You're looking at the launch of a new team covering race, ethnicity and culture at NPR. We decided to call this team Code Switch because much of what we'll be exploring are the different spaces we each inhabit and the tensions of trying to navigate between them. In one sense, code-switching is about dialogue that spans cultures. It evokes the conversation we want to have here.
Linguists would probably quibble with our definition. (The term arose in linguistics specifically to refer to mixing languages and speech patterns in conversation.) But we're looking at code-switching a little more broadly: many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.
When you're attuned to the phenomenon of code-switching, you start to see it everywhere, and you begin to see the way race, ethnicity and culture plays out all over the place.
I don't think many linguists would take issue with this generalized sense of "code-switching." For a more technical definition, we can turn to the pioneering sociolinguistic work of John J. Gumperz, who passed away a couple of weeks ago. In a 2008 post, Mark Liberman quoted Gumperz's classic article, "Linguistic and Social Interaction in Two Communities" (American Anthropologist, 66(S3): 137-153, 1964):
The structure of verbal repertoires … includes a much greater number of alternants, reflecting contextual and social differences in speech. Linguistic interaction … can be most fruitfully viewed as a process of decision making, in which speakers select from a range of possible expressions. The verbal repertoire then contains all the accepted ways of formulating messages. It provides the weapons of everyday communication. Speakers choose among this arsenal in accordance with the meanings they wish to convey.
The Code Switch blog post includes several videos to get readers into the spirit of "hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces." One shows President Obama, shortly before his 2009 inauguration, visiting Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C.:
Demby notes that "when the (black) cashier asks him if he needs change, Obama replies, 'nah, we straight.'" For much more on this, see H. Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman's New York Times op-ed piece from last year, "Obama's English" (previewing their book, Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.):
These three short, seemingly simple, words ["Nah, we straight"] exhibited distinct linguistic features associated with African-American ways of speaking.
First was the rendering of “no” as “nah.” The vowel sound in “no” is like the one in “note,” while the vowel sound in “nah” is like the one in “not” (not to be confused with the way some whites say “nah” as in “gnat,” or the way some Southerners say “naw” like the vowel sound in “gnaw”).
Second was Mr. Obama’s use of “straight” in the sense of “O.K.,” “fine,” “all right.” Observers have noted Mr. Obama’s use of black slang in relation to hip-hop culture, his use of words like “flow” (the mapping of rhymes onto a beat) or “tight” (cool, hip). In his memoir “Dreams From My Father,” Mr. Obama also used words and phrases that are not as widely known outside the black community, like “trifling” (lazy and inadequate) and “high-yella” (a reference to light-skinned blacks).
Third was Mr. Obama’s omission of the word “are.” The removal of forms of “to be” — what linguists call copula absence — is one of the most important and frequently studied features of black English.
Another clip in the Code Switch post illustrates parents encouraging multilingual code-switching, in this case with a child nimbly navigating English, French, and Indonesian:
Of course, Obama's own childhood featured similar code-switching, with English and Indonesian (if not French) in the mix. As president, he's had a few occasions to indulge in English-Indonesian code-switching, something I've discussed in a series of posts:
- “Obama's Indonesian redux” (1/15/09)
- “Obama's Indonesian pleasantries: the video” (1/23/09)
- “Obama's Indonesian pleasantries: now with food!” (11/9/10)
- “Obama's Indonesian: the grand finale” (11/10/10)
With a president so adept at code-switching, across languages and across varieties of English, it's a fine time to launch a blog examining negotiations of hybrid linguistic, ethnic, and racial identities. And should Demby worry about linguists quibbling with his definition of "code-switching"? Nah, we straight.