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Rethinking conversational code-switching:
codes, speech varieties, and contextualization

Celso Alvarez-Cáccamo


[Published in: Proceedings of the Sixteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, February 16-19, 1990. General Session and Parasession on The Legacy of Grice. Berkeley: Berkeley Linguistics Society, pp. 3-16]


     The issues that will concern me in this paper are the treatment of code-switching as a signalling device in face-to-face interaction; the identification which is commonly established between SPEECH VARIETIES and CODES; and the conceptualization of codes as supposedly discrete sets of 'co-occurrent linguistic features' (Ervin-Tripp 1973) or 'clusters of co-occurrent variables' (Gumperz and Herasimchuk 1972).

     From Weinreich's (1953) pioneering reference to the phenomenon of 'switching codes' (:73), to Gumperz's instrumental work on the metaphorical attributes of code choices (1964, 1970, 1982; Blom and Gumperz 1972; Gumperz and Hernandez-Chavez 1971), to Gal's (1987) (2) materialist treatment of language choices as a reflection of the group's class-structural position, the extensive sociolinguistic literature on code-switching has revealed that much social, interactional, discursive, and other information can be signalled through the alternation of speech varieties in their broadest sense.

     In general terms, code-switching introduces socio-cultural information in context, which is retrievable through conversational inference (Gumperz 1982). At the level of social organization, code choice patterns have been argued to: reflect social structure, specifically class-structural positions (Gal 1987; Hill 1985; McClure and McClure 1988), and changing interethnic relationships (Heller 1982; Woolard 1983b); signal group membership, in particular local identification (Blom and Gumperz 1972, Gumperz 1982), ethnicity (Gumperz 1982; Mitchell-Kernan 1972), and gender (Gal 1978); be correlated with group roles of leadership and subordination (Calsamiglia and Tusón 1980); channel 'the speaker's claim to a social status' (Gal 1979:171); constitute a socio-functional 'style' (Gumperz 1964), a culturally specific 'mode of speaking' (Poplack 1980), or an 'unmarked choice' among multilinguals (Scotton 1988); manage the speaker's 'ambiguous' or dual group identification (Heller 1982, 1983; Scotton 1976, 1983, 1988); and, in general, 'invoke' (Irvine 1979) social identities in discourse, such as official personae vs. private identities (Alvarez Cáccamo 1989a, to appear; Blom and Gumperz 1972, Irvine 1979, 1982).

     At the interactional and sequential levels, code choices have been put in connection with: the performance of specific speech activities (Blom and Gumperz 1972; Mitchell-Kernan 1972) and discourse tasks (Auer 1984; Gumperz 1982); the selection of an addressee (Auer 1984; Duranti, to appear; Gumperz 1982); the management of requests (Gumperz 1982, Valdés 1981), disputes (Gal 1979) and interactional conflict (Duranti, to appear); the management of narrative voices in reported speech (Alvarez Cáccamo 1989a; Mitchell-Kernan 1972) and in humor (Woolard 1983a); and the speaker's signalling of 'epistemological dispositions' (Ochs, to appear) and affect (Irvine 1982).


     Finally, at the superstructural level, code choices may symbolize ideology (Mitchell-Kernan 1972), the community's 'cultural philosophy and value system' (Albert 1972), and political ideologies and positions (Alvarez Cáccamo 1989a, to appear).

     However, from most of this research one gets the impression that whenever we find language or register alternation in discourse, each speech variety in contrast carries its social and discursive meanings through its unmistakable association with categories such as ethnicity, class, or gender. For instance, with regard to social identity, it has been argued that a speaker may claim two (or more) distinct roles or social identities by switching languages or dialects for specific situations (Blom and Gumperz's [1972] 'situational' switching), a dual identity through repeated intrasituational switching (Heller's [1982] 'negotiations' of identity; Poplack's [1980] 'code-switching mode'; Scotton's [1988] 'unmarked choices'), or a single identity by never switching even when being able to do so (Gal's [1979] 'unreciprocal language choices', Woolard's [1983] 'Bilingual Norm'). From this perspective, each variety is generally presented as constituting a discrete code, internally bound by co-occurrence constraints, and paradigmatically contrasted with other varieties-codes. Additionally, often phonological and, particularly, prosodic variations are left unexamined, and languages in alternation are practically treated as indivisible constructs, devoid of any internal variation.(3)

     I believe that these views about the systematic correlations between linguistic varieties and social meanings need to be reexamined. My feeling is that often researchers impose upon the observed interaction their preconceived notions about what constitutes a code as a social-indexical system. However, as in many other aspects of the study of language in action, the linguist's or sociolinguist's categories may not match the participants' own definition of the situation.

     In my research on bilingual conversation and language revival in Galiza, Spain, I have registered a number of salient cases of language alternation that somehow defy standard interpretations of code-switching. At times it is hard to determine what exactly is being signalled through a specific switch, although it can be seen, after detailed examination of conversational organization, that changes have taken place in terms of activity framing or participants' alignments. Other times, switches seem totally meaningless and unmotivated; they may be connected to some rhythmic properties of talk which I have not explored fully. Yet in other cases, several, simultaneous threads of signification run parallel in code choices. Phonological and prosodic registers, languages, dialects, and styles intertwine in a web of situated meanings, thus concertedly opening a space for interpretation of what is being said.

     In this paper I claim that it is the co-occurrence and interplay of these specific signalling systems, and not the presence of any one in isolation, that constitute specific COMMUNICATIVE CODES which contextualize meaning. I will examine two cases where, in the constant recontextualization of the speech exchange, shifts between speech varieties cannot be mapped exactly against the transitions between activities and the frame shifts which do occur. In my analysis, I draw on Gumperz's (1982, 1989) instrumental view of code-switching as a CONTEXTUALIZATION CUE for the interpretation of messages.(4) I have specifically asked what (if anything) is contextualized in each case of alternation of speech

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varieties, and, particularly, how it is contextualized. Ultimately, my aim is to contribute to a broad, dynamic conceptualization of code-switching which may give account of various sorts of alternations between speech varieties, registers, languages, variants, or single markers in discourse.


     Case 1, which I have titled 'Opening the Frame', exemplifies the subtle turns that the situated manipulation of varieties may take for the constitution of communicative codes and discursive voices. The episode comes from the meeting of the board of directors of a museum run by the city where I did my research in southwestern Galiza. The languages of the entire meeting were Galician and Spanish alternately.

     The nine members of the board are about to start to discuss the last point in the agenda. The entire episode from lines 1 to 32 can be seen as an off-record, pre-procedural exchange. At the onset, A, indirectly supported by B, expresses his interest in going ahead with the discussion expediently (lines 1-6), as apparently the members of the board (all of them male) wanted to return home in time to watch a soccer game between Spain and Yugoslavia that was being broadcast on television that evening. To A's and B's suggestion, the Chairman (C) and the Secretary (S) of the board insist cooperatively that there is still time to go ahead with the discussion, as the game would not be starting until a few minutes later (8-13).

     In reference to the soccer game, an activity emerges (17-32) where one of the participants, D launches a humorous frame by quoting the remarks made by a Portuguese sports commentator about the Yugoslavian team in light of the upcoming match. After an initial attempt to take the floor (14), D comments that the Portuguese journalist had referred to the Yugoslavs as 'very dangerous communists' (19). The others laugh, presumably at the associations that the sportscaster had made between the unbeatable Yugoslavian soccer team and the Yugoslavian political regime.(5) Finally (33), the meeting resumes with the discussion of the last point of the agenda preceded by a report (in Spanish, coincidentally, but not significantly) by the speaker in charge. Spanish is represented by the Helvetica font, and Galician goes in Times Roman Italic: (6)

6 (cont.)

     Let us now focus on the linguistic resources employed by D in his interactional maneuvers. In his introduction to the quote ('as the Portuguese (sports) commentator said', 19) D uses a variety of Galician known as galego de gheada (represented by the underlined italics). This variety is a non-standard phonological register characterized by gheada [heáða], that is, the fricativization and devoicing of the voiced velar stop: /g/ -> [] (other variants are [x], [h]; for a review of the phenomenon see for example Alvarez Cáccamo 1989b:261-65). Portughês [portuhés], then, is one of the gheada pronunciations of standard português [portués]. The devoiced variant is commonly represented by gh.

     As a stigmatized socio-geographic variety, gheada Galician is the native dialect of farming and fishing villages and, in general, of the working classes all throughout southwestern Galiza. Through schooling and the exposure to standard Spanish -- and, since recently, to standard Galician -- educated speakers gradually relegate their native variety to intimate, in-group functions. At the same time, they construct new meanings for gheada -- among them, the feeling that it is, at its best, a form to use colloquially, not for formal purposes. Nevertheless, even educated


urban dwellers who did not acquire gheada natively are aware of its socio-stylistic meanings for local identification and informality, and they deploy gheada strategically in their daily talk.(7)

     To be noted in Case 1 is that the humorous frame opens with a line in gheada Galician, but there is no further use of such variety in the episode. Notice how after the joke is delivered, D repeats his introduction to the enacted quote '(That) said the Portuguese commentator' (25), but this time he uses standard Galician.

     I want to emphasize that, in the context, gheada does not primarily function to invoke D's social background, or his class affiliation or consciousness. Nor does gheada simply signal, as one would be tempted to interpret the exchange, less communicative distance among participants than non-gheada Galician. While presumably these meanings somehow underlie the contextualized interpretation of the exchange, here gheada is primarily a metaphorical device, whose deployment functions, through intricate inferential associations, to cue into a new frame or space for interpretation of what is to come. Like speech markers (Brown and Levinson 1979), choices of speech varieties may work in non-congruent ways to signal indirectly other than their basic associative meanings. In Case 1, significantly, once the frame for a joking exchange has been opened (and thus, I argue, once the code has been switched) it is unimportant what variety of Galician (or perhaps Spanish) continues to be used.

     Thus, while paradigmatic contrasts are established between at least three recognizable forms of speech (namely, Spanish, gheada Galician, and standard Galician), overall, in the episode the participants only engage in two relevantly distinct activities: (1) informal procedural talk; and (2) topically connected to the prior activity, joking talk including reported speech as a specific discourse task.


     Case 2 exemplifies the subtle interplay of simultaneous signalling systems in talk. With the analysis of these data, I want to argue that we need to examine closely this interplay in order to identify the communicative codes that are actually being constructed for the expression of local meanings according to members' methods and perceptions.

     The excerpt corresponds to a television interview with the president of the Galician Federation of Sport Shooting. The official (P) has been asked about the new facilities for practicing airgun shooting which had been built in a given sporting club with financial support from the Federation. In his answer, P begins by reviewing the importance of the facilities for the development of this sport in Galiza. Then (off the transcript) he lists the alleged virtues of airgun shooting for the youngsters as a recreational activity (e.g. 'coordination and self-control'). Finally (93-108), he goes on to complain about the status of airgun shooting in the curriculum of high-school sport activities in Galiza.

     I will focus specifically on this latter activity, where at least two systems of signification run parallel in P's speech. But, first, it is relevant to examine briefly P's overall performance throughout the interview. The beginning of the official's answer (69-72) exemplifies the characteristic ambiguity he displayed in his conversational orientation toward the interviewer and the audience. In playing with social voices,

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the interviewee systematically began each answer in Galician. In each case, he did so by recapturing (almost like mentioning) the question posed by the Galician-speaking interviewer (69). After one or two utterances, P altered his stance, to invoke his official, authoritative public persona by using Spanish (69-72): (8)

     Thus, a certain ambiguity detectably colors P's performance. Additionally, as we will see, at specific points in the interview it cannot be determined exactly what language P is speaking. In sum, one perceives that, overall, P is coming across both as the representative of an institution, and as one of us, a plain Galician guy.

     The manipulation of verbal resources for this sort of sociolinguistic illusionism is most salient in the end of the episode:

9 (cont.)

     P's report in Spanish about sport shooting in high school in Europe (93-96) must be viewed as the positive term of the opposition that he establishes immediately after, in what constitutes his climactic complaint (97-102): 'and yet here, since we are like, so "peculiar", well, it turns out that in Galicia, uuh, where airgun shooting had always been included as a school sport, well, now they've, they've done away with it, and this is really a shame'.

     Notice, firstly, that the utterance in line 96, while contained in a reportive assessment, already shows the prosodic pattern characteristic of the next turns -- an extra high pitch over the last lexical item. Additionally, in the sequence from lines 96 to 101, this higher-pitch word at times carries the phrase accent (represented by the asterisk). If we examine the ordering of these emphasized items, the thematic organization of P's complaint becomes neatly summarized in a sequential nutshell around the implicit object 'Sport Shooting':

'education-here-peculiar (pl.)-Galicia-educational-taken away'.

     A major shift to a local, 'we' voice takes place in line 97, 'and yet here'. Language choice and local identity match unambiguously in dialectal southern Galician eiqui 'here' (standard Galician aqui). In the utterances that follow, however, Galician and Spanish converge to the extent that it is absolutely impossible to determine what language P is speaking. Both in 2(b) and in 3, I have transcribed this syncretic stretch of discourse in the italicized Helvetica font:


     To be sure, what language is being used is largely irrelevant in the exchange; the issue is how language is being used, in an implicitly evaluative stretch of discourse internally kept together by prosodic regularities, not by language. Similarly, thematic cohesion in lines 97-99 is established not through language choices, but through lexical references to in-group membership: 'here' (97), 'we are' (98), and 'Galicia' (99). Finally, the sequence in lines 100-101, while undoubtedly Spanish, is at the same time linked to the previous turns by prosody.

     Briefly, P's performance presents (a) on the one hand, a gradual transition between lexical and syntactic registers (from Spanish to Galician to an ambiguous register again to Spanish); and (b) on the other, the juxtaposition of two prosodic patterns (one with a final extra-high pitch, the other showing a flatter contour). The syntactic and iconic (cf. Bolinger 1985) lines of signification run parallel to each other, but they do not overlap exactly, as can be seen in 4. Single underlining stands


for the flat prosodic register, and indicates the emphatic, evaluative prosody:

     The sequence above graphically illustrates the crescendo and subsequent diminuendo in which P engages, in his breakthrough from an expository frame to an evaluative one, through the combination of prosody, lexis, and syntax. Notice, indeed, how P's final, explicit assessment 'this is really a shame' (102) again shows an expository prosody, as if to minimize the speaker's personal involvement in what now sounds not like a complaint, but like the statement of a regrettable reality.

     Research on code-switching (particularly Heller's and Scotton's work) has highlighted the role of language choices in managing the speaker's ambiguous roles and social identifications. This work has focused on languages as indivisible constructs. But what can be observed in the previous cases is the interplay of several aspects of the speaker's repertoire to construct social and discursive voices, in Hill's (1985) sense. In the actualization of potential meanings (cf. Voloshinov 1973 [1929], Gumperz and Herasimchuk 1972), the vernacular prosody analogically invokes the speaker's personal, rather than positional identity in his indirect complaint. On its part, the expository prosody alludes in this case, in combination with Spanish, to the speaker's official persona. And all throughout the event, P's quick juxtaposition of Spanish and Galician and his deployment of ambiguous utterances constitute skillful procedures to contextualize the tone of the exchange and to establish situated tactical alliances with the interviewer and the audience.

     In making sense of Case 2, I would like to report on the testimony of one of my informants who was presented with the original recording for interpretation. While all of the native speakers consulted viewed some sort of connection between the use of Galician and the claim to local identity (as in line 97), an informant offered a particularly important clue about the use of Spanish with a vernacular prosody (98-101). She referred to this sequence as 'Spanish with a Galician attitude' (anque é em espanhol, é co'a actitú galega). In other words, one may say that the language of P's complaint is Spanish, but the spirit is Galician -- it is Galician with Spanish words.

     Thus, one can speak Galician in Spanish. It is not language per se, but this actitú or 'spirit' of a social voice that I associate in this case with a code -- a symbolic frame of interpretation. In the context, each of the two codes (one


reportive, the other evaluative) contains elements of two languages; simultaneously, each code presents a distinct prosodic pattern. The reportive code is socially associated with Spanish; the evaluative/complaining code has been equated with a 'Galician attitude'. The use of each code alludes to a represented social identity, and retrieves for social interaction a given set of mutual dispositions -- from in-group camaraderie to official distance. Similarly, Case 1 showed a code for informal procedural talk (contextually associated with Spanish and Galician alike) and a code for jovial conversational involvement (associated with two distinct varieties of Galician). In other contexts one may find narrative codes, authoritative codes, requesting codes, trouble-telling codes, and so on, and the associations between codes and their constitutive varieties may be of a different nature.


     Consequently, what looks like a linguistic code for the linguist may not count as a communicative code for conversationalists. One of the objectives of the interpretive study of social interaction ought to be, precisely, to reveal what counts as a communicative code in a given encounter. In a provisional, rough formulation, I have thus viewed each code both as a frame for interpretation and as a system of linguistic production. As a frame for interpretation, each code is a universe of significations collectively constructed on the basis of transituational experience. As systems of linguistic production, codes are internally bound by co-occurrence constraints which govern what can and cannot be uttered within their confines. Note, however, that these constraints are situational and discursive, not linguistic or structural, so that what confers coherence to the code is the speech situation or activity itself. Codes may thus be constituted by elements that cut across seemingly distinct speech varieties, as in the cases reviewed. Consequently, the situated meanings of communicative codes derive only indirectly from the social meanings of the constituting linguistic varieties.

     It goes without saying that, in the study of social actors' integrated communicative repertoire, the syntactic should not be separated from the prosodic, the lexical, the gestural or the kinesic on the basis of pre-conceived notions of what constitutes a code. I have stressed the need to refocus our analysis on the native categories and methods that people put at work in social encounters to construct communicative codes. From this approach, the act of code-switching is not necessarily the act of alternating between speech varieties, but the act of shifting gears in communicative behavior, the act of micro-chronologically recontextualizing talk and reality. This is often accomplished by switching languages, dialects, styles, or registers -- and all the literature points in this direction. Further, it may also be accomplished by the use of single markers such as honorifics or phonological variants, which constitute the visible 'tip of the iceberg' of the diversity of broadly overlapping codes in social life. But, importantly, the act of switching communicative codes may also be accomplished by not alternating between languages, pronominal systems, or forms of address -- code-switching may be accomplished by straightening up one's clothes at the opening of a solemn meeting, or by that brief vocalic exhalation that signals the end of a good laugh.

     Underlying language alternation, register shifting, certain types of speech variation, and other communicative behavior is the same process which, I suggest,


ought to be considered code-switching: a switch of frames for interpretation of communicative conduct. Perhaps the subtle mechanisms of most of our daily, monolingual and monolectal code-switching escape us, as speakers and as analysts. We certainly need to refine our tools to examine the emergence, constitution and alternation of communicative codes in context. It is in this direction that I suggest the study of code-switching could proceed.


     1. I want to thank the participants in John Gumperz's seminar in Conversation Analysis and in Penelope Eckert's course in Language as Community Practice at UC Berkeley in Spring 1990 for discussing this work with me. Special thanks go to Penny Eckert, Susanne Günthner, Marco Jacquemet and Pedro Lewin-Fischer for their insights, and to Al Muth for his careful reading of the paper.

     2. Whenever possible, I will refer only to the original sources, not to subsequent versions of a given work which do not contribute anything substantially different. For example, Heller's 1983 work was published in her edited volume (1988); Calsamiglia and Tusón (1980) was later published in the IJSL in 1984; Woolard (1983a) also appears in Heller (1988); and Gal's article in Heller's volume is basically Gal (1987).

     3. For instance, the role of prosody vis-à-vis language in the signalling of social identity has not been systematically examined. It may well be the case that native intonational patterns are at times more significant than language for invoking group membership.

     4. For Gumperz (1989), contextualization is 'the speakers' and listeners' use of verbal and nonverbal signs to relate what is said at any one time and in any one place to knowledge acquired through past experience, in order to retrieve the presuppositions they must rely on to maintain conversational involvement and assess what is intended' (:1).

     5. Thus, part of the oddity of the comment comes from the journalist's characterization of a sports event in political terms. In the context, humor also stems from the identity of the person being quoted. The ambiguous, love-hate historical relationship between the Galician and Portuguese peoples often shows in mutual negative stereotyping. B's partially unintelligible turn about the 'Portuguese (people)' in line 24 probably reflects one of such stereotypes.

     6. In this work, fonts are used as follows: Galician; 'gheada' Galician; Spanish; Syncretic Galician-Spanish variety. Other transcription conventions include: Pitch and tempo: {  }  stretch of discourse where phenomenon applies; [ac]  accelerated, relatively {[ac] faster } tempo; [hi]  higher pitch; [lo]  lower pitch. Final tones:   high rising final tone of intonation group; ?  high sustained tone; higher pitch over entire group; ,  mid-sustained tone; /  falling tone; //  extra-falling tone; -  truncated


intonation group. Pausing: ..  short pause (less than 0.5 sec. approximately); ...  long pause (more than 0.5 sec.). Voice overlapping:
.  Sound prominence: '  a 'rhythmic or 'emphatic accent; *  prominent phrase *accent; CAPS  LOUDer sounds; []  mid centr[]l vowel or schwa; :  sound l::engthening; -  sound interrup- or truncat-; (word)  reconstructed (s)ound or (word); (=)  (=full form); xx  unintelligi(xx) syllable; hh  outbreathhh, exhalation; .h.h  inbreath, .h.h.h inhalation; #  #  #personal name# withheld. In the English versions, punctuation marks are used conventionally (e.g. '?' indicates sentence modality, not final tone). Conventions were developed mainly after Gumperz (1982) and Atkinson and Heritage (1984).

     7. In common speech 'to speak with gheada' is ghear. It can be heard, for example, Em Cangas todo mundo ghea 'In Cangas everybody pronounces gh'.

     8. Apparent grammatical anomalies in the English version correspond to phenomena found in the original exchange.

     9. The diacritic indicates lexical stress. [espejáles] may be either Spanish or dialectal Galician (standard Gal. especiais); the final velar nasal in [ta] and [e] is characteristic of Galician, and it is transferred to Galiza Spanish; and [] may be the monophthongization of either Sp. pues /pwés/ or Gal. pois /pójs/.



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Última alteração: 18-09-2003