13 June 2019

Cracking the Code For "Code-Switching"

by Brian Thornton

Code-Switching: (noun) The switching from the linguistic system of one language or dialect to that of another. (Merriam-Webster)

So my day gig includes a fair amount of something called "code-switching." It's something every human does, even if they're not familiar with the term.

Walk down the halls of the school where I work and you'll hear half-a-dozen different languages being spoken by kids who will switch to something approximating Standard American English once they hit the classroom. And of course there are the dialects (Mr. Mister famously sang about "The Uniform of Youth," but there are also any number of linguae franca associated with teenagers as well).

But more than that, we even code-switch within our own language: maybe you don't talk to your mom the same as you do the guys you bowl with, or the ladies you play darts with. Your child and your accountant may hear you speaking the same language, but they're not hearing you speak the same way.

I can hear my regular readers (BOTH of you!*rimshot*) saying, "Yeah, we know people do this. What does it have to do with writing crime fiction, Captain Obvious? I mean, after all, this is a crime fiction writing blog."

What does code-switching have to do with writing crime fiction?

Unfortunately, not too much.

To be blunt, there needs to be a hell of a lot more code-switching going on in crime fiction.


Because it helps make characters, conversations, actions, more realistic.

And to be fair, there are writers (especially writers of color) who excel at documenting the phenomenon of code-switching within their work. Walter Moseley, Philip Kerr, Sarah Paretsky, Chester Himes, Gary Phillips, Naomi Hirahara, and a host of others immediately spring to mind.

But it's not easy to pull off. And here's where the fine line difference between "reality" and "realism" comes in to play.

Because if you don't nail it, and you try to sell writing where you've tried code-switching on for size, you're likely to get it handed back, accompanied by the shop-worn criticism: "Your characters need distinctive voices. Ones where, even without dialogue tags, we know who is talking."

Because, again, code-switching believably in fictional conversations takes a deft touch and the ability to balance the individual's recognizable dialogical tics with the different ways they speak to those they encounter over the course of the narrative.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and not just when walking through the halls at my school. So I wanted to toss it out there to the hive mind.

So why don't we open this up in the comments section? If you're an author, and have tips for how to believably pull off code-switching with a voice still distinctive enough to be recognizable across a variety of social situations, what suggestions do you have for the rest of us? And if you're a reader, and have a favorite author who you think pulls this sort of thing off well, why not share a bit about said author with us?

Hope to hear from all of you, and see you in two weeks!


  1. Really good point about dialog in fiction there. Have you ever heard the comedians Key and Peele talk about code switching? Very interesting. http://www.cc.com/video-clips/qvrhhj/key-and-peele-phone-call

  2. Like this a lot. I know I did some of this in my story "Iron Chef" about the inmates at the work farm - how they talked among each other (edited to leave out more f-bombs than I thought AHMM could handle) vs. how they talked to the staff. You're right, needs to be addressed more.

  3. Thanks Brian for giving a name (code switching-love it!) to the dialogue I’m writing for the many diverse LA characters in my novel Fast Bang Booze. I’m hammering out the sequel and most of my characters use English as a second language. I grew up in LA, so much of this I can do by ear (I hope!) but it’s an effort. Great piece Brian!

  4. First I've heard the term, but yeah, it makes sense. It works.


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