Situational code-switching

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Situational code-switching is the tendency in a speech community to use different languages or language varieties in different social situations, or to switch varieties in order to mark a change in situation.

Situational and metaphorical code-switching were first described by John J. Gumperz and Jan-Petter Blom. Their paper, "Social meaning in linguistic structures", was the first to suggest this division.[1] Gumperz and Dell Hymes describe the difference between the two in the introduction to the volume in which "Social meaning in linguistic structures" appeared.

An important distinction is made from situational switching, where alternation between varieties redefines a situation, being a change in governing norms, and metaphorical switching, where alternation enriches a situation, allowing for allusion to more than one social relationship within the situation.[2]

In his book Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward T. Hall argues that face-to-face interaction within a given culture is governed by thousands of culturally and institutionally coded situational frames, each associated with a linguistically restricted way of speaking known as the Situational Dialect (SD). An SD facilitates concise communication through the reliance on high-context messages. Hall refutes the notion of a universally applicable basic form of a language, stating that "the classroom is the only place where the classroom form of the language will be found".[3]

Hall describes situational frames as:

made up of situational dialects, material appurtenances, situational personalities, and behavior patterns that occur in recognized settings and are appropriate to specific situations. Some common settings and situations are: greeting, working, eating, bargaining, fighting, governing, making love, going to school, cooking and serving meals, hanging out, and the like. The situational frame is the smallest viable unit of a culture that can be analyzed, taught, transmitted, and handed down as a complete entity. Frames contain linguistic, kinesic, proxemic, temporal, social, material, personality and other components.[3]

Hall gives an example of an SD:

The language used between pilots and the control-tower personnel is an excellent example of a very high-context SD, developed in response to the need for a language of great parsimony and low ambiguity. (...) Situational dialects of these types frequently make use of restricted codes–and remember, restricted codes are for the insider. Everything is condensed: grammar, vocabulary, intonation. All the rules that are so carefully learned in the classroom go right out the window.[3]

In the decades since Blom & Gumperz's and Hall's work first appeared, significant advances have been made in the analysis of code-switching.


An example of situational code-switching can be seen in this telephone conversation between two friends. The speaker is talking about recent political events, and the language she uses is Standard Italian. When she decides to change topics, though, she marks this change by switching to Sicilian. (Standard Italian is shown in ordinary type. Sicilian is in italics.)

Io mai l'ho vista una campagna elettorale così. Neppure nel quarantotto, che era il dopoguerra, che c'erano... che c'erano proprio umori tremendi. Mai si era verificato. N'autra cosa t'ai'a cchièdirti, Giovanna.[4]
(I've never seen an electoral campaign like this. Not even in 1948, in the post-war period, when there were... when there were tremendous emotions. It never happened. I've got something else to ask you, Giovanna.)

A change in topic is an example of a changed situation that may be marked by code-switching. The speaker in this example switches from Standard Italian to the local language, marking the new situation with a different language.


  1. ^ Blom, Jan-Petter; Gumperz, John J. (1972), "Social Meaning in Linguistic Structures: Code Switching in Northern Norway", in J. J. Gumperz and D. Hymes, Directions in Sociolinguistics, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston 
  2. ^ Gumperz, John Joseph; Hymes, Dell H. (1986), Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication, Oxford: Basil Blackwell 
  3. ^ a b c Hall, Edward T. (1976). Beyond Culture (PDF) (1981 revised ed.). New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-12474-0. 
  4. ^ Alfonzetti, Giovanna (2002). "Italian-dialect code-switching in Sicily". In P. Auer. Code-Switching in Conversation: Language, Interaction and Identity. Taylor & Francis. p. 198. ISBN 978-0-203-01788-3.