, like myself. Often when I have a conversation with her she’ll switch between French and English several times in the same sentence. Really, what fascinates me about this is we grew up in an exclusively Anglophone household, so I would have thought English would be the natural language to speak to me in (maybe it’s all those times we conversed in French as teenagers to keep our family from understanding us).

  9. Hi Nicola. Everyone’s language story is different, so thanks for sharing yours. There could be many reasons why your sister code-switches so much with you (despite the efforts of linguists in studying code-switching nobody has been able to pin it down to a small number of reasons). It could be habit of speaking about different subjects in particular languages, presenting different aspects of her personality through different languages, simply finding the ‘mots justes’, even just switching to organise the structure of the conversation (or as you say, making sure certain people can’t understand you!). Btw, it’s interesting what you say about switching between the two dialects of English: some linguists would argue that dialect-switching and language-switching lie on the same continuum, it’s just that one form is (generally speaking) more marked than another.

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