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Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Linguistics of "Krampus" and "Star Wars"

By now you've probably seen the Yuletide horrorfest "Krampus," apparently the first of many Krampus-themed movies coming our way in the next few years.  While most viewers were enjoying the gore, the humor, or both, as a former language student I was of course particularly fascinated by some of the linguistics lessons "Krampus" had to teach us.

I found of particular interest how "Krampus" tackled the subject of code-switching.  And while fanciful Christmas demons and murderous toys are a bit far-fetched, "Krampus" was surprisingly accurate in its portrayal of the code-switching phenomenon, in contrast to the vast majority of movies which feature it.

So what is code-switching?  Code-switching is the linguistic term for carrying on a conversation in two different languages in tandem.  (Think Chewie and Han in any of the "Star Wars" movies.)  In reality, code-switching is an exceedingly rare phenomenon.

Imagine, for instance, a Russian businessman and a Chinese businessman meeting without translators in, let's say, Beijing.  It's a good bet the Russian businessman was sent on this trip because he has a strong knowledge of Mandarin.  The Chinese businessman sent to meet him also likely has at least a fair knowledge of Russian.  That's just good business on the part of both companies.  But since the meeting is in China and all around everyone's knowledge of Mandarin is strongest, they'll probably communicate in Mandarin exclusively.  Reverse the particulars and they'll likely communicate in Russian exclusively. 

Point being: even if both parties are fluent in both languges, they'll usually communicate in only one.  Why?  Well, picture yourself at the office working on paperwork when the phone rings.  You have to "switch gears" from paperwork-processing mode to phone-answering mode.  The phone call essentially acts as an interruption.  And when you return to your paperwork, it'll take you a moment to find your place again and recall what you were doing.

Genuine code-switching is like that.  Every time the Chinese businessman says something in Mandarin, the Russian businessman would have to translate it in his mind into Russian, then respond in Russian.  Then the Chinese businessman would have to translate that into Mandarin, and then respond in Mandarin.  It's much easier for both men to just stay in the same "gear."

Now let's back up a little.  Let's say our characters are meeting in Tokyo, a "neutral" location, and they're both only semi-fluent in the other language.  Another way they may communicate is with a patois.  A patois is a blending of one or more languages.  Across the Caribbean, for instance, there are various regional patois which are blendings of English, French, and sometimes the aboriginal languages and the languages of the African slaves.  So the Russian businessman will attempt to speak in Mandarin as much as he can, but will insert Russian words where his vocabulary fails him.  Similarly, the Chinese businessman will respond in Mandarin, but may be forced to clarify more complicated words with their Russian equivalents.  Basically, the two are creating a Venn diagram of shared understanding.  Neither understands their second language perfectly, but since they both have a lot of overlapping knowledge, they can effectively communicate.

Now at this point you're probably saying (and rightly so) that this example is bullshit, because most international business is actually carried on in English.  And you're right.  English is the most studied second language in the world and for the most part when two non-native English speakers meet, English will be their strongest shared language.  In the modern world English is what's known as a lingua franca or trade language.  Lingua franca itself is a fascinating term.  It's a Latin term, and Latin itself was once the lingua franca of the Christian world, because a priest in France and a priest in Poland would both speak liturgical Latin.  But lingua franca itself means literally "French language" and harkens to a time not so long ago when French was the trade language for much of the world. 

But since the time of the ascendancy of the British Empire over the French, and the rise of the United States as a cultural and military superpower, English has replaced French and Latin as the trade language of the world in general.  Everyone, for instance, watches Hollywood movies, often subtitled rather than dubbed.  (Much to the chagrin of many national film industries.)  The average American could probably easily go through life without ever having to be exposed to another language if they don't want to, except maybe in a mandatory school class.  In much of the rest of the world, though, there are years of mandatory English classes in school, and a non-American can expect to be exposed to a great deal of English-language entertainment, and likely will have to do business in English. 

There are, of course, regional trade languages.  Hindi, for instance, is the lingua franca of India (although, due to British colonial and American cultural-colonial influences, it is also largely being supplanted by English.)  Only roughly a quarter of Indians (258 million) claim Hindi or a Hindi dialect as their native tongue, yet Hindi is the lingua franca and official federal state language of India.  So someone who grew up speaking the Gujarati dialect should theoretically be able to go to a Bengali-speaking province of India and communicate in Hindi.  Looking at the world as a whole, though, English is the most common lingua franca.

So, now that we've established what code-switching is not (it's not speaking in a patois, it's not speaking in a shared language, it's not speaking in a lingua franca) it becomes clearer what it is.  Han carries on his conversations exclusively in Basic.  Chewie responds entirely in Wookiee.  Neither indicates any difficulty understanding the other.

Code-switching as depicted in "Star Wars" is actually fleetingly rare.  As I said, even if a conversation is initiated by code-switching, both parties will usually settle into a single, shared mode of communication.  The reason it happens so much in "Star Wars" (R2-D2 and C-3PO also code-switch, as do Jabba, Greedo, and some of his other minions) - or, well, I should clarify, the in-universe reason it happens so much in Star Wars, at least according to the old EU canon - is that humans are incapable of speaking Wookiee, and vice versa.  Artoo, similarly, is unable to communicate except through beeps and whistles. 

The "real" reason of course, is so we can understand what our favorite alien characters are saying without subtitles.  For some reason (I'll avoid opining on in this blogppost anyway) American audiences are extremely loath to have to read anything in their movies.  A few fleeting subtitles filmmakers can get away with, but too many extended foreign language sequence usually relegates a film to the arthouses.  (I'm generalizing here - "Inglorious Basterds" got away with it, but for the most part, studios try to avoid subtitles as much as possible without being completely disingenuous.) 

With something like "Star Wars" that is targeted to kids who may not even be able to read subtitles and general audiences who largely despise doing so, code-switching is a convenient way to have aliens speaking an alien language and imply the content of their speech.  In fact, this has become something of an art form in Hollywood.  Just look at "The Force Awakens."  (Spoiler alert?)  In one scene, a Resistance medic tends to Chewie's wounds, and by her responses and Chewie's subdued speaking, we gather that he's a bit of a whiner and she responds as she would to a young child or pet.

So now we know what code-switching is not, we know what it is, but when does it really come into play?  Well, interestingly enough, another holiday movie this year that I would otherwise have difficulty calling "accurate" in any meaningful sense, got the phenomenon of code-switching correct.  Genuine, no-shit code-switching mostly occurs in multi-generational immigrant homes.  In "Krampus" the grandmother, called "Omi" (just a diminutive for "Oma" or "Grandmother") spoke German almost exclusively.  And her son and grandson replied to her in English almost exclusively. 

Obviously both parties understand both languages or code-switching wouldn't work.  In one scene, the father comforts his mother in German.  And in another scene, Omi switches over to English because she wants everyone to understand her story about Krampus.  So why does code-switching occur at all?

I've generalized a lot in this blogpost (it's hard not to when you're trying to condense massive linguistic concepts down into a few short, hopefully readable paragraphs) so I hope you'll forgive me if I generalize just a little bit more.  I think of code-switching as the result of "letting your hair down" at the end of the day.  We all, to one extent or another, put on a little performance for the people in our lives.  I wear a tie to work, and a shark costume to conventions, and neither is quite the real me.  I'm polite to customers on the phone when internally I'm cursing them out and sometimes I curse out my friends when internally I love them deeply but we live in a culture where guys can't just say that.  (Sober, anyway.)  Our lives are all, to some extent, performance art.

But in your home, with your family, you can be yourself.  Sure, some of our affected behavior (maybe most of it) is for the benefit of our families.  But at a certain point at home you become the real you.  Maybe you change into sweatpants.  Maybe you stick your hand on your crotch, Al Bundy-style.  And maybe, just maybe, even if you're the perfectly integrated immigrant who speaks English all day at work and at play, you finally relax and switch over to your mother tongue.

In an immigrant home the parents (and sometimes even grandparents) who emigrated grew up speaking their native language.  English will always be their second language.  Most of our capacity for language learning is closed off by the age of thirteen.  (Which, yes, makes our foreign language education in this country a complete disgrace since we hardly even start by twelve - but I digress.)  Fluent though I may be in German, until the end of my life I will always have an American accent when speaking German, because I learned it after I was thirteen.  German will always be my second language.

Consider though the children (or grandchildren) of immigrants.  Even if their parents' native tongue (let's say German, as in "Krampus") is exclusively spoken at home, every time they go out they'll learn the tongue of their home - let's say English.  And then comes school, and English comes hard and heavy from the age of 5 or 6 up.  German - the mother tongue to their parents - becomes just that thing I have to know for when Mom's yelling at me.  Gradually English becomes the native tongue of the children, as they are exposed more and more to English.  They talk to their friends in English.  They watch English language TV.

And so in multi-generational immigrant households we find the almost unique situation of shared understanding of two languages, but one generation considers German their native tongue, and the other considers it English.  Hence we have true code-switching.  At the end of the day, Mom and Dad will yell and grouse or even express their love in German.  And son and daughter will respond in English, because when their hair is down at the end of the day that's who they really are.  Our good friend Mary Fan recently wrote a fascinating blogpost which taught me something new: when her parents got mad they would yell about "you Americans."  Interesting that her parents considered her of a different culture, isn't it?  Just one of many reasons I find code-switching such a fascinating phenomenon.

Well, hopefully I didn't bore you too much and hopefully you even learned a little something about some of your favorite holiday movies this year.  Until next time, cats and kittens.


  1. Well whaddya know.... I'm a code switcher! Sometimes it takes me too long to switch language gears in my head so I use English to respond to Welsh conversation, in a very informal setting. In a formal setting, it does just make you a lazy bastard.

    1. Interesting! So here's the question: which do you consider your native tongue? A lot of people say the language you think in is your first language, and people also say the language you naturally swear in. :)


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