Code-switching in written language

Photo Credit: nostalgifabriken via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: nostalgifabriken via Compfight cc

We naturally adapt our language based on our social surroundings: we choose different words to describe the same thing when addressing our pals in a pub, our professor at a pub, our professor in class, or our grandmother on the phone. I’ve written about this before as code-switching. When code-switching appears in written language, some folks experience REAL anxiety.

A few weeks ago, PRI’s The World in Words published a piece that mentioned the expertise of Indian-American students in English spelling. (Something like 10 of the past 14 US Spelling Bee champions have been children of Indian immigrants.) The author, Kavita Pillay, expressed her anxiety over the “ever growing number of horrible Indian spellers” she witnessed during an extended stay in India a few years ago.  She offered the following example “email from one highly paid young Indian woman who was trained as a systems engineer and who now works as an IT risk management professional in the US.”

how are you?
its been along time. i just wanted to let you know its my birthday this friday n i was hoping u could make it.
i have decided the time and place…
but it be awesome if u could come.

To judge the quality of this email, we must place it within its social surroundings — its rhetorical context. Clearly, the writer’s informal style would be inappropriate when communicating an IT risk assessment to a client. But, in this case, her purpose appears to be issuing an invitation to a birthday party.  Her audience appears to be a personal friend. So the writer’s choice to use a highly informal style signals the personal and informal nature of her message. It’s appropriate — except that she might have known her reader well enough to predict her anxiety over informal English spelling.

Ultimately, Kavita concludes,

Yet with text talk, tens of millions of Indians from all walks of life are taking part in a leaderless movement to transform the language of their former colonizer into something less opaque, more accessible and ultimately, more democratic. n dats a gd thng, no matter how you spell it.

The fact that Indian-Americans adapt their spelling of English based on their social surroundings is indeed a sign that they “own” their English and are using it for both personal and professional messages. If code-switching interests you, you might check out NPR’s How code-switching explains the world.

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