No signal, just noise

One of the (oh too many) things I work on is code-switching* in historical texts. Or, more broadly, how multilingual environments are reflected in Early Modern English (merchants’) letter-writing. In particular I’ve done some work on the letters of early English East India Company merchants – some of it published – and then of course a bit more on the focus of my (never-ending) dissertation, the early letters of Richard Cocks. This year, I’ve joined my interest in historical code-switching to my interest in palaeography, and have given papers on if and how and why script and typeface are also switched when there is a code-switch in Early Modern English texts. In short, I have been looking at the historical development of why we still italicise words and passages in aliis linguis – and also at other practices of typographical flagging We Still Employ On A Daily Basis. This is all still work in progress, although I will write it up for publication in due course. But I would here like to share an observation gained from conferences and discussions on these and other topics this year.

Last June, there was an excellent symposium at the University of Tampere on historical code-switching. Really the first meeting of its kind, it was hugely enlightening to have three days of papers on code-switching in historical texts, covering over 1,500 years and, although focussing on English texts (OE, ME, EModE, LModE), also including some papers on texts produced elsewhere in Europe. Although all of it was fascinating and informative, I was naturally primarily interested in finding out about visual flagging of code-switching – whether by script-switching, as in the letters I presented on, or by other means. Only a couple of the papers actually focussed on visual aspects of code-switching, but visuality did crop up often enough to give me an idea of the range of the phenomenon and variation within it.

Overall, though, I was struck particularly with the realization that what we were conferencing on under the rubric of “historical code-switching”, actually was/is a hugely diverse … er, thing. Not a practice, but a vast set of practices. Not a phenomenon, but a huge array of phenomena. One of the conclusions of the conference that came up in the closing open discussion was in fact that although most scholars working on historical code-switching have been applying methodologies developed for present-day conversational code-switching to historical texts, we have all been discovering how inadequate such conceptual models and practical approaches are for our purposes. (The same has been realized by scholars working on code-switching in present-day texts). So developing models that are more suitable for the analysis of code-switching in (historical) texts is an important part of future work.

So, practices of code-switching in historical texts vary greatly depending on which period, region, languages, text types, genres, etc etc are involved – and much is down to scribal idiolects. That is to say, code-switching in the Early Modern English letters I work on is very different from code-switching in Late Modern English literary texts, or Early Modern English printed tracts, or practices in present-day northern India, or those in the Jewish community in medieval Cairo. And equally, the code- and script-switching practices of the writer I work on are completely different to those of some of his peers.

Simply put, there appears to be so much variation over time and space and text type, that it is difficult, at this stage, to see any patterns – except when restricting the study to a single place, time, text type, or indeed writer.


Okay. So what? How is the situation different from pretty much any other field?

Well, of course it isn’t. The primary difference to many other fields is the lack of data – historical code-switching is a emerging field and studies are still thin on the ground and cover disparate material. Give it another 20 years and the picture will be clearer. And actually, the fact that we know so little about any of this means that there is unexplored material aplenty, so it is ridiculously easy to come up with further topics and sources to study. Which is exciting!

But this is my point: the variation between texts (types, times, places) is so great as to render generalizations based on a single corpus void. Thus anyone making any general points about historical code-switching is, in my view, bound to be wrong.

And all of this applies equally strongly to script-switching, and also to material aspects of letter-writing: at the moment, we know next to nothing about either of these things.

Which brings me back to my work.

I guess what’s bugging me is the fact that, particularly in PhD work, you quite desperately want to be able to contribute to scholarship, and preferably with A Point: something that can be drawn out of your study and generalized; something that can be applied to other sources. Thus it’s eminently frustrating to cover new ground through painstaking attention to detail in your sources, only to end up with the realization that you have indeed made an important finding in itself, but all you can really say, based on This Material, is how This Material behaves.


* When I say “code-switching”, I use it in the broadest possible sense to mean any use of L2 in L1, including such things as quotations (which arguably require no competence in L2) and lexical borrowings (if cul-de-sac is not French, why do we keep italicising it?) as well as ‘real’ code-switching, be it inter- or intrasentential.

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