44. Rhetoric codeswitching and its interpretation in social interaction

This post is also available in: Catalan

Joan A. Argenter
UNESCO Chair on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity
Institut d’Estudis Catalans


Language alternation between more or less bilingual speakers during a single speech event has been part of the sociolinguistic agenda for some time. It was soon noticed that such alternation or codeswitching can either evoke defined social situations either specific domains or express connotative or rhetoric uses over the course of the interaction.

Situational codeswitching produces a redefinition of the speech act: it involves a change in the definition that the speakers make of reciprocal rights and obligations. An example of this is the switch from Catalan to Spanish when a third Spanish-speaking person joins a conversation between Catalan speakers —once compulsory and still done today. The code switching first called “metaphoric” and later “conversational” does not redefine the fundamental speech act, but it does convey rhetorical or figurative meanings.

One case of the latter consists of a kind of doubling or repetition of what is said, first in one language and in the other language immediately afterwards. A classic example is the SPANISH/ENGLISH switch observed between Chicanos in the USA, in a situation in which a mother calls her son in Spanish – issues a command – but he ignores her. The mother’s voice is raised in crescendo and the boy continues to take no notice. Then the mother repeats the call in English (Gumperz 1982: 78):[1]



And the boy comes. The researcher interpreted that these language choices enable inferences to be made that are significant to the extent that they are associated with the connotations of power carried by each language. Whereas in this case Spanish expresses solidarity between conversation partners, English is the language of power and therefore has higher coercive value. It was also interpreted that the order of languages in the alternation is relevant and that there could not be a similar utterance in which the order of the languages could be reversed (ENGLISH/SPANISH) with the same effect, since there would not have been an increase in the coercive force of the command.

This interpretation was accepted and replicated in other cases of switching in dissimilar contexts, always conveying the expression of authority. An almost exact case to the previous one is the HUNGARIAN/GERMAN switching in a town on the Austrian side of the Austro-Hungarian border, where Hungarian is the inhabitants’ mother tongue, but they have historically been exposed to more or less stable bilingual practices and are now under strong pressure from German, the official state language.

A three-year old girl is playing in the shed and scatters a pile of logs with her cousin’s help. Both are being looked after by their grandparents. The grandfather realises what is going on and shouts (Gal 1979: 112):[2]






The grandfather knows that the little girl does not understand German, as they speak Hungarian at home and she has not started school yet. However, as the children are not taking any notice, he repeats the command in German and after that, following the third pause, he switches from a command to a familiar threat in Hungarian.

This association of the dominant language with power or authority is the most common situation in contexts of asymmetric language contact.

However, the world is wide and diverse, and each speech community, has its own dynamics and its own linguistic economy: the presence of codeswitching is as significant as its absence. Similarly, the weight of authority in doubling or repetition does not always fall on the language of repetition or on the dominant language.

In Val di Non, a valley in Trentino, in the Italian Alps, people speak a dialect of Ladin, called Nones. Following a fast-moving period in the 1970s in which Italian almost replaces Nones, due to reduced prospects for young people to make a living there and the belief that “speaking dialect” was socially shameful, the trend experienced a turnaround. On the one hand, the EU was promoting the status of regional and minority languages and advocating respect for these languages. On the other hand, EU agricultural policy increased the value of the region’s main farmed crop, a variety of apple that was successfully grown using traditional techniques. This created wealth, which also enabled improvements to be made in every walk of life and opened up educational opportunities for young people. Local pride was definitively restored and Nones experienced a strong resurgence. It is spoken by children (even by families in which the adults speak Italian at home) and it is used in a wide variety of situations, including various kinds of public discourse and texts. “Speaking dialect” is once again a source of pride. These circumstances would explain that codeswitching with the same historical value as in the previous cases happens in the opposite direction to the one predicted, that is, that Nones expresses connotations of authority that in the past were common in Italian (Fellin 2003).

The following is a situation involving a young girl (Erica) and her parents (Davide and Maria) at the table. The child wants a coconut to be opened and the parents accept, but she becomes impatient and stands on top of a bench and moves to one of the ends (Fellin 2003: 49):[3]












This is a family in which the predominant language is Italian, but the little girl also has learnt Nones. Both the command and the threat are expressed in Nones. The reversing of the language shift has resulted in an alteration in the rhetorical connotations; by recovering its prestige, Nones has recovered its connotation of authority in the sphere of the community and of moral commitment to it. The pattern follows what was established in the first case described earlier.

The local language of the inhabitants of Gapun, a village in the Sepik river basin in Papua New Guinea, is Tayap.[4] The official state language is Tok Pisin (from the English talk pidgin). In Gapun they are undergoing language shift, the replacement of one language with another. Work has been done on the importance of the communication practices of children’s caretakers in the primary socialisation period, including that of language switching. Cases of doubling or repetition can be found, often used for emphasising a command or a warning. With reference to this (Kulick 1992: 77-78):

A mother addresses her daughter who is playing with the baby (the examples do not reproduce attached turns of speech): [5]






As Kulick notes, in the verbal behaviour patterns of Gapun residents, this kind of emphatic codeswitching can occur both from Tayap and into Tayap. Here, it is not that Tok Pisin has more threatening connotations. The emphasis, or in the examples shown above the threat, comes from the act of codeswitching, not from the direction of that switch.

These cases of alternating ITALIAN/NONES and TAYAP/TOK PISIN or TOK PISIN/TAYAP, respectively, contradict the initial hypothesis on the directionality of the emphatic codeswitching with coercive value. In the first case because the connotations associated with the languages have been altered and “power” is not being conveyed by the dominant language; in the second case because the linear order between the doubling elements is less relevant than codeswitching itself.

The existence of a tradition of bilingual folk poetry – and other genres, such as theatre performances – is not a rarity in many societies. It is not unusual for the type of codeswitching being discussed here to be used in lyrical texts, like the FRENCH/ARABIC alternation in rai music by singers in the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco). These bilingual texts, heard or read from the north shore of the strait, can evoke reminiscences of medieval Andalusian Arabic poetry. Unlike poetry contest (“glosadors” in Mallorca, “bertsolaris” in the Basque Country) – whose description as “lyrical” is dubious – lyrical poetry is usually associated with the expression of subjectivity and, therefore, of the first person, the self, rather than of the interaction with a you. The fact that there is no real interaction, however, does not prevent the poet or composer giving their verses an impression of being a conversation. See (Davies/Bentahila 2013: 40):[6]




The contact between French and Arabic in Morocco and Algeria is particular. French was the language of the coloniser and Arabic – or Afro-Asiatic languages, such as Amazigh – was that of the colonised, there is no doubt about that. From independence onwards – and quite a few decades have passed, more than half a century – Standard Arabic has become the state language and colloquial Arabic continues to be the majority language of the native population. But French continued to be taught in schools and most of the population were bilingual. People’s bilingualism continues up to nowadays. Earlier in time older people had a better command of French than younger people did. Nowadays, however, the decline of French at social level is complete and young people aged thirty or younger communicate in colloquial Arabic. Arabic can be considered the socially – not just psycholinguistically – dominant language and French can be regarded as the “recessive” language, the knowledge of which is a symbolic asset for groups who have been educated in the scientific or cultural sphere. In this sense, the order of the concurrent languages in the verses cited earlier follows the pattern originally expected by the first academics to study codeswitching.[7]

An interesting question posed is the interaction between rhetorical codeswitching and situational codeswitching in language shift. The case of Tayap is particularly striking (Kulick 1992). First, though, it is worth explaining that the cultural identity of people in Gapun is based on the combination of two cultural patterns of behaviour, known as save and hed, which we might translate, taking into account differences and the contextual interpretation, as ‘good sense’ and ‘passion’. The person possesses save and hed: the former conveys a caring, cooperative attitude towards the community, and also masculinity – because it is a trait typically associated with men rather than women – adult behaviour – rather than childish – and things that are good. The latter (hed), on the other hand, conveys an individualistic attitude, femininity – because it is a trait typically associated with women – childishness (rather than adult behaviour) and things that are bad. Before coming into contact with white men, in the pre-Christian period, both hed and save were expressed in Tayap. After that contact, new connotations were added to hed and save, respectively, without losing the ones they already had. This meant that the former conveys values like paganism, backwardness and lack of culture, whereas the latter conveys values like Christianity, modernity and education. Similarly, the reproduction of the cultural patterns has been accompanied by a language shift process. Tayap is no longer the language used to express hed and save, now Tok Pisin is associated with save and Tayap with hed.

These associations alter linguistic uses. The more an individual wants to present themselves as a “person of good sense [save]”, the more they use Tok Pisin and the less they use Tayap. As Kulick argues, and Gal stated previously (1979: 175), the accumulated effect of these choices made by speakers leads to the use of Tok Pisin in more contexts and by more people. As the number of competent Tayap speakers dwindles and the number of Tok Pisin monolingual speakers grows, the uncertainty about the meanings conveyed by codeswitching increases. When younger speakers lose their knowledge of these rhetorical meanings that are still mastered by older speakers, they are more likely to interpret them as “social”, as information about social situation and status. This process favours the language shift process.

The most interesting aspect of the case is that the local people in Gapun are reproducing their cultural patterns by passing on the virtues of save and the behaviours associated with it to children, and by so doing, they are contributing to language shift, as in that reproduction – originally always associated with Tayap – there has been a linguistic split: now save is associated with Tok Pisin and hed with Tayap. The people of Gapun are not aware of the change taking place. On the one hand, they teach children the same values that they were taught by their parents; on the other hand, they regard children as autonomous individuals, who learn what they want to learn. They do not realise the extent to which codeswitching towards Tok Pisin, used by caretakers to talk to children, is leading them to acquire Tok Pisin to the detriment of Tayap. As Kulick states (1992: 24), turning the saying around: plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change.


[1]The fragments in English appear in italics, the fragments in Spanish are in rounded writing. In the translations, which appear in bold, italics and rounded are maintained from the original. Small caps express emphasis, a higher tone of voice compared to the surrounding elements. The two last statements are applicable to the later examples.

[2]The fragments in German appear in italics, the fragments in Hungarian are in rounded writing.

[3]The fragments in Italian appear in italics, the fragments in Nones are in rounded writing.

[4] Kulick (1992) spells that language “Taiap”. In his more recent work, though, he has revised the spelling to “Tayap”, and that is the spelling used here (Kulick 2019, Kulick/Terrill 2019). His recent grammar also modifies the orthography of the language, but here I retain the forms used in his 1992 monograph.

[5]The fragments in Tok Pisin appear in italics, the fragments in Tayap are in rounded writing.

[6]The fragments in French appear in italics, the fragments in Moroccan Arabic are in rounded writing.

[7] The imperative conveys orders, indeed. Here we rather see a supplication. In fact, the function of doubling or repetition in both languages in rai lyrics is a stylistic device allowing the singer/songwriter to repeat key points without just using exact repetition.


Davies, Eirlys E./Bentahila, Abdelali (2008) “Code switching as a poetic device: Examples from rai lyrics”. Language & Communication 28: 1-20.

Davies, Eirlys E./Bentahila, Abdelali (2013) “From the Medieval ḫarğāt to Contemporary Songs: Patterns of Codeswitching Involving Arabic”. Arabica 61: 1-46.

Fellin, Luciana (2003) “Language ideologies, language socialization and language revival in an Italian Alpine community”. Texas Linguistic Forum 45 (2002), Austin: Texas Linguistic Forum, 46-57.

Gal, Susan (1979) Language Shift. Social Determinants of Linguistic Change in Bilingual Austria. New York: Academic Press.

Gumperz, John J. (1982) Discourse Strategies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kulick, Don (1992) Language Shift and Cultural Reproduction: Socialization, Self and Synchretism in a Papuan New Guinean Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kulick, Don (2019) A Death in the Rainforest: How a Language and a Way of Life Came to an End in Papua New Guinea. New York: Algonquin Books.

Kulick, Don/Angela Terrill (2019) A Grammar and Dictionary of Tayap: The Life and Death of a Papuan Language, Pacific Linguistics: De Gruyter Mouton.