Mixed Messages

Uncovering the social motivations of language-boundary-crossing choices . . . is a sociolinguistic task on a par with investigating the social motivations of dialect choice, gender-specific speech forms, or age grading.” -Florian Coulmas

Slovakia is definitely a very interesting place for anyone interested code-switching: socially motivated movement from one language to another in the course of making a message. Slovak, of course, is always around us, but from a global perspective the community of Slovak speakers is small enough that other ‘world’ languages, in particular German, French, Italian, and, especially, English, seem to always pop up.

Take the storefront advertisement pictured above, one of many on the pedestrian zone in Nitra’s centrum that mixes English and Slovak: “big bag outlet športový a modný textil z anglicka.” On the surface, we have three words of English followed by six in Slovak. It only requires a little reflection to see that the transition from one language to the other is not at all arbitrary. The transition point underscores the structure of the message: shop name (in English), followed by a summary of inventory or services offered (in Slovak). What is accomplished by ‘mixing the message’ in this way? The Slovak part of the message, I would guess, has a very practical value: it explains to a predominantly Slovak speaking public assembly just what it might find in the store.

It’s tempting to think of the first part of the message, the English part, as a type of ‘branding’: the English brings to the message a certain ‘cachet,’ a certain status and prestige that results from the fact that English is a language used for international commerce, that goods and people associated with predominantly English-speaking countries, especially the United States, have global exposure. And to the degree that breadth of exposure contributes to degree of fashion and appeal, it is logical to conclude that the English part of the message is an attempt at a stylish enticement to get the consumer to engage with the business.

These messages also are another example of the dual function of language. The English part of the message is clearly a play for status, and does very little in the way of communicating practical information. In fact, the very necessity of the informational, Slovak segment of the message serves to underscore that many passers-by may not attach any informational meaning whatsoever to the English part. Indeed, discerning shoppers who know something about the meaning of a ‘big bag outlet’ store in an English context realize that this phrase is used there to describe downscale discount stores, where people who don’t have a lot of money go, wishing to buy something cheap. Therefore, in an English context, advertising that you are an outlet store has a very different social function, I would think.

Having spent a little time now dissecting this particular advertisement formula, I nevertheless would have to admit that this tidy little case really doesn’t represent the phenomenon of code-switching in its purist sense, but I’ll leave it to you in your postings to make it clear why.