Gee, You Talk Funny

This is something my college friends and I used to say when we noticed that we spoke with different prepositions or other idioms. Who said “stand in line” and who said “stand on line”? Who said “change for a quarter” versus “change of a quarter”? Is the thing you push in a supermarket a “cart,” “a buggy,” or a “wagon”? Was “wash” pronounced the way it looks, or had a pesky “r” sneaked in to make it sound like “warsh”? For that matter, why do some people say “My hair needs washed,” while others say, “My hair needs to be washed” or “my hair needs washing”? Why does one person say “ink pen” when that’s the only kind of pen there is?

(I’ll answer that last one. The person who said “ink pen” was reacting to something linguists call minimal pairs. Such pairs have a slight difference in pronunciation that some people can hear and others can’t. So, for example, if “pen” and “pin” aren’t a minimal pair for you, you may say things like “safety pin,” “straight pin,” and “ink pen.” But I digress.)

The linguistic principle I wanted to talk about today, though, is “code-switching” or “levels of diction.” Someone online was questioning why Kamala Harris sometimes spoke “standard” English and at other times seemed to speak in a different dialect altogether.

All of us are pretty fluent at code-switching, whether we know it or not. Basically, code-switching means that you don’t speak the same way you do to your grandmother or pastor as you do to, say, a teacher or boss, or people your own age. (This especially applies to teenagers.) For example, you are not likely at all to swear in front of your grandmother or pastor, rather unlikely to swear in front of a teacher or boss (unless you’re a longshoreman), but more likely to swear in front of people of your own age and background. Similarly, you are more likely to use nonstandard English (such as “ain’t”) with your friends than with your grandmother.

Your tone of voice, your use of slang, and even your accent may change, based on your audience. These are called “levels of diction.” 

This is what people were wondering about Kamala Harris. Was she being “fake” when she used a more ethnic-sounding voice? Was she being “fake” when she used formal, academic speech and language?

The answer is that her speech was not “fake” at either time. Harris was code-switching and probably wasn’t doing it consciously.

Most of us code-switch quite naturally, without even thinking about it. (Once our mothers have biffed us on the back of the head for “disrespecting” Grandma.) Oh, we may feel like we’re not being our “true selves” when we tone it down for Grandma or ditch a Kentucky accent for a speech contest or podcast, but after a while it’s automatic.

It’s also a very valuable skill to have. Imagine having only one way to speak! You’d be insulting people right and left. Your Grandma might think you were talking like a sailor or your homies might think you were talking stilted and better-than-thou.

If you pay attention, you may even catch yourself code-switching or notice when someone else is doing it.

The disagreements my college friends and I had were not actually about code-switching, but about regional variations in vocabulary. For anyone interested, where I live now, the standards are wait “in” line, change “for” a quarter, and shopping “cart.” From just that, a talented linguist could tell where I live (Ohio). (I still say “ink pen,” but that’s a holdover from where I was born, in Kentucky.)

That’s all for today. Go listen for some code-switching or compare prepositions and vocabulary with your friends. I have to leave. My hair needs washed.


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