Where are "codes"?
- [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.
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
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.