Cracking the Code

The recent movie, The Imitation Game, revealed how a team of British mathematicians and linguists collaborated to break the German Enigma code during World War II. They began with the premise that any code is made up of patterns. The trick was to translate the code into a pattern the team already understood: English. Understanding the words, however, wasn’t enough to break the code. The team also had to translate the Germans’ patterns of social behavior, culture, and, of course, human error.

These are the same tools we use to decode language every day. Many English speakers are multilingual, and even more of us use multiple variations of English. This has become known as “code-switching” or, as The Oxford English Dictionary says,“the switching from the linguistic system of one language or dialect to that of another.” We who have studied English know the standard way to conjugate verbs and the widely accepted use of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, but we sometimes switch to the vernacular of our particular region or group without noticing. Not only do we change the structure of our sentences, we also incorporate words that may have a different meaning to other people or words that don’t exist in any other place.

I am a Southerner, and this becomes very obvious when I am speaking to another Southerner. My i’s stretch out, my voice softens, and figurative language runs loose through my sentences. I may even use “I don’t care to” to mean “I don’t mind” instead of “I don’t want to.” This is a construction of language that means one thing in standard English and the opposite in my native Kentucky. When I am in that part of my world, my use of language shows it, but I am quite capable of sounding buttoned up and formal in my encounters at work or school. I have to listen and respond to the code each audience is using.

People from the Bronx, Iowa, or even New Jersey code-switch from time to time too. And parents or teachers of young children must do the same if they are to be understood. Switching between codes and sometimes living at their confluence does not have to mean sacrificing culture or comprehension. We just have to know which English our audience speaks.