Saturday, 9 June 2012

Mixes & matches

Switching ways of using our language(s) follows naturally from our realisation that languages are all but one-variant-fits-all archetypes, and that switches among variants help us fit in with the different people who matter to us. Whether we’re monolingual or multilingual, we don’t behave in the same way, including linguistically, in a job interview or when catching up with friends, for example.

Monolingual switches of this kind go by respectable-sounding customised names like sociolect or register (you can look up what these words mean here), whereas multilingual switches are generally termed mixes, a word borrowed, complete with connotations, from less specialised topics of conversation. Calling things by different names appears to reflect understanding that we’re talking about different things, and so encourage continued understanding that there is a difference in what we’re talking about. But in terms of linguistic and communicative competence, we’re actually doing the same when we switch from Cool, dude! to This was a very pleasant evening indeed!, or from Med vänliga hälsningar to Best regards. Both kinds of switches draw on our awareness that there are choices, and that we can pick and choose according to need: multilinguals switch sociolects and registers in their languages, just like monolinguals; and they switch languages, for exactly the same purposes, because they are not monolinguals.

I like to think of multilingual switches in terms of what I’ve called The Buffet Effect:

Image: © Anders Jonsson (Wikimedia Commons)

Suppose you don’t know what goes with what, or whether that thing over there is gravy, dip or soup – children are among those who don’t, for either food or languages. You then have a couple of alternatives. You can wait for confident-looking people to tuck in, and proceed to replicate their choices and their confidence in making them. You can ask a connoisseur: someone in a toque blanche, or some other duly identified master of ceremonies, may be standing by to tell you what (not) to do. You can also do what you feel like doing. Say you’re having breakfast: you can choose bacon and eggs or congee, or both, or skip the eggs to have bacongee instead. Sounds yucky? Yummy? You don’t know unless you try. You decide, since you are the one doing the eating.

You may end up committing what masters of ceremonies will call mixes. You can then ask them: when someone first decided that white wine goes with fish courses, wasn’t that a mix? It is now a match, because if you choose red wine with your Sole Meunière you may be giving signs of faulty sense of propriety. In some circles, of course. In other circles, doing just that will be chic, because chic, in some circles, is a chic name for ‘unorthodoxy’ – which, by the way, must make us Portuguese très chic, because we’ve routinely served red wine with our bacalhau.

So it all depends, yet again, what people choose to call what you’re doing. The issue, for multilinguals, is that each (new) experience comes associated with a language. In my family, for example, we pepper our talk with filhós (deep-fried pumpkin puffs) in Portuguese, and with pjäxor (ski boots) in Swedish, whatever the language of the current exchange, because filhós match our Portuguese experiences and pjäxor our Swedish ones. We also talk about sudoku, basquetebol (the official Portuguese spelling of English basketball, in case you’re wondering) and fåtöljer (the official Swedish one of French fauteuils). Just imagine not being allowed to say jeans or internet or hamburger in your language(s), because you’d be “mixing” by doing so.

That some mixes become orthodox has nothing to do with the mixing itself. All mixes, like all other features of any language, were once new. Proof that both accepted mixes and less accepted ones find their niche in whatever language they occur is that they all flow seamlessly with the prosody of that language. In English, for example, you don’t stop to pronounce, say, déjà vu in its original French accent when you want to say déjà vu in English. Try, for fun? The German linguist Hugo Schuchardt conducted research on what we all do with our languages, to conclude, as early as in the second half of the 19th century, that “Es gibt keine völlig ungemischte Sprache” (‘There is no completely unmixed language’). To confirm (if needed!) the absolute truth of this statement, have a look, for example, at the table of contents of this recent issue of the journal English Today.

Virtually all that we do to find our own niches as we grow up and grow old involves mixing and matching. When meeting a group of people for the first time, for example, be it our playmates at our new school, or our colleagues at your new job, we don’t know either what to make of them, or who goes with whom, or with us, and how. And we won’t know unless we start mingling and choosing what and whom we find palatable to us.

Mixing things to find palatable matches is also what prized chefs do to deserve their prizes. Which means that it takes a connoisseur to mix things properly. Next time, I’ll argue that the same is true of language mixers.

© MCF 2012

Next post: Mixed recipes. Wednesday 20th June 2012.

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