Code-Switching: The Creative Art of Combining Languages (2)


If want to get creative, why stick to one language when you can play with two?…

Code-switching – the alternation between two or more languages, dialects or styles – is a well studied phenomenon, one that is found pretty much in every corner of the globe (Gardner-Chloros, 2009). It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that it also crops up in the media – in books, in film and in music – and not only in places where speaking two languages is the norm.

And, just as in real life, code-switching can be used as a means to a wide variety of artistic ends. Below are some of my favourite examples from literature, pop music, and cinema.


First of all, what about the written word?

Code-switching in literature has not yet been the subject of much research, although there have been recent efforts to change that. But in fact, on the printed page, it’s not uncommon for authors to borrow words from other languages – for example, to add a sense of the exotic or a particular foreign place.

An obvious way to make a narrative set in France more French, for example, is to add a few words of the lingo. Stephen Clarke’s witty culture-clash novel ‘A Year In The Merde’ makes a clever, if unsubtle, code-switch in the title. No surprise, peut-être, that it made it to the bestsellers list. And it works both ways. In his 2005 essay ‘Mon Angleterre’, French journalist Olivier Barrot makes many similar switches to English. Here he is talking about the British sense of à la mode:

‘Quant à deux des plus récents, des plus fashionable restaurants londoniens, le Spoon et le Sketch, ce sont…’
(‘As for two recent examples, of the most fashionable restaurants in London, The Spoon and the Sketch, are…)

More abstractly, code-switching at the lexical level can give a general sense of the alien and the strange. Few though have done this to the extent of Anthony Burgess. In his masterpiece ‘A Clockwork Orange’, Burgess borrows heavily from Russian to effectively create a new hybrid dialect for his violent protagonist, which he calls ‘nadsat’ (from the Russian word for ‘teenager’). As anyone who has read the book will know, it’s deliberately difficult and disorienting for the audience. Burgess gets switching right from the second line, where ‘droog’, for example, is from the Russian ‘drug’ (meaning ‘friend’):

 ‘There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassodocks what to do with the evening, a flip chill winter bastard through dry.’

Code-switching in literature is not a recent phenomenon. In Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, for example, the pedantic schoolmaster Holofernes constantly switches from English to learned Latin. Language conservators rejoice(!): here is Holofernes having a go at the linguistically uncouth Armando (Act 5, Scene I):

‘I abhor such fanatical phantasimes, such insouciable and point-device companions, such rackers of orthography, as to speak ‘dout’ sine ‘b’, when he should say ‘doubt’, ‘det’ when he should pronounce ‘debt’: d, e, b, t, not d, e, t. He clepeth a calf ‘cauf’, half ‘hauf’; neighbour vocatur ‘nebour’, ‘neigh’ abbreviated ‘ne’. This is abhominable, which he would call ‘abominable’. It sinuateth me of insanie. Ne intelligis, domine? To make frantic, lunatic.’

Here code-switching, to and from the classical tongue, is a clever device to show Holofernes’ academic pedigree – and, more importantly perhaps, his desire to remind people of it.

And, arguably, code-switching can define a generation of literature. Aleksandr Pushkin, the founding father of Russian literature, mostly spoke French at home with his aristocratic parents (it’s quite likely that he learned Russian from the domestic servants). It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that he often code-switches between the two languages in his writing. In his famous short story, ‘The Queen of Spades’, he makes ten or so switches to French, not including those in the dialogue between characters. At the funeral of the Countess, for example, he writes:

‘No one wept: tears would have been une affectation.’

According to the translator of the passage, Robert Chandler, one of Pushkin’s great achievements as a writer ‘to make use of every possibility available to him: colloquial Russian, Church Slavonic and borrowings from French, German and English’ (Chandler, 2005).  In discussing the evolution of Russian literature in general, Chandler goes on to argue that the greatest literature arises from ‘marriages – or battles – between different cultures’. In other words, just as Shakespeare borrowed from Latin, French and Italian, and so on, so did Pushkin, Dostoyevsky and others to forge a new Russian literary language in the 19th Century. Code-switching was the linguistic means to do just that.


Code-switching in film is also not a recent phenomenon. Bollywood is perhaps the classic example, where Hindi/Punjabi-English has been common practice for a long time (Sailaja, 2011). However, now even some Hollywood directors, such as Mel Gibson, are doing it (Barnes, 2012).

In the cinema, code-switching can serve the same purpose as in literature – to give a sense of the foreign or the alien (take Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, for example). But, on screen, code-switching can also be used more-directly to present a genuine linguistic reality. Because of the possibility of subtitles, if you want to render code-switching as a genuine reflection of the speech community in which the film is set, you can just get the actors to code-switch and translate in words the bits the audience won’t understand. An obvious example is the internationally acclaimed ‘Monsoon Wedding’ from 2001. Would the movie have been quite so rich and sumptuous, I wonder, if it weren’t for the constant code-switching between languages?

But, probably my favourite film to feature code-switching, because it so neatly captures my own time as a foreign student abroad, is ‘L’Auberge Espagnole’. The film’s characters – all Erasmus students from across Europe thrown together for a year in a run-down apartment in Barcelona – constantly alternate between French, Spanish and English. If you exchange Spanish for German and Swiss-German (I was living in the Swiss city of Lausanne) that’s pretty much my experience too.

Pop Music

Finally, what about code-switching in popular music?

In the pop charts of the English speaking world, foreign language music is perhaps as rare as clothes in a Rihanna video – much to the chagrin of high school teachers looking to enthuse their students about learning languages. However, a sprinkling of a foreign language in an otherwise Anglophone record can arguably help it stand out from the crowd. As a result, in the competitive world of the Billboard charts,  a degree of code-switching is more common than you might think.

For example, how about the Anglo-Spanish ‘Macarena’ by Los Del Rio, an international hit in 1995? Here’s the last verse, featuring some substantial intra-sentential switching, just oozes sun, san and sangria:

‘Come and find me, my name is Macarena
Always at the party con las chicas que son buena

Or how about Kylie Minogue’s ‘Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi’ from her 1988 debut album? The chorus is no work of poetry, but just think what it would be like without the code-switching to the language of love:

‘I still love you
Je ne sais pas pourquoi
I still want you
Je ne sais pas pourquoi’

Of course, code-switching is not limited to the British and American charts. Elsewhere, it’s arguably more prevalent. For example, outside of the Anglophone pop world, a sprinkling of English can give the song a more international or Western flavour.

A few hours watching music television in a Beijing hotel room, recently, was enough to convince me that this sort of code-switching is pretty common in the Mandarin pop world. One song that caught my ears was the  ‘920’, a hit in 2012 by the Taiwanese singer A-Lin. The catchy chorus features the line:

‘yongyuan zai wo de xinzhong turning and running
(‘forever, the centre of my heart is turning and running’)

The canny singer also happily rhymes the English ‘fly away’ and ‘I don’t know why I wanna cry’ with whole lines of Mandarin. ‘Landing’ by artist Naluwan, was another catchy tune I picked out featuring the simple line:

‘Wo hao higher
(‘I’m so high’)

And finally, who can forget the international sensation, ‘Gangnam Style’, which ruled the pop world in 2012. Was it the (albeit brief) switch to English in the refrain or the catchy dance routine that made the song such a hit for Korean singer PSY? I know which I’d put my money on…


Barnes, L. (2012) The role of code-switching in the creation of an outsider identity in the bilingual film. Communicatio: South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, 38, 247-260.
Chandler, R. (ed.) 2005. Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida. London: Penguin Books.
Gardner-Chloros, P. (2009) Code-Switching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sailaja, P. (2011) Hinglish: code-switching in Indian English. ELT Journal, 65, 473-480.

National Public Radio (NPR) has just started a fascinating blog about code-switching, which is well worth checking out.


9 thoughts on “Code-Switching: The Creative Art of Combining Languages (2)

  1. The other subtext of Holofernes’s style is that he’s an ignoramus. Debt and doubt are from Old French dette and doute, so they have never had /b/ in in English at all, and abominabilis is < ab omine (ablative of omen), not from ab + homine.

    For my favorite example, see “French In All Its Purity” on my blog, which contrasts code-switching with intensive borrowing. Nadsat-talk is really an example of the latter, because there is no Russian syntax.

    • John, many thanks for the insight on Holofernes. My Latin (sadly) being close to zero, I’d twigged the ‘bumbling old fool’ side of Holofernes but not that Shakespeare makes it manifest in his Latin grammar.

      The ‘borrowing’ vs ‘code-switching’ issue is a very relevant point, which I was conscious of it when writing, so thanks for pointing it out. The research community do seem to be a bit divided on this when it comes to the definition of ‘code-switching’: certainly my Applied Linguistics professors tend to take a holistic view, because the focus is on the pragmatics and the social motivation. This approach also made more sense for a general blog on creativity, but perhaps wouldn’t for any one interested in the grammar of code-switching.

  2. When I saw at the top of the post that you were going to consider films, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion came immediately to mind. It has, I’m sad to say, been many years since I saw it, but it seems to my memory that a couple of the officers (one of them played by Erich von Stroheim) did some code-switching. I think some of it was in casual conversation, and I vaguely recall von Stroheim shouting in English at an especially dramatic moment in the film. Don’t quote me on that, though: it’s been probably almost twenty years since I saw the film.

    I should have a look at that one again. I remember liking it.

    Good series of posts.

    • I’m not much for Internet popularity contests, but, if there were a “Like” button or some voting mechanism, I’d give this comment high marks. But I’m biased. Got a love for cats.

      Pardon the brief tangent. 🙂

      P.S., to our moderator: if you do see the film, I hope you enjoy it. As I said, I think it’s a good one, and it may well have a few linguistic things up your alley.

  3. Pingback: ‘C’est cidre. Not Cider’: The Creative Use of Code-Switching in Advertising | Word Jazz

  4. Pingback: From William Shakespeare to Amy Tan: Do bilinguals make better writers? (1) | Word Jazz

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