I’m Tired of Your Cheesecake: The Lyrics of Eurovision 2014

Photo: Daniel Aragay (https://www.flickr.com/photos/proteusbcn/2511676676)

Photo: Daniel Aragay (https://www.flickr.com/photos/proteusbcn/2511676676)

Everyone knows that in tonight’s Eurovision final, the lyrics will be the most important thing in deciding who the eventual winner is. Forget about the melodies, the chord progressions, and the height of the high notes. Forget the costumes, the mise-en-scène, the fancy footwork, and the people trampolining in the background. For the 26 contestants representing their respective countries, it’s all about the words.

In that spirit, I did a brief analysis of the lyrics of tonight’s finalists. Here’s what I found out:

Multilingualism

Thanks to the ubiquity of English in pop culture, of the 26 songs, 20 are in the language of the Beatles. Nul points there. Refreshingly, however, there are 5 entries which aren’t – from France (in French), Italy (Italian), Montenegro (Montenegrin, a form of Serbo-Croatian), Poland (Polish) and Spain (Spanish).

Code-switching

4 songs feature a mixture of languages, or ‘code-switching‘, cunningly trying to appeal to multiple language communities, home and abroad. The Polish, Slovenian and Spanish entries all feature large chunks in English. The French entry, the hirsute ‘Moustache’ by Twin Twin, goes one step further. It also features Spanish in the chorus:

Mais moi j’voulais une moustache
Une moustache, une moustache
I wanna have a moustache
A moustache, a moustache
Quiero un bigote

Rhyming

As you might expect, rhyming plays a vital role. I have plenty of respect for the syllabic sorcery of Iceland’s entry, for example (‘Even if you’re taller / Or someone who is smaller / Or perhaps you’re thinner / Or one who loves his dinner’). Nul points to Ukraine, however, for rhyming ‘clock’ with ‘tick-tock’:

Tick-tock, can you hear me go tick-tock
My heart is like a clock
I’m steady like a rock

Schwa it up

The unstressed middle vowel that you get, for example, at the end of words like ‘better’ and ‘deeper’ – the schwa – is the most important phoneme in pop. As you might expect, schwa’d contractions like ‘wanna’ and ‘gonna’ feature heavily in the 26 entries. As well as Greece’s ‘music makes me wanna / grab somebody rise up’, how about this from the Belarus’ pastry-themed ‘Cheesecake’:

I don’t wanna
I’m not gonna be your boy

Humour

Happily, among the earnestness of the ballads, there’s a fair bit of humour in there. Most strikingly, there’s the 1970s-style smutty innuendo of the Polish entry, ‘We are Slavic’ (‘cream and butter taste so good’), as well as in the name of the cross-dressing Austrian singer Conchita Wurst. Personally, I quite like the more absurd lines in the comical French entry, especially the one about not wanting to show emotion in the gym. After all, who doesn’t try to stay stoical on the treadmill:

Je n’aime pas montrer mes émotions
A la salle de musculation

Common themes

A quick statistical analysis of all the lyrics reveals the most commonly occurring words across the 26 songs. Interestingly ‘Rise’ is one of the most common one, as heard in Austria’s defiant ‘Rise like a Pheonix’ (‘Retribution / You were warned / Once I’m transformed / Once I’m reborn’) and Greece’s ‘Rise up’. The weather also features heavily, particularly among the northern nations. For example, the Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch entries all feature the word ‘storm’, metaphorically or otherwise. Finally, if Latvia’s ‘Cake to Bake’ had made it through the semi-final, there would have been a strong culinary theme. Fear not, those with a sweet-tooth. We still have Belarus’ Teo performing ‘Cheesecake’:

I look over all the maps trying to escape
’cause I’m tired of your sweet cheesecake

Nonsense sounds

The disconnection of linguistic form (phonology, morphology and syntax) from meaning (semantics) is a characteristic feature of what linguist Guy Cook calls ‘language play’. As you might expect from this celebration of pop, there’s plenty of ooh-ahs (e.g. Malta) and la-la-las (Iceland). My favourite is the upbeat Danish entry ‘Cliché Love Song’ which starts:

skuba duba dabda dididaj
skuba duba dabda dididaj

Just plain nonsense

And of course there’s plenty of plain nonsense. What on earth artist Sebalter is talking about in the Swiss entry, for example, I’ll never know:

Like an evil satellite, twisting the truth then leaving us alone
In this mad and moody world, society without love
I state my heart has been well trained, I’m gonna be your candidate
I am the hunter you are the prey, tonight I’m gonna eat you up

And the winner is…

Finally, possibly the most sophisticated piece of linguistic creativity in all of the entries, is this nouning of an adjective (‘sad’) in Sweden’s ‘Undo’:

Undo my sad
Undo what hurts so bad

Will it be enough to win them the title? We’ll just have to wait and see.

 

‘Dawn-hearts’ and ‘Jellyspoons’: Creativity and the Compound Noun

 

ImageAll creativity, including linguistic creativity, is about novel combinations – that is, the marriage of old concepts to form new ones.

Linguistically, this can mean combining any part of speech with another. But while poets and writers might get carried away with fancy combinations of verbs and adverbs, I would argue there’s as much to be said for combining the simplest part of speech: the humble noun.

Compound nouns are formed by combining any number of nouns together to make a new one. They are quite commonplace. English, for example, has “hair-brush”, “moonlight”, “dog-house” and “Facebook”, just to name a few. Of course, compound nouns can be pretty mundane. But what would a holiday be without “sun-cream”, sun-screen”, “sunglasses”, “sun-block”, a “sun-bed” or a “sun-hat”? And what would dinner be without “rice crackers”, “jam donuts”, “potato chips”, “bread pudding”, or a “jellyspoon” to serve your preserve with?

New words, new concepts

Most importantly, such compounds are the source of endless creativity. Say you take any common noun, signifying some concept like “cat”. Then you take another noun, signifying some seemingly unrelated concept, like “fish”. When you put the two nouns together, to create a compound noun, you can’t help but create a new concept by fusing the two old ones together: “cat fish”.

Such compounding in a ripe source of neologisms, particularly to describe new concepts in socio-cultural and political thought. The last decade, for example, has brought us “black swan theory”, “kitchen-table politics”, “prawn-sandwich man” and “choice fatigue”, among many other such compounds. It’s also a lively process in pop culture too, as seen in words like “flash mob”. Not unsurprisingly, quite a few compound nouns have appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year list. Noun combinations include “toy-boy” (WOTY in 1981), “beatbox” (1983), “kitten heels” (1995) and “text message” (1998).

Compounding is also a rich mechanism in poetry. One of the masters of the art of combining nouns was the English poet DH Lawrence. Flick through his collected works, particular his later poems, and you’ll find all manner of hyphenated compounds. I particular like this evocative passage from his 1923 poem, Almond Blossom:

     Sweating his drops of blood through the long-nighted Gethsemane
     Into blossom, into pride, into honey-triumph, into most exquisite splendour.

“Globe-flower”, “fire-mist”, “mother-love”, “lady-smock”, “moon-tide”, “sun-starer”, “sage-ash desert”, “dawn-heart”, and “wound-stump”, for example, are also all his.

Creative compounding

But compounding nouns is not just for writers and media professionals – it’s for everyone.

Here’s a game to try: Take a dictionary, open it at any page quite at random, and write down the first noun you come to reading down from the first entry. Then, open another page, again at random, and write down the first noun you come to directly after it. Now look at the two words side by side. Bizarre as the combination might seem at first, I’m pretty confident your brain, by appropriately re-wiring your semantic system to link the two concepts, will find some way of making sense out of it.

Here’s a few random examples I came up with using exactly this method:

     Material forest (a place where various materials can be harvested)
     Slope alloy (a type of metal used primarily for inclined surfaces)
     Sycamore flour (a low-gluten wheat substitute)
     Runt cricket (a game played by the smallest cub in every litter)
     Toddler necessity (the need for small children in times of crisis?…)

They’re certainly bizarre, and you may not agree with my attempted explanations for them. But somehow, thanks to our creativity,  such combinations are not entirely implausible – at least in our imagination.

Compounds in other languages

Although the Romance languages, like French, tend to avoid them (think “sac à dos”, “salle d’attente” or “pain au chocolat”), compound nouns are certainly not limited to English. Chinese, with its limited inflection, loves to throw whole nouns together to make new ones; the Chinese word for “food”, for example, is “fancai” (literally “rice vegetable”). And even ancient languages had compounds. Sanskrit grammarians had a special word, “dvandva”, for compound nouns where both components referred to the same person (such as “boy-king”, “singer-songwriter” and “girlfriend”).

But German, as everyone knows, is the master of the art of combining nouns. Take a look through any German-English dictionary and you’ll see countless examples of compounds – noun after noun breathlessly strung together without space or hyphen. How about “Fussballspiel” (football match), “Fahrkartenautomat” (train ticket machine) or “Waschmaschine” (washing machine)? Or, how about this particular favourite from my school days?: “Brustwarze”, which means “nipple”, can be literally – and somewhat unromantically – translated as “breast wart”.

The German language’s propensity to shove nouns together to form new ones is a source of great enjoyment for language lovers. In an episode of the US Comedy Series How I Met Your Mother a German character called Klaus has just run away from his own wedding. When he bumps into Ted, the show’s hapless protagonist, he decides to give him a Teutonic lesson in love. Klaus tells him:

“There is a word in German, Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz. The closest translation would be ‘lifelong treasure of destiny’. And Victoria is wunderbar, but she is not my Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz. She is my Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand, you know?”

Ted, understandably looks confused. Klaus is vexed:

“You know wunderbar but you don’t know Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand?! That is something we learn in Kindergarten. I’m sorry, “Kindergarten” is the German word for…”

Both “Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz” and “Beinaheleidenschaftsgegenstand” are made up, of course. “Lebenslangerschicksalsschatz”, for example, is built from the words for “lebenslang” (lifelong), “Schicksal” (destiny) and “Schatz” (treasure). But people with only a modest knowledge of German would get the joke.

The perils of writing them down

But English speakers shouldn’t be so quick to mock. Because, like all the Germanic languages, English is also full of compound nouns – and we have some pretty long ones too. How about “pension fund capitalism”, “container ship”, “ink jet printer cartridge”, “African American” or “sodium potassium nitrate salt”?

The real difference, of course, is how we write them down. Whereas in German it’s consistently alphabet soup all the way, the English convention is that – well – there’s not really a convention at all.

Eric Partridge in his 1947 classic Usage and Abusage (Partridge, 1973), isn’t particularly helpful. Under “Hyphenation”, he writes: “In the life of compound words there are three stages: (1) two separate words (cat bird); (2) a hyphenated compound (cat-bird); (3) a single word (catbird).” And that’s pretty much it. The transition from an orthographic rendition as two words, through a hyphenated middle stage, to a rendition as a single word is to do with how frequent, or well entrenched in the language, the compound noun is perceived to be. That is, somebody somewhere is going to have to make a (fairly) arbitrary judgement either way – just like I have in quite a few places above.

Most importantly, the fact that we write “football match” and not “footballmatch” (like the German “Fussballspiel”) makes no difference to the way the compound noun functions in a sentence. As linguist Steven Pinker writes, about compounds in general (Pinker, 1999, p. 181):

“Do not be distracted by the inconsistent way compounds are spelled in English: sometimes as one word, as in ‘teethmarks’; sometimes with a hyphen as in ‘mice-infested’; sometimes as two words as in ‘geese crossing’. The way to recognise a compound is by its composition, such as being two nouns in a row, and by its stress pattern.”

In compounds of all kinds, when spoken, the stress tends to fall on the first part of a compound noun (we say “workmen” rather than “workmen”). And, however they are written, compound nouns will function, more-or-less, like simple nouns. For example, in the plural form, only the rightmost noun (the head of the compound noun) will get the plural ending added: we have “attorney generals”, “singer-songwriters”, “boy-kings”, and so on. And, although there are a few exceptions, speakers of English tend to avoid plural endings in the middle of compound nouns: we say “anteaters” not “ants-eaters”, for example.

In conclusion

So next time you see a compound noun in print, I would urge you to forget for a moment how someone has decided to write it. Instead, try to admire it for what it is: the ripe fruit of a marriage between two seemingly unrelated disparate concepts and – quite possibly – the creation of something marvellous.

Because, wouldn’t the world be a poorer place without a “dawn-heart” or two?

 

References

Cook, G. (2000) Language Play, Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Partridge, E. (1973) Usage and Abusage. Baltimore, MA: Penguin Books.
Pinker, S. (1999) Words & Rules: The Ingredients of Language. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

 

[Many thanks to John Cowan for pointing out that “jellyspoon” is indeed a functional serving utensil, and not a made up word as I had naively thought, undermining an earlier version of this post!]

The Inbetweener: Scots-English Code-switching and the Genius of Robert Burns

ImageRobert Burns was born on 25 January 1759 in a village in the Scottish county of Ayrshire. He died, 37 years later, one of the most celebrated poets Britain has ever produced.

Burns was famously the ‘Ploughman Poet’ – a farmer’s son, a drinker, a lover. It was an image he himself cultivated: he was someone who had his hands in the earth, and his nose in a jar. He was, in his own words, a ‘simple Bard, rough at the rustic plough’.

Key to this identity was Burns’ mother tongue. Burns grew up speaking Scots a language which, although derived from Anglo-Saxon, had diverged significantly from the English spoken in the south (Johnston, 2007). In Scots, many words with the same root are markedly different, phonologically, to the English equivalent: ‘hoose’ for ‘house’ and ‘kirk’ for ‘church’, for example. There are also many lexical differences: ‘bairn’ in Scots, for example, means ‘child’. In syntax and morphology, there are many differences too. Present participles and gerunds, for example, tend to be marked in Scots with ‘-in’ rather than ‘-ing’.

Scots is clearly the defining language of Burns’ poetry. Here’s the opening stanza from his famous early work, ‘To a Mouse’:

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!

Though Burns liked to present himself as a ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ – hewn from the earth, and inspired by whisky and the Gods – this is only half the story. For Burns, like the 20th Century’s greatest bard, was also a learned man. He was well educated, possibly not much worse than much of the Scottish gentry. He read extensively form an early age, and his poems feature references to figures from the Greek lyrical poets to Adam Smith. Burns was well acquainted with the English poets of the era. He was also probably a rather moderate drinker for the age (Smith, 2007).

Burns moved to Edinburgh when he was 27. Here, in the capital, the language of the educated classes was Scottish Standard English – a dialect emerging since the Union as a compromise between Scots and the English of the south (Johnston, 2007). This was the language of formality, polite conversation, and high society. It was also one in which Burns was equally adept. 

Burns seems to have been both attracted and repelled by his new social circle. In reality he was, an inbetweener – not quite at home in rural Scotland, not quite at home amongst Edinburgh’s literati. According to University of Glasgow’s Jeremy Smith, Burns’ complex identity was manifest in much of his writing. Even in his personal correspondence, Burns could choose to write in either Scots or English, depending on which ‘Robert Burns’ he wanted to portray. Sometimes he wrote in a mixture of the two; just like many modern speakers of Scots, he could code-switch freely.

Burns used this ability to alternate between the two languages to great effect in his later poetry (Smith, 2007). Smith cites the example of ‘Tam O’Shanter’, Burns’ last major poem and possibly his finest (see here for a recent modern translation):.

When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neebors, neebors meet,
As market-days are wearing late,
An’ folk begin to tak the gate,
While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and styles,
That lie between us and our hame,
Where sits our sulky sullen dame,
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

The final couplet of the poem’s first stanza, unlike the lines that precede it, are in English (‘warm’ and ‘storm’ would not have rhymed in Scots). As Smith (2007) points out, the shift from Scots to English, and corresponding change in rhythm, also marks a transition from narrative to figurative language (p. 83).

As Burns himself admitted, his knowledge of Scots and Scottish Standard English provided him with copia verborum (an ‘abundance of words’). It gave him the language he needed – Scots, English, or a mixture – for every context and situation.

Like Shakespeare writing for the Globe’s groundlings and its seated royalty, although he was himself neither of them, Burns could speak to both the upper and lower classes.  Burns was neither ploughman, nor gentry; he was something more. His genius lay in exploiting all the linguistic possibilities his identity – as an inbetweener – offered him.

References

Johnston, P. A. (2007). Scottish English and Scots. In David Britain (ed.) Language in the British Isles (pp. 105-121). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, J. J. (2007) Copia Verborum: The Linguistic Choices of Robert Burns. The Review of English Studies, 58, 73-88.

 

‘Talent borrows, genius steals’: Asterix, translation and the evolution of language

ImageA post inspired by Asterix, Pushkin and New York’s Latino community on why bilinguals are the real innovators when it comes to language change.

As anyone who has read David Bellos’ ‘Is That a Fish In your Ear?’ will know, translation is a wonderful thing. First of all, the act of translation necessarily puts every aspect of language – from phonology, to grammar, to its relationship to social and cultural context – into sharp focus. What’s more, how else but through translation would us mortals – speaking only a handful of languages if we’re lucky – have insight into the many cultures of the world?

But, to me as a linguist, translation is also interesting because it can explain much about how the languages we speak are constantly evolving.

Some language change, as it is known, can be explained by what are known as internal changes: acts of creativity and simplification by particular innovators, which then spread across the rest of the language community. The internet driven phenomenon of 2013, the ‘because + NOUN’ construction in English, is an obvious example.

But sociolinguists now know that much language change can only be explained by external factors – that is, as a result of language contact with other languages and dialects. Implicit in this sort of change is the creative use of linguistic features from one language – words, phrases, and even grammatical forms – in another. Implicitly, the innovators here are speakers from a particular community who are, to some degree at least, bilingual; the creative act is essentially an act of translation.

Let’s look at some examples.

Just after Christmas, I settled down to watch the latest film adaptation of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix comic books: ‘Astérix et Obélix: Au Service De Sa Majesté’. I was excited – not least because I’m a life-long fan of the comics and a closet Francophile – but because it’s an adaptation of my favourite of the series: ‘Asterix in Britain’.

I wasn’t disappointed. As with the original, there’s plenty of parodying of English culture, not least the food (boiled boar with mint sauce, for example, is a particular British ‘specialité’).

But linguistically, the film is a lot of fun too. As part of the comedy, and generally to get over a sense of Englishness in a film where all characters speak fluent French, the British characters all speak in a particular way. At one point Jolitorax, the Briton sent to Gaul to seek help in resisting the Romans, asks Asterix for a barrel of ‘magique potion’. Anyone who has studied French at school will get the joke. In French, of course, most adjectives get postposed: that is, they come after the noun. Jolitorax, however, preposes the adjective as would happen in English. Obelix, can’t believe it. He asks his English cousin:

     ‘Pourquoi tu parles á l’envers!?’
     [‘Why are you speaking back-to-front!?’]

Other features of English are exploited too. All the British characters speak French with an English accent; as well as using English phonology, they speak sentences using stress timing, rather than syllable timing. And English idioms, which don’t exist in French, are directly calqued. As in the comic, Jolitorax says things like ‘je dis!’ (‘I say!’), ‘secouons-nous les mains’ (‘let’s shake hands’), and ‘et toute cette sorte de choses’ (‘and all that sort of thing’), which don’t exist in French.

Such language play is not only a feature of Asterix and Obelix. I remember watching a cartoon as a kid, in English but set in France, where characters would say things like ‘what is it that it is?’ – an obviously French-sounding calque of ‘qu’est-ce que c’est?’. In literary translation too, there are plenty of examples of where linguistic features from the source language are borrowed into another. Usually, the aim is to give the reader a sense of what David Bellos calls ’foreign-soundingness’: think of a decorative ‘tête-à-tête!’, ‘château’, ‘Présidente’ or plain ‘Madame’ in an English translation of ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’.

Let’s take one more example – this time, hypothetical. Speakers of Spanish will know that, unlike English, Spanish is a pro-drop language. That means, because information about the subject is carried in the inflected form of the verb, personal pronouns (like ‘I’, ‘we’ and so on) are optional, and are often dropped. Pronoun-less ‘no lo tengo’ (literally ‘no it have’), for example, means ‘I don’t have it’. Therefore, if you wanted to get a sense of American-ness, say, in a Spanish language version of Moby Dick, you might have Ahab verbalising all of his pronouns. ‘Yo no lo tengo’, he might say – something a tyrannical, whale-obsessed sea Captain from Spain would seldom do…

It may be hypothetical, but there’s direct relevance to real-life language change. Recently, researchers have discovered that the Spanish speaking community of New York City tend to use these optional pronouns much more frequently that other Spanish speakers. Authors of the study believe that this is a result of contact between the Latino community and the majority language of the Big Apple, which isn’t so laissez-faire with its pronouns. In some sense, you could say that bilingual Spanish-English speakers, are borrowing (or translating) linguistic features from English directly into Spanish.

Here’s another example, which relates back to Asterix and Obelix, and Jolitorax’s ‘magique potion’. In Guernésiais, the Norman French dialect spoken by a small number of people in the British Channel Islands, there is a tendency to prepose adjectives rather than postpose them (Gadet and Jones, 2008): that is, to speak ‘back-to-front’ as Obelisk would say. Although all researchers might not agree that the preposed English ADJECTIVE + NOUN construction has been translated directly into Guernsey French, it still seems likely that language contact with English has had some effect.

Sticking to French, let’s take one final example. In North America, the use of ‘comme’ is now used in ways not dissimilar to the English ‘like’. For example, a French speaker from New Brunswick might say the following (Gadet and Jones, 2008), which looks like a direct borrowing of the equivalent version from English:

     ‘Ça fait comme dix minutes qu’on parle’
     [‘We’ve been talking for like ten minutes’]

Language changes like this, due to language contact, have been studied by linguists all over the world: from the effects of English on French in North America, to the effects of Irish on the English spoken in Ireland, to the effects of Russian on the indigenous languages of Siberia. It isn’t always easy to prove that the changes really are due to contact with other languages – that is, that linguistic features are borrowed, calqued or translated directly – but the evidence often points that way.

All these studies underline the fact that, when it comes to language change, it’s multilinguals who are the real innovators. To try to prove it to you, I have one final example.

In Russia, writer and poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837) is revered as the father of modern literature. Through his works, Pushkin not only influenced every Russian author that followed him, but also transformed the Russian language itself. In particular, he transformed its vocabulary by importing concepts from Western Europe. Sometimes, he borrowed words directly, but mostly he translated them bit-by-bit, as calques: ‘philosophy’, for example, became ‘ljubomudrie’ (‘love of wisdom’); ‘Kindergarten’ became ‘detskij sad’ (‘children garden’).

A member of the aristocracy, Pushkin would have grown up speaking French at home, mostly learning Russian from his household servants. As translator Robert Chandler says, Pushkin’s greatest achievement was ‘to make use of every possibility available to him: colloquial Russian, Church Slavonic and borrowings from French, German and English’ (Chandler, 2005).

Pushkin is proof that, when it comes to linguistic innovation, bilinguals really are the most creative. In other words, Oscar Wilde was right: ‘talent borrows, genius steals’.

References

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

Gadet, F. and Jones, M. C. (2008) Variation, Contact and Convergence in French Spoken Outside France. Journal of Language Contact, 2, 238-249.

The Story of ‘Bo!’

ImageAs I was walking home the other day, I saw a poster on the side of a bus stop that caught my eye. It was an advert for a new music catalogue service from the BBC, called ‘Playlister’. But it was the text itself that grabbed my attention.

The tagline, ‘be selecta’, is a neat, if obvious, creative linguistic variation on the phrase ‘bo selecta!’. To anyone who doesn’t know the phrase it plays on, the lack of article between verb and noun will still be suitably evocative, accurately or otherwise, of some kind of pidgin or creole relative of English. And its core meaning will still be transparently – in this context at least – ‘you be the DJ!’.

However, to anyone that has had at least one eye on popular culture in the UK throughout the nineties and the noughties will spot the reference immediately.

Like many people, I’ve been familiar with the phrase ‘bo selecta!’ since it first appeared in the UK Number 2 hit ‘Re-rewind’ some 15 years ago. The track, by British garage artists The Artful Dodger, featured vocals by the shortly-to-be-famous Craig David and included the suitably-schwa’d lyrics:

    With Craig David all over your […]
    DJ it’s all up to you
    When the crowd go wild
    Tell me watcha gonna do

    Re-re-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo selecta!’
    Re-re-e-e-e-e-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo selecta-ta!’
    Re-re-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo selecta!’
    Re-re-e-e-e-e-wind, when the crowd say ‘bo! bo! bo!’

The track marked a crossing of the music genre (known simply as ‘garage’) to the mainstream. At the same time, it also brought to the ears of the masses the Jamaican patois infused, urban dialect of English, representative of the predominantly black community in London that UK garage sprang from.

Importantly, to white, middle-class ears the words ‘bo’ and ‘selecta’ had a mystery to them – and an obvious sense of ‘cool’. They weren’t the kind of words you would forget.

And so it was for many more of my generation – not least for comedian Leigh Francis who, between 2002 and 2004, used the phrase as the title of a popular TV sketch-show. One of the programme’s main characters was a less-than-subtle, rubber-masked Craig David pastiche speaking in a broad Northern English dialect. Most of the humour of the sketches the character appeared in arises from the pure incongruity of the character’s Yorkshire accent and its pairing with the vocabulary of London’s garage scene. One particular catch-phrase was, for example:

    ‘It’s proper ‘bo’, I tell thee!’

The thorough lampooning quickly dismantled any sense of cool that ‘bo selecta!’ (and Craig David) had, at least among middle-class British audiences. That, I guess, was the point.

Now, more than ten years later, the BBC are using the phrase – or at least a clever spin on it – to advertise their new music app. But, walking home, I realised I still didn’t know what ‘bo selecta’ means. So I looked it up.

I found the answer in Simon Reynolds’ 1998 book: ‘Energy Flash: a Journey through Rave Music and Dance Culture’. In the UK garage club scene, which had its roots in the reggae dancehall culture of the Caribbean, the MC (as in ‘master of ceremonies’) was an important figure who effectively mediated between the crowd and the DJ (the ‘selecta’). If the crowd liked a tune they would cry ‘bo!’ at which point the MC would ask the DJ to ‘rewind’ the tune – that is, play it again. The track conjures up the ritual cleverly, from the narrative in the verses, right down to the electronically stuttered (‘re-rewind’) refrain.

As for ‘bo’ itself, it turns out it’s not the same word as ‘beau’ as some sources on the internet suggest, although in this context it does imply approval of the selecta’s selection. Instead, it’s onomatopoeia: somewhat like ‘boom’, it echoes the celebratory sound of gun fire.

And that’s it. However, there’s one interesting side-note to all this. While I was researching this blog, I found this internet discussion forum about whether non-Jamaican DJs should ever speak in patois at gigs. Should a Swedish DJ, for example, ever shout ‘bo!’ to the writhing crowd? Or, in the terminology of linguist Ben Rampton (1995), should anyone ever ‘cross-over’ to assume someone else’s identity, except perhaps in jest?

Perhaps the best response I read was from someone called Danny Fyah. It read:

‘I would say: each one as best as he can. Means, if one chats a horrible patois creole, along with an European accent, it might be better to just speak Standart English. If one is able to speak the creole fluently why not using it then..?! The question is more: how much percent of the audience in – let’s say – continental Europe or Japan does understand patois? It is not even bad to switch between Standart English and Patois sometimes, if you feel like the crowd is getting a better glue of what you want to express.’

As well as enjoying a taste of his patois, I found Fyah’s comments heart-warmingly balanced (especially since they are framed around proper linguistic notions of ‘creole’ and ‘standard English’). Anyone that advocates code-switching to get the party started is OK with me!

So, that’s the story of ‘bo!’. Given the time of year, I could perhaps also write about the true meaning of ‘Crimbo’, as we like to call Christmas ‘round our way

But that, of course, is a whole different story.

References

Rampton, B. (1995) Language crossing and the problematisation of ethnicity and socialisation. Pragmatics, 5, 485-513.

The ‘I Want To Sell You A Music App’ Construction

ImageAs we all know, advertising folk like to get creative when they are trying to sell us things, not least linguistically. As a result, one of the joys of sitting on the London Underground is, for me at least, the advertising. 

One of the most striking campaigns I’ve seen recently is one for a new music app, called Bloom.fm. Like the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ phenomenon in the UK, it hinges on creative linguistic variation around one very simple grammatical structure: what you might call – for want of a better term – the ‘I want to sell you a music app’ construction.

The picture above is just one example of a series of adverts for the app in which the words ‘the _ music app’ are written in bold lettering on a plain yellow background; the only difference between them is what is written in the slot between the determiner ‘the’ and the compound noun ‘music app’. Here are just a few examples that I have spotted out and about: 

The absolute steal at £1 music app
The I may even subscribe music app
The trust me fam music app
The all-in-one music app
The borrowing music?? brilliant idea music app
The best thing since sliced bread music app
The there’s a bunch of good things I could write but since I’m a lazy tapper I just want to say download it music app
The I recommend this app for music awesome save money 5 star quality like it very much thanks for the app music app

The ad campaign is interesting linguistically because it shows – in English at least – just how many things you can shove into that slot between the determiner (like ‘a’ or ‘the’) and the noun (‘music app’) within a noun phrase (like ‘the music app’).

‘Absolute steal at £1m’ is an adjective phrase, for example; ‘best thing since sliced bread’ and ‘absolute steal at £1‘ are noun phrases; ‘I may even subscribe’ is a clause or a sentence. Otherwise, the compact conversation ‘(are you) borrowing music?? (that’s a) brilliant idea’ is effectively two sentences back-to-back, each with bits implied but stripped away. And, finally, ‘I recommend this app for music awesome save money 5 star quality like it very much thanks for the app’ is a sentence, then an adjective, then a sentence, then a noun phrase, then two more short sentences: it might be ungrammatical nonsense but, in the context of the ad, it’s carefully constructed nonsense.

The point is, of course, that the possibilities with this slogan are quite literally infinite. In other words, the construction is a goldmine for linguistic creativity – which is why it’s such a clever advertising campaign.

In this blog post, I want to focus particularly on the case where a sentence is placed within this slot – that is, on the particular syntactic construction where a fully formed sentence is embedded within a noun phrase to modify it in some way. Linguists, if they wanted to get technical, might express this kind of construction as follows:

     (1) NP -> Det S N

What this means is that, within a grammatical expression in English, a noun phrase (NP) can be assembled from a determiner (Det), followed by a sentence or clause (S), and a noun (N) (the head of the noun phrase). Here are a few examples, of my own devising, where the noun phrase (Det S NP) is written in bold:

That person has a real ‘I hate everything’ attitude
What was that ‘wake me up before you go-go’ song?
I hate all that ‘I love you’ stuff!
The ‘I like embedding sentences in noun phrases’ construction

You can imagine many other possibilities. Indeed, if you put search terms like ‘the I am’, ‘the I love’ or ‘the give me’ into your search engine will find plenty of other examples. Semantically, most of them would seem to have some kind of quotative function. That is, in each case, the sentence evokes something that somebody (or bodies) might say or be thinking; as a result, when writing such expressions in English, it makes sense to use quotation marks. In other cases, the sentence might correspond to a proper name. For example, ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’, for a brand of margarine, or ‘The Boy With An Arab Strap’, for an album by the band Belle and Sebastian, as in:

Do you remember the ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter’ controversy?
I loved their ‘The Boy With An Arab Strap’ album

In each case, the role of the sentence (S) is to modify the noun (N). However, it’s worth noting that the sentence is not acting like an adjective, which you would usually associate with the modification of a noun in English. You could, for example, modify a noun with an adjective (Adj), or even adjectives, and a sentence (S) at the same time. However, any adjective would have to come before the sentence, otherwise it would be ungrammatical. For example, you could write:

That person has a genuine ‘seize the day!’ spirit

But you couldn’t write: 

*That person has a ‘seize the day!’ genuine spirit

Formally, therefore, you would write (noting the order):

     (2) NP -> Det Adj S N

Because of subtleties like this, a full discussion of this type of construction would probably take up quite a few pages (and get linguists like me really excited). However, I’m just going to cover one other feature of this type of construction – something that lends itself to even more creative possibilities.

As we are all taught at school, any sentence (S) must consist of at least one noun phrase and one verb phrase (VP). Again, to get technical:

     (3) S -> NP VP

Notice that there’s a noun phrase (NP) within the sentence or clause (S). As Noam Chomsky famously pointed out, one of the basic tenets of any language is ‘recursion’ – that is, the possibility of embedding a thing within another example of that thing (Chomsky, 1957). This might sound terribly complicated but is actually something we do all the time when we speak. In this case, it simply means that you could take a sentence containing this kind of construction and shove it inside another example of the construction. For example, take the following sentences (possibly spoken at two very different stages of the same relationship):

I really like all that ‘I love you’ stuff
We had one of those ‘we need to talk about stuff’ conversations

Now imagine trying to combine them. You might end up with:

We had one of those ‘we need to talk about all that I-love-you stuff’ conversations

Admittedly, it’s a little far fetched (and a little awkward to render in written English given the limitations in punctuation), but it’s a linguistic possibility. Not only can you add almost any sentence between a determiner (like ‘the’) and a noun (such as ‘music app’) to modify that noun, but within that sentence you can also embed another noun, itself modified by another sentence. And, so on. Until your head turns to mush… Now, that’s really creative!

This limitless productivity, as Chomsky calls it, of such seemingly simple grammatical constructions, is a fundamental part of human language. It’s also, as I hope I’ve shown, a fantastic (and literally inexhaustible) platform for linguistic creativity. I have no idea what Bloom.fm is like as a music app, but there’s no denying the cleverness of its marketing slogan.

When it comes to the boundless creativity of the English language, there’s no better advert.

If anyone knows any research about this type of construction, where it comes from into English, how long it has been around, and whether it has any equivalents in other languages, I’d be really interested to hear about it! 

 

References

Linguistics Girl is a great online resource for more information on the various ‘parts of speech’ in English, like noun phrases, clauses, adjective phrases, and so on: http://www.linguisticsgirl.com/

Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

‘C’est Cidre. Not Cider’: The Creative Use of Code-Switching in Advertising

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Code-switching is broad term referring to the alternation between two or more languages, dialects or styles, within and between utterances and sentences. When it comes to linguistic creativity, code-switching provides a wealth of opportunities for the speaker, beyond those available in any single language or dialect. As well as being a creative mechanism in literature, music and film, it’s also a very creative tool for selling things – in branding, marketing and advertising.

And, as I also hope to show, code-switching in advertising is not something that requires fluency in a second language. Au contraire. Even people who would call themselves monolingual are probably more used to code-switching than they think – so much so, in fact, that they have probably stopped noticing how often the ‘(M)ad Men’ use it to tempt us.

The main role of code switching in marketing and branding, of course, is to evoke a foreign and desirable lifestyle – from a part of the world where the particular language is spoken – which thus becomes associated with the commodity in question. Outside of the Anglophone world, English in particular is employed to give brands an international or western feel. The example that Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros gives in her book on code-switching is from Germany. Here, in a poster advertising McDonald’s latest culinary creation, English is combined with the local language to ‘evoke a cosmopolitan – or American – lifestyle’ (p. 6, Gardner-Chloros, 2009):

‘McCroissant: The American Antwort auf Croissant. The lecker warm Croissant. Geschnitten in two Teile, this is very praktisch. So is genug Platz for weitere leckere things.’

[‘McCroissant: The American answer to Croissant. The delicious warm Croissant. Cut in two parts, this is very practical. So is enough room for further delicious things.’]

The text of the advert combines grammars, as well as words, from both languages. It also cleverly employs words like ‘so’, ‘warm’ and ‘in’ which are lexical items in both languages; this helps reduce the effort required by the reader to understand what is written, at the same time maintaining the pervasiveness of the English throughout the text.

If you travel anywhere outside of the Anglophone world – from Chile, to Kenya, to Beijing – you are likely to find similar examples. On a recent trip to Russia, it was noticeable that many restaurants in downtown St Petersburg and Moscow had Russian-English names, often switching languages in their signs (‘Restoran Meat Head’ was a particular favourite, and not just for the steak). And code-switching wasn’t only to be found in the catering sector. The business newspaper I picked up in Moscow airport was called the ‘RBC Daily’, which even switches scripts (from Cyrillic to Latin) in its title. Here, of course, (American) English is evocative of international business and commerce.

But code-switching is prevalent in the Anglophone world too, and English speaking consumers like me are just as likely to be taken in by it.

In the UK at least, French is especially common, partly because it is traditionally the most taught second language, but also because of the perceived attractiveness of the French lifestyle – and its connotations of elegance, sophistication and taste. As such, French is used to sell everything from cars and clothes, to perfume and beer.

Stella Artois, for example, is a Belgium beer, brewed in the Flemish speaking city of Leuven. However, to the US and UK market, it advertises itself as very definitely French. Recently, the company launched a new advertising campaign for its cider using a simple code-switch in the tagline:

C’est cidre. Not cider.’

[It’s ‘cidre’. Not cider.]

Such a tagline, of course, cleverly hinges upon the (perceived) superiority of everything French – including the language itself.

For obvious culinary reasons, the restaurant industry is arguably the place where code-switching to French is most common. Walking around any English speaking city, you’re likely to find plenty of French: here, a chain of French restaurants advertising ‘bonnes tables et vins’; there, a bistro advertising its ‘plat du jour’. If you’re an English speaker in the Anglophone world, you’re perhaps most likely to see code-switching in restaurant menus. And you see it so often, in fact, that you’ve possible stopped noticing it.

Take, for example, the menu for the Michelin-starred La Chappelle restaurant in London. The majority of the language may look like English, but the register is decidedly Francophone. Starters are labelled ‘Entrées’, main courses as ‘Plats principaux’. Appetisingly, there’s ‘ballotine of quail’, ‘pavé of halibut’, an ‘assiette of Herdwick lamb’ (what’s wrong with ‘plate’?), and ‘summer vegetables en cocette. There’s certainly a soupçon of code-switching going on, and that’s only in the à la carte menu.

Because of the status in Europe of French cuisine, French has dictated much of the English vocabulary for food and drink (‘restaurant’, ‘bistro’, ‘café’, ‘menu’, and so on). As such, it’s worth being careful to differentiate between code-switching and lexical borrowing. In borrowing, a ‘loan word’ is taken from a donor language and incorporated into the recipient language. However, in practice, it’s quite difficult to separate the two phenomena. In reality, there is a continuum between the two extremes: loans start off as code-switches and then gradually become established phonologically, morphologically, and so on, into the lexicon of the recipient language (Gardner-Chloros, 2009).

For example – for most English speakers I know at least –  ‘restaurant’ is a fully fledged ‘English’ word. However, there are still certain speakers, usually from among the British upper classes, that refuse to accept its English phonology. They still pronounce ‘restauranten français, without the terminal /t/ and with the final consonant Gallicly nasalized. That is, they refuse to borrow and, instead, are absolutely resolute in their code-switching.

Code-switching to another language like this can be used, of course, as a device to demonstrate how sophisticated we (think we) are. Interestingly, I once heard a particular member of this group – a food critic on a popular TV cooking competition – pluralise the phonologically-French ‘restaurant’ by adding a terminal /z/, as in English. Critics might say that this particular speaker, in an overtly pretentious effort, was failing to be as clever as he thought he was(!). Technically speaking, you would say within the speaker’s own idiolect the integration of ‘restaurant’ was complete morphologically, but not phonologically.

At the other end of the spectrum, even within the food business, there are those that are more resistant to code-switching. James Martin is a British TV chef who presents a popular Saturday morning cooking show in the UK. Albeit in jest, I once heard him say of ‘crème anglaise’ (BBC One, ‘Saturday Kitchen Live’, 5 October 2013):

‘Back where I come from, that’s called “custard” […] The difference is twenty quid!’

But, whatever you feel about code-switching in advertising – sophisticated, pretentious, or simply unnecessary – you can’t disagree that it’s everywhere. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous, that it’s very easy to stop noticing that it’s there at all.

Since, when it comes to the business of selling, there’s nothing like a bit of code-switching. Often, the difference is at least a few extra bucks.

References

There’s a short blog and interesting video about code-switching in advertising here (http://lindazonderop.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/code-switching-in-advertising.html).

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

‘Keep Calm And Jazz It Up’: The Productive Art of Creative Linguistic Variation

ImageIf you’ve been to the UK in the last few years, you won’t have been able to avoid the latest craze sweeping the nation. It’s a craze which seems to manifest itself everywhere: in shop windows, on T-shirts, in adverts – even in language blogs. And it’s one that has at its heart one very simple phrase.

On the eve of World War II, the UK Government displayed posters across the country carrying the very simple plea to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. The message – simply stated and boldly written – was clear: to get through the war, the nation couldn’t afford to panic.

After the war was over, the poster had surely had its day. But then, in 2001, some enterprising soul came up with the  idea of printing new copies of it for sale. The rest, as they say, is history.

Since then, the poster has appeared everywhere from office walls to football changing rooms. In particular, it has spawned all manner of creative parodies from ‘keep calm and have a cup-cake’ to the royal wedding inspired ‘keep calm and marry Kate’. Novel versions have appeared all over the place, from greeting cards to shopping bags. There is now even a website where you can generate your own. In fact, the country has been inundated with so many examples that some commentators have begun to wonder whether it’s time to stop ‘keeping calm’, and just stop.

So, what’s behind the craze for ‘keeping calm’ and ‘carrying on’? Why has it been so popular?

For many people in the UK the phrase will surely carry a very warm feeling of ‘Britishness’ – from the wartime reference itself, even down to the most Anglo-Saxon of linguistic features at the end: the phrasal verb. But, I would argue that the most important factor in the success of the ‘Keep Calm’ craze is in, in fact, the wealth of creative potential that the phrase itself provides. Because ‘keep calm and carry on’ is the perfect example to illustrate one of the most important mechanisms in linguistic creativity: creative linguistic variation.

Let me explain.

When it comes to language, creativity is not bound only to poetry and fine prose. Researchers like Ronald Carter at University of Nottingham have done much work to point out that linguistic creativity (the ‘art of common talk’, as he calls it) is pervasive in everyday life (Carter and McCarthy, 2011). As such, linguistic creativity  can come in all manner of forms, including the use of figurative language (metaphors, similes and so on), puns and other word-play, jokes, careful placement of cultural references, general deviations from appropriateness, and even style-switching.

But perhaps one of the most common of all these forms of creativity is what Carter calls ‘departures from expected idiomatic formulations’. In essence, this ‘creative linguistic variation’ (or CLV for short) means taking a well worn phrase like ‘keep calm and carry on’ (or any other cliché, idiom or figure of speech), and playing with it, creatively. Tony Veale, computational linguist at University College Dublin, has dedicated an entire book to this creative process (Veale, 2012). In his words (p. 26), creative linguistic variation refers to:

‘…expressions that are playful in their use of words, that stretch words or familiar phrases to fit novel (but apt) meanings, and which can be seen as pleasurable variations of a familiar convention, an entrenched stereotype, or an existing turn of phrase.

In short, CLV means imitating and innovating, at the same time. And it’s probably something you do more often than you think.

In one real-life example from Carter’s research, two lifeguards are chatting as they sit behind a cash-desk taking money from swimmers (Carter and McCarthy, 2011). One of them recounts to the other:

I was in, reading FHM on the sun-lounger, happy as hell.

The metaphor employed in this sentence, ‘happy as hell’, is a good example of CLV. In itself, ‘happy as hell’ actually stretches the definition of metaphor since there are no obvious attributes of ‘hell’ (think ‘hot’, ‘firey’, ‘miserable’) that match the adjective ‘happy’. Instead of being built up from its component parts, the expression is therefore better explained as a variation on older, more fitting metaphors: ‘hot as hell’, perhaps, or ‘brutal as hell’.

If you do a web search (using a Google-based tool like WebCorp) for examples of ‘_ as hell’ you get the following among the top 60 hits:

mad as hell’ (6 hits)
creepy as hell’ (5)
cold as hell’ (3)
hot as hell’ (2)
hard as hell’ (2)
sexy as hell’ (2)
old as hell’ (2)
brutal as hell’ (2)
crazy as hell’ (2)
confusing as hell’ (1)
ugly as hell’ (1)
Hollywood as hell’ (1) 

Of course, some of these are more novel than others, and some are more pleasing (my favourite is ‘Hollywood as hell’), but all are good examples of CLV in action.

A phrase like ‘keep calm and carry on’ gives rise to even more creative possibilities. If you do the same search, this time for expressions of the form ‘keep calm and _ on’, you get the following among the top 60 hits:

keep calm and carry on’ (5)
keep calm and teach on’ (3)
keep calm and invest on’ (3)
keep calm and fight on’ (3)
keep calm and dream on’ (2)
keep calm and marry on’ (2)
keep calm and soldier on’ (2)
keep calm and Karey on’ (2)
keep calm and tweet on’ (2)
keep calm and Carrie on’ (1)
keep calm and conform on’ (1)

Some of the variations deviate little in terms of meaning (‘soldier on’); some echo the wartime routes of the original (‘fight on’); some add a subtle subversive spin (‘conform on’); and, some pun directly on the verb being replaced – at the same time creating new verbs from proper nouns (‘Carrie’ and ‘Karey’). But, all are good examples of creative linguistic variation.

You can do the same search for ‘keep _ and carry on’, now looking for instances of the adjective ‘calm’ being replaced. This time, you will find examples of CLV including ‘keep clean and carry on’ (2) and ‘keep cool and carry on’ (2). And, finally, if you look for more wholesale creative variations, searching for instances of ‘keep calm and _’, you will hit examples including:

keep calm and visit our shop’ (2)
keep calm and make tea’ (1)
keep calm and visit New York’ (1)

And, my personal favourite:

keep calm and stop making keep calm posters’ (1)

Of course, as Veale points out in his book, novelty is not enough when it comes to making such variations. There is very obviously an art to creating pleasing expressions like ‘keep calm and stop making keep calm posters’. As Veale says:

A truly creative variation is a delicate balance of the novel and the familiar, of the appropriate and the inappropriate. If words seem to be in the wrong place, then they are in the wrong place at the right time. A creative variation is not just any novel combination of familiar elements, but a deliberate departure from a convention that is given a distinctive and knowing twist.

In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell famously expresses his hatred of ‘dead metaphors’. He even pleads with authors to avoid them, even if they are not yet dead, but only just going stale (Orwell, 1946). One of the golden rules for writing, he says, is:

Never use a metaphor, simile or figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

His point was a valid one: that, in political debate, the metaphors people use can influence, for better or for worse, the way in which we view the world. But what Orwell missed was that, when it comes to the everyday linguistic creativity, dead metaphors – as much as any well worn turn of phrase – are actually a fantastic source of novelty.

So next time you feel your prose is missing something, just remember the productive art of creative linguistic variation. In other words: keep calm, and jazz it up.

 

References

Carter, R. and Mccarthy, M. (2011). Talking, Creating. In Li Wei (ed.) The Routledge Applied Linguistics Reader (pp. 202-227). Oxon: Routledge.
Orwell, G. (1946) Politics and the English Language. Horizon, 13, 252-265.
Veale, T. (2012) Exploding the Creativity Myth: The Computational Foundations of Linguistic Creativity. London: Bloomsbury.

 

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

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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.

Literature

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.

Film

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…

References

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.