Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa

Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa

Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa

Social Motivations for Codeswitching: Evidence from Africa


This study focuses on the social motivations for codeswitching, that is, the use of two or more linguistic varieties in the same conversation. Using data from multilingual African contexts (mostly from conversations studied in Kenya), Carol Myers-Scotton advances a theoretical argument which aims at a general explanation of these motivations. She treats codeswitching as a type of skilled performance, not as the "alternative strategy" of a person who cannot carry on a conversation in the language in which it began. When engaging in codeswitching, speakers exploit the socio-psychological values which have come to be associated with different linguistic varieties in a specific speech community: they switch codes in order to negotiate a change in social distance between themselves and other participants in the conversation, conveying this negotiation through the choice of a different code. Switching between languages, Myers-Scotton suggests, has a good deal in common with making different stylistic choices within the same language: it is as if bilingual and multilingual speakers have an additional style at their command when they engage in codeswitching between different languages.


This is a study of codeswitching between languages. Such switching involves the use of two or more languages in the same conversation, usually within the same conversational turn, or even within the same sentence of that turn. This book deals with one aspect of codeswitching: the sociopsychological uses of such juxtaposed multiple-language production. This aspect of codeswitching also can be studied between dialects or styles (registers) of the same language; in fact, most of the conclusions reached here would apply to dialect- or style-switching; however, looking at switching involving those linguistic varieties is beyond the scope of this book.

The use of the term 'code' in 'codeswitching' is traditional, and nothing more. That I use it does not mean I endorse the view that the messages humans convey with language are entirely revealed in the deciphering of the elements and configurations of the linguistic code. In fact, the book's major premiss is that codeswitching is used to convey intentional (i.e. non-code- based) meanings of a socio-pragmatic nature.

Structural constraints on codeswitching (i.e. where in a sentence a switch is possible) or psycholinguistic aspects of its production are not considered here. They are the subject of another book (Myers-Scotton, 1993b).

Also, this book is definitely non-developmental. That is, the growth of the bilingualism necessary for codeswitching to be possible, whether from a community perspective or from the individual speaker's point of view, is not a topic here. Since much of the data comes from Africa, specifically from Kenya and, to a lesser extent, Zimbabwe, the current sociolinguistic profiles of these areas are detailed. But the history of bilingualism/multilingualism in Africa is not addressed; neither are predictions made regarding future patterns of multilingualism or long-term language policy decisions. These are all worthy topics, but subjects for other studies.

The treatment of codeswitching here is intended to be theoretical. It is aimed at an audience interested in socio-pragmatic theories of the representation of communicative intention related to a speaker's presentation/ negotiation of self in relation to other participants in a conversation. This audience will consist primarily of sociolinguists, social anthropologists, and . . .

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