Code Switching

Code switching is when a writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . .

  • shifts from one language system to another or from one dialect to another
  • changes the register of the diction for a particular text in response to the audience and rhetorical situation

Key Concepts: Audience; Communities of Practice; Jargon; Rhetorical Reasoning;


Code switching is a rhetorical act: Writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . adjust their message and style in response to how they read the rhetorical context. For example, if they feel the audience is emotional about a topic or locked into some sort of magical thinking, they adjust their voice, tone, and persona.

Put most simply, code switching is all about identifying the register. In the video example below, note how President Obama greets Kevin Durant, an NBA start who played for Team USA in the Olympics. Later, communication pundits noted the differences in how Obama greeted Durant, a black man, and Durant’s coach, a white man, as an example of code switching.

Code switching is so natural to us as humans that we are often unaware that we are doing it; it’s a form of tacit knowledge. That said, when engaging in written discourse, it does make sense to reflect on the register and whether your codes are spot on.

Code switching is a large part of a public figures’ publicity arsenal. Being able to switch mannerisms, linguistic traits, and other factors of a depiction of self is incredibly important in the formulation of a diverse and accepting group of constituents. Being able to maintain all the code switching when prompted is also necessary for maintaining those groups, because being able to appear like you know exactly what they’re experiencing shows commitment and understanding.

Ben Orlowski, Barack Obama – Code Switcher. Sociolinguistic Artifacts. 5/8/2017

Related Concepts

As a wordsmith, you are careful to weigh the appropriateness of your style: Archaisms, Clichés, Concrete & Sensory Language, Figurative Language, Homonyms, Idioms, Jargon, and Vague Language, Generalizations.

Recommended Readings

McCluney, Courtney, Katrina Robotham, Serenity Lee, Richard Smith, and Myles Durkee 11/15/2019. The Cost of Code Switching. Harvard Business Review

Thompson, Matt. Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. Code Switch. NPR, 4/13/2013.