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Where are "codes"?

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  • Chad Nilep
    [This topic has been discussed previously on this list; please forgive me if these musing add nothing new to the discussion. I should also apologize in advance
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 3, 2006
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      [This topic has been discussed previously on this list; please forgive me if
      these musing add nothing new to the discussion. I should also apologize in
      advance for the long and rambling nature of these observations.]

      The term "code switching" (and its variants) is widely used, with little
      apparent attempt to define the notion of "code". As Celso Alvarez (2000) points
      out, most scholars are content to assume "code" means "language" (or "variety"),
      without bothering to think through the consequences of this position.

      The notion of "code" (or at least the term) seems to have entered linguistics
      from Robert Fano's 1950 "The Information Theory Point of View in Speech
      Communication." Roman Jakobson often cites Fano, as does Uriel Weinrich, whose
      1953 book Languages in Contact may have introduced the term "code" to linguistic

      According to Fano (quoted in Alvarez 1998), "[It] appears that different
      speakers use, in a sense, different codes. These codes are stored in the brain
      of the listener who uses in each case the apropriate code." Thus, for Fano,
      codes are located in the brains of listeners. Alvarez expands Fano's
      formulation, seeing a sender's code in the speaker's mind, and a receiver's
      code in the hearer's: "Internal individual codes (senders' and receivers') must
      necessarily differ, as they belong to different minds" (Alvarez quoted in Nilep
      2006; see also Alvarez 1998, 2000).

      This notion that codes reside in the brain (or mind) certainly seems to be
      similar to Jakobson's understanding. He further suggests that each language
      user possesses multiple sending and receiving codes, relating to multiple
      speech styles. "Two styles of the same language may have divergent codes and be
      deliberately interlinked within one utterance or even one sentence" (Jakobson,
      Fant and Halle 1952).

      In contemporary usage, however, the assumption, and ocassionally even the overt
      argument, is that languages *are* codes. According to this point of view, what
      exists in the mind are languages (which equal codes, and may equal grammars).

      Following this argument to what is perhaps its logical conclusion, one would
      have to conclude that language-as-code serves to encode propositions, which
      are, one supposes, the product of other (non-linguistic, or not necessarily
      linguistic) cognitive processes. This not only brings us back to the conduit
      metaphor (Reddy 1979), that is, the (contested but wide-spread) belief that
      language is a transparent conduit for the movement of propositions from mind to
      mind, but also closes off discussion of sociolinguistics, linguistic
      anthropology, pragmatics, and the thornier issues of semantics from the field
      of code switching research.

      Silverstein (1979), building on notions from Whorf, characterizes the image of
      encoding this way: "In using language as a device of propositional reference in
      practical situations, speakers pre-suppose a reality 'out there' that langauge
      codes and categorizes." I take Silverstein's point (and Whorf's) to be that
      language does not simply refer to (or 'encode') a world outside of itself.
      Rather, language is a part of the world. Through language use, speakers and
      listeners both index and create their understanding of the world, also known as
      culture (compare Geertz 1973).

      Thus, let me suggest that anyone proposing a socially-oriented or culturally
      embedded discussion of code switching should, as Celso Alvarez (e.g. 2000) has
      argued, take seriously the question of what (and where) codes are.

      Alvarez-Cáccamo, Celso. 1998. "From 'Switching Code' to 'Code-switching':
      Towards a Reconceptualization of Communicative Codes." In Peter Auer (ed.)
      Code-Switching in Conversation: Language, Interaction, and Identity, 29-48.
      London: Routledge.

      Alvarez-Cáccamo, Celso. 2000. "Para um Modelo do 'Code-switching' e a
      Alternancia de Variedades como Fenomenos Distintos: Dados do Discurso
      Galego-Portuges/Espanhol na Galiza." Estudios de Sociolinguistica 1(1),

      Fano, Robert M. 1950. "The Information Theory Point of View in Speech
      Communication." Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 22, 691-696.

      Geertz, Clifford. 1973. "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of
      Culture." In The Interpretation of Cultures: 309-23. New York: Basic Books.

      Jakobson, Roman, Gunnar M. Fant and Morris Halle. 1952. Preliminaries to Speech
      Analysis: The Distinctive Features and their Correlates. Cambridge, MA: MIT

      Nilep, Chad. 2006. "'Code switching' in sociocultural linguistics." Colorado
      Research in Linguistics 19(1).

      Reddy, Michael. 1979. "The Conduit Metaphor." In Andrew Ortony (ed), Metaphor
      and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

      Silverstein, Michael. 1979. "Language Structure and Linguistic Ideology." In The
      Elements, A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels. Chicago: Chicago
      Linguistic Society.

      Chad D. Nilep Rien ne serait pire pour
      Department of Linguistics l'humanité que de progresser
      University of Colorado, Boulder vers une situation où l'on ne
      http://ucsu.colorado.edu/~nilep/ parlerait qu'une seule langue.
      -Jacques Chirac
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