New NPR blog: Code Switch

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NPR has launched an engaging new blog called Code Switch. From the inaugural post, "How Code-Switching Explains The World," by Gene Demby:

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:

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.


  1. suzanne sullivan said,

    April 9, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    The other day, after hours of French/English code switching with my girlfriends, I answered a "What's the word for…" by saying, "C'est le same mot." Later that day I asked, "Quat?". I know this is not code switching but rather code mixing! Talk about permeable ambiguity! Will check out the blog now. Très cool!

  2. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 9, 2013 @ 8:50 pm

    It's interesting to figure out the default cues a child uses about which language to use. Our eldest son started out speaking German to adults and English to children, went through a month or so speaking German indoors and English outdoors, then learned to listen first. The first strategies matched his everyday experience pretty well.

  3. M.N. said,

    April 9, 2013 @ 11:42 pm

    /na/ is an AAVE thing? I thought it was just general American English unrounding like we get with "dude".

  4. Michael Watts said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 12:31 am

    Speaking as a person with essentially no exposure to any black community, I don't think I'd blink at the use of "trifling" to mean 'inadequate'. 'Lazy' isn't something I would get.

    What's the difference supposed to be between the vowel in "not" and the vowel in "gnaw"?

  5. Eric Vinyl said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 1:14 am


  6. J Lee said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 3:58 am

    maybe they'll do a post about how the unnecessary romanticization of being 'bicultural' leads supposedly smart people like elizabeth warren to utter fabrications

  7. James H. said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 4:27 am

    @ Michael Watts: You must be from a cot-caught merged area. The difference between the vowels in "not" and "gnaw" is the same as the difference between the vowels in the interjections "ah!" and "aw!", respectively.

  8. GeorgeW said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 4:38 am

    @Michael Watts: In my dialect (Southern AmE), 'not' rhymes with 'bot' and 'hot.' 'Nah' would rhyme with 'ha' and 'ma.'

  9. GeorgeW said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 4:50 am

    Years ago living in the Middle East, we had a Pakistani-American friend whose daughter, 4-6 YO, spoke some of English, Urdu, Arabic and, I think, Tigrinya.

    What amazed me is that she did not mix up the languages. She spoke the right language with the right persons. She would automatically switch to the code of the interlocutor – Urdu with her parents, English with us, Arabic with other friends and Tigrinya with their Eritrean maid.

  10. Jason said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 5:18 am

    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).

    First point: Obama has been actually been extremely careful to avoid "black slang in relation to hip-hop culture". He knows the trap excessively ebonical language would create for him. "Flow" and "tight" are not counterexamples — they are words your dad knows.

    Second point: Concerning "We Straight." In Bislama, an English lexified creole on Vanuatu, "I stret" or "Em (i) stret" is one of the most common expressions, and it means exactly the same thing, "(Things are) alright, ok, fine." The same expression exists in the closely related Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea. I wonder if this is coincidence, evidence that AAVE and Bislama have some kind of remote common ancestor (accepting the theory that some features of AAVE have their origin in Creolized English) or just another "near universal" metaphor, similar to "Higher up means higher status" found in cultures around the world. If so, why are "straight things" considered fine or alright?

  11. Faldone said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 7:40 am


    In my dialect (Southern AmE), 'not' rhymes with 'bot' and 'hot.' 'Nah' would rhyme with 'ha' and 'ma.'

    This is extremely unhelpful for someone for whom all six of those vowels are the same.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 8:03 am

    @Faldone: Sorry, you are right, it is confusing. In fact, as I think about it, my 'not' and 'ma' vowels are close, if not the same. Posting before coffee is dangerous.

    Okay, I would pronounce 'gnaw' nɔ and 'not' nɑt.

  13. Brett said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 8:36 am

    @Jason: Those are certainly NOT words my dad knows. I myself, as somebody who has little exposure to hip-hop, knew "flow" but not that meaning of "tight." These terms may not be particularly obscure, but neither are they general knowledge.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 9:49 am

    Maybe a spectrogram would help, but I've listened to the clip a few times and I certainly can't discern the President using the LOT vowel rather than the CLOTH vowel (assuming they aren't merged for him) in his no/na/nah/naw, even assuming the truth of the claim (which is a new one on me, although that doesn't mean it's not empirically grounded) that using the LOT vowel in this context is a distinctive AAVE-ism not found in any other variety of AmEng. As for this usage of "straight," if you turn it into the question "are we straight" (thus sidestepping the copula-deletion issue) and look in google books, you definitely turn up some AAVE usage, but you also find it coming out of the mouths of e.g., an character indicated via context and eye-dialect spelling to be Australian and an undercover cop pretending to be a mafioso while interacting with some Hell's Angels.

  15. Faldone said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 11:13 am

    I just saw Monsoon Wedding, in which there was a lot of code-switching. They bounced back and forth between English and Punjabi almost every other sentence. There was one time when they used subtitles for an English sentence but only because it included the word Ferengi.

  16. Mark P said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

    I am a native of northwest Georgia, and the way I hear Obama's "nah" is exactly the way I say it. There may well be other Southerners who say it differently. Dropping the "are" in "we straight" is also common enough within the right context that I would not notice it.

  17. Bob Moore said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 12:40 pm

    My most unusual experience of code switching in this extended sense occurred while staying at a cross-country ski lodge near Lake Tahoe about 15-years ago. There was a Norwegian family staying there who had lived in the US for two or three years. Their 10 year old daughter spoke English to her parents with a heavy Norwegian accent, but spoke to the other guests in a perfect American accent. It took me a day or so to realize that it was the same girl.

  18. Mark P said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

    I should mention that I'm a white Southerner, and in my experience there is non-trivial overlap in AAVE and my observations of white Southern dialects, especially in older populations.

  19. M.N. said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

    A reference to /na/ as a "California" (?) thing:

    Reading that comic was actually what first caused me to notice that I have this feature (and so I assumed that I picked it up from Californians I knew in college). I don't think I'd say "brah" for "bro", though.

  20. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

    Now I've clicked through to the Alim/Smitherman piece and am puzzled. If asked to describe the sociolinguistic valence of "bamboozled" and "okey-doke" I'm not sure what my first unprimed response would be but "associated with Malcolm X" certainly wouldn't have been it. And the quotes they give as examples of alleged "signifying" and preacherly style would seem unexceptional in context if attributed to a campaign speech by Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. This is not to say that the President's "folksy" register doesn't have some AAVE-isms in it. It probably does, even if they were acquired in adulthood in Chicago rather than childhood in Honolulu/Jakarta. But given both: a) the President's particular linguistic backstory (i.e. that he grew up with no AAVE speakers in his household and very very few AAVE speakers in his neighborhood/school peer group by comparison to the median black American of his generation); and b) the fact that many features of AAVE can also be found in other varieties of AmEng, one should, I think, be careful about invoking that as the default explanation for any bit of striking-sounding usage that comes out of the Presidential mouth.

    And finding it impressive that a politician (of any ethnic background or political persuasion) is able to successfully deploy the word "boricua" when addressing a Puerto Rican audience is a sign of extreme naivite. It's like being surprised that Nelson Rockefeller managed to get himself photographed eating a knish while campaigning in Jewish neighborhoods.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 2:49 pm

    If "nah" rhyming with "brah" is a California thing, could it also be a Hawaii thing? The "brah" piece of it is certainly a well-known feature of Hawaiian Pidgin. More research needed!

  22. Arthur Rowse said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

    "Learn to Code Switch" is the tenth lesson in my recent book, "Amglish, in Like, Ten Easy Lessons: A Celebration of the New World Lingo" (published by Rowman & Littlefield). I agree that the term is a general one to denote switching from one language or set of understandings to another, but I give it a more specific meaning in my book.
    The point is that while everyone — mostly the young and middle-aged — have to learn Standard English in school in the U.S. in order to function in today's society, our language is rapidly changing to a much less formal one that is also being adopted by the rest of the world. To go along with the other "lessons," including the first one: Go with the flow, Lesson Ten says everyone must learn how to get along in both formal English and Amglish, my term adopted from some Brits, for informal American English.

  23. Eric Vinyl said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 11:56 am

    If "nah" rhyming with "brah" is a California thing, could it also be a Hawaii thing? The "brah" piece of it is certainly a well-known feature of Hawaiian Pidgin. More research needed!

    My assumption would be that it's a piece of Pidgin generally incorporated into non-HCE-speaking surfers' lects, which has, then, easily migrated from Hawaiʻi to coastal California, esp. among the surfing subculture, esp. SoCal. vide "Undone (The Sweater Song)" rather than evidence of any merger.

  24. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

    This is Arthur Rowse's point, that there is code switching between registers, not just dialects and languages. This should be more easily apparent and comprehensible to more people, many of whom will have less experience of code switching between dialects and languages.

    And that's, I think, a big part of the point of featuring this exchange of Obama's. It's a dialect code switch, arguably, but it's certainly a register code switch. Politicians are usually masters at this, and in their mastery they often manage it very subtly.

    I recall a discussion I was involved with — here or elsewhere, I can't recall — where people discussed their own deliberately obvious code switching of register in some contexts. While much of my writing has an aspirational character of formal or academic writing, I deliberately sprinkle more informal or even "crude" usages to partly offset this and partly because it sort of reflects my deeper values. I'm not alone in this and what I recall from that conversation was some discussion about how this sort of deliberate dissonance in register is perhaps a burgeoning trend. Outside of humor, that is, where it's always been useful.

  25. Lane said,

    April 11, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

    I always thought code-switching as a term made more intuitive sense to mean switching between dialects or sociolects – the way a computer nerd (speaking of code) might lapse into incomprehensible jargon with fellow nerds but switch out of it in explaining why your machine isn't working to you. Since "code", for most people, calls to mind an attempt to conceal what's being said to outsiders, it echoes something like "cant" and makes me thing of, for example, Cockney rhyming slang. If you asked me what "code-switching" is without telling me, that's what I'd guess – and not (say) mere French-English switching. Why didn't they just call that "language-switching", I wonder?

  26. koj said,

    April 13, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

    is that last vid trilingual or quadri-lingual? I could swear I heard 'bilong long' which, in the context definitely sounds like some form of a South Pacific Creole to me. But I don't know Indonesian, so maybe I'm just imagining or projecting.

  27. Louis said,

    April 15, 2013 @ 8:06 am

    Actually, in Indonesian there is the word bilang, which sounds just like bilong. Although in Indonesian bilang means to talk.

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