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.


‘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’.


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.

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


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.


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.