We Code-switch like Riz Ahmed

First Published at https://www.creativeml.ox.ac.uk on 01 May 2020. Commissioned by Professor Rajinder Dudrah for the University of Oxford led project Creative Multilingualism.

The Long Goodbye (2020), a short film directed by filmmaker Aneil Karia and co-written by Riz Ahmed, reflects a dystopian future realizing the collective conscious (or unconscious) of the British South Asian diaspora. The scenes evoke an unsettling fear, but one that is believable too, as a British Pakistani family are brutally ordered out of their home, rounded-up, and murdered by an unknown gang.

The theme of home runs throughout the film, as the opening scenes show an authentic British Pakistani family home. With Ahmed playing the role of the older brother of the British Pakistani family, we witness the typical free flowing ronak (lively atmosphere) of a Pakistani household getting ready for a bride’s dholki (a pre-wedding celebration). We hear the oh-so familiar British Asian accent; we see the charming boxing sport between Ahmed’s character and a young boy in the living room; the dad trying to get his news and politics dose in; the slightly erratic but loving mother directing the whereabouts of the household furniture in Urdu and English; the young women dancing with their hair straighteners and talking of boys in their bedroom; that brother who is called out for not pulling his weight as he plays “who wrote the song blinded by the light”; and that beloved spare junk room common to many British households.

In the film’s final moments, Ahmed’s performance of his spoken word poem continues the theme of the British Pakistani by providing an insight into the nature of the diasporic psyche. The entire piece looks to answer the question of all questions posed by Ahmed:

‘Do they ever ask you where you’re from, Like, yeah, but where you really from?’

 His answer tells a story familiar to many diasporic children, who must move in every part of their lives, switching and blending, between their two worlds, searching for an answer to Ahmed’s question without the “buts”. “Without the buts”? “But” itself is ‘used to introduce an added statement, usually something that is different from what you have said before’. Its etymology can be traced back to Old English term būtan, meaning ‘on the outside, without’.So, when I say “without the buts”, I refer back to this sense; I search for a home that is neither mixed up with the “being on the outside” nor being “without” anything, nor performing a palatable blend of a home to appease any dominant or stereotypical labels and expectations.  

Ahmed’s words play with these kind of “buts”, which are reflective of how “being on the outside” comes up in every aspect of the British diaspora communities, from language to music, fashion, food, sports, and politics. Ahmed speaks of how he feels British as it is his birth place, but struggles to have an affiliation with the British flag because of its association with “skinheads”. And yet, when he goes back to Pakistan, his gut reacts to the ancestral land like it’s a foreign place. Even “a cuppa a tea” is not free from the split, as he goes on to say:

‘See, Britain’s where I’m born and I love a cuppa a tea and that. 
     But tea ain’t from Britain it’s from where my DNA is at 
And where my genes are from’. 

Ahmed reaches a conclusion to his initial question, which he puts as:

‘Yeah I make my own place
In this business of Britishness your questions just limiting 
It’s based on appearances, stop trying to make a box for us
I’ll make my own box and break your proxy concept of us 
      Very few fit these labels, so I’m repping for the rest of us 
Who know that there’s no place like home and that stretches us 
Who code-switch…’

As a bilingual speaker of English and Pahari-Pothwari and as a linguist, the term “code-switch” stood out to me the most and is reflective of how many other British South Asians codeswitch. Code-switching refers to a practice of moving back and forth between two or more languages or between two or more dialects or registers of the same language. Since language carries not only grammar and vocabulary, it carries culture, ideologies, power, memories, and distinct world views; there is often a code-switching of all these too. 

Code-switching can change the grammatical structure of languages, such as the morphology, phonology, and/or syntax. When languages like Urdu-Hindi, Pahari-Pothwari, Punjabi, Bengali, and Gujarati come together with English, there is an array of linguistic changes taking place. Examples of these types of code-switching include adding on heritage language plurals to English words (chairs vs. chair-a), pronouncing English words with retroflex sounds (rolling your tongue on sounds like t and d in ten and den) and placing sounds in different orders (crisps vs. crips). Code-switching can also manifest in borrowing words for concepts or things that do not exist in the heritage language (furniture, stationary), and even for words that do exist (chair vs. kursi). Code-switching can occur in the middle of your sentences when, for instance, you switch from your heritage language to English or vice versa.  

But why do we code-switch? How much control do speakers have over when and how they code-switch? Well, linguistically, even the smallest changes in language reflect a purpose. Code-switching is not random, but rather is motivated by social discourse functions, such as formality or informality, solidarity, group identity, lexical need, and topic. For instance, someone from the British South Asian diaspora may insert yaar/yara (friend or brother) in their English utterance as a symbol of their group identity, solidarity, and familiarity.

Code-switching also involves moving between language ideologies. Because language can be a symbol of power, prejudice, discrimination, and subordination, code-switching is not free of language politics. According to Miki Makihara and Bambi Schieffelin, the speakers in contact language situations* are said to consciously reflect their use of language, and negotiate and internalise language ideologies to “survive” one’s new world, which I believe manifests in creative forms such as code-switching.   

In answering Ahmed’s initial question, there are an array of places one calls home, and language is certainly one of them. Language establishes the identity of its speakers and thus multilingual communities exist through their language as does their culture and history. Specifically, code-switching exemplifies language’s capacity to carry and accept one’s blended world. The contact between two languages promotes the creation of new linguistic forms and ideologies. When we code-switch, we are tapping into a limitless resource of language creativity to cope with the different homes, labels, and identities of British South Asians in the diaspora. 

____
*Professor Yaron Matras defines a language contact situation as a linguistic and social phenomenon in which speakers of two or more languages or varieties interact and influence each other. This can manifest as a transference of linguistic features and/or ideologies. Language contact typically arises at language borders and/or as a result of migration.

Dr. Farah Nazir (@drfarahnazir) is a UK-based linguist studying the linguistics of the Pahari-Pothwari language. Her research interests are in South Asian languages, syntax-semantics, multilingualism, language contact, and language creativity.

Photo by John Jennings on Unsplash

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