When do you have the right to play with someone else’s language?

IMG_4924Recently, I was in an Oslo bar visiting a friend. A Norwegian colleague of his was talking – in impressively fluent English – about the local nightlife, generously suggesting some bars we should visit while we were in town. As he mentioned one in particular, he paused for a second trying to find the word to describe it.

‘It’s quite…um…rock-y,’ he said.

He suddenly became uncharacteristically self-conscious, almost embarrassed, and laughed apologetically. His girlfriend – also Norwegian and with a similar mastery of English – joined in, mocking him for using (inventing) a word that he didn’t think existed.

‘I mean they play a lot of rock music there,’ he said.

For me, their reaction was striking. Of course, I understood exactly what he meant. He wasn’t referring to the state of the floors in the place (later I found out that they were a little bit sticky, but not uneven), nor to any film starring Sylvester Stallone. Although the Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t include ‘has a rock music vibe’ as a definition, the intended meaning of ‘rocky’ was entirely clear to me.

More importantly, he had only done what English speakers do all the time: That performance was a bit ‘bit-y’. That chicken was a bit ‘turkey-y’. Just last week I saw written on the side of my high-street Americano: ‘Our house espresso is always bold and intense with a chocolatey, caramel-y undertone.’

My friend’s colleague might not have applied a grammatical rule that features in Gwynne’s Grammar. But it’s still one that is a perfectly legitimate part of English. (Actually, it’s a highly productive example of derivational morphology, which I’ve blogged about before). On the spur of the moment, he had been creative with English, just like many English speakers would.

But I suspect the problem was this: as a Norwegian, speaking to an Englishman, he didn’t feel he had the right.

Creative play with words, sentences and phonemes – or language play as linguist David Crystal calls it – is ubiquitous. It might be most well known as something poets do, but language play is not something that is limited to literature and the arts. You only have to look at the tabloid headlines, watch an episode of Strictly Come Dancing, or even spend a night down the pub to find countless examples of everyday linguistic creativity. The use of metaphor and simile (‘she’s as quiet as a mouse’), hyperbole (‘that burger is enormous!’), intertextual references and rehashed clichés (‘keep calm and have a beer’), non-standard vocabulary (‘I’m going to take my automobile for a spin), invented words (‘caramel-y’), and code-switching to other languages (‘mais oui, mais oui Rodney!’) are all part of what linguist Ronald Carter calls ‘the art of common talk’.

In conversation, people might use creative language with an element of performance – to show off, hold other people’s attention, or to make people laugh. Or, they might use creative language more subconsciously, to simply get as close as possible to the meaning they want to convey. This is what my friend’s colleague was doing when he used the word ‘rock-y’. It’s just that, as a non-native English speaker, he wasn’t sure he had the right.

So, when do you have the right to play with a language? Do you have to be a native speaker?

Maybe I have a lack of respect, but I’ve always taken great pleasure in butchering other people’s languages. In my early days of learning Mandarin, I was able to make my Chinese-Canadian partner giggle with joy by calling a ‘sock’ (‘wàzi’), a ‘foot-packet’ (‘jiǎobāo’). It was an entirely invented get-around, and I knew it wasn’t correct. But I also knew it would make me sound silly and childish, as well as gently poke fun at the wonderfully endless number of such compound nouns in Chinese – and that was entirely the point.

Some experts say that playing with language like this can even be beneficial. In his book Language Play, Language Learning, linguist Guy Cook points out the important role, often overlooked by teachers, that language play can have when it comes to learning foreign languages.

On one hand, language play can provide a fun way to draw attention to specific features of a language, in exactly the same way that nursery rhymes and nonsense words (‘Hickory, dickory, dock’) do for children learning their first language. I remember vividly the first time I heard a Swiss 4 year-old at a swimming pool say the charmingly-silly phrasecaca boudin’ (‘poo-poo sausage’). Thanks to him, although I’ve still never eaten one, I’ve never forgotten what a ‘boudin’ is.

On the other hand, language play can also give to students some sense of ownership of that language – as something they can use to whatever ends they need it for.

Picasso once said, ‘the chief enemy of creativity is good sense’. So, perhaps sensible people know better than to play with other people’s language. The rest of us language learners, however, should just carry on having fun.


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.