Code-Switching

Updated: Apr 14

randomnoteforfuturereference asked: So let's say you are writing a story where someone code-switches from English to a "right-to-left" language (eg Hebrew or Arabic). How can that be incorporated smoothly if the original script is stuck with (as opposed to a phonetic Romanization). Is it possible to have a sentence of that script in the same quote as English?


That is possible, but complicated -- primarily because you have to make sure your keyboard works for both or use Word’s “insert symbol” function, which is a hassle and a half.  


If you’re doing just a single word, people will sort of automatically code-switch in their brain.  So for example, “Hi, my name is שושנה and I like to read.” is a valid sentence and would be easily understood by a person who speaks both languages.  (שושנה, pronounced Shoshana, is my Hebrew name -- hence me picking it for the example.)  But I had to fuss with both Word and Wix to make it actually work, because the spacing and punctuation kept messing up.


This may be less of a problem if your computer is set for multiple languages (mine isn’t), but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was still a hassle.  You’d have to check with someone who used both languages on a regular basis to figure that out -- and I’d go with someone in Israel, honestly, since English is very much the second or third language there (the first being Hebrew, the third or second being Arabic).


If you’re doing something longer than a single word, it gets more complicated.  You really have three options in that case.


1) Use both languages.  This might involve switching from sentence to sentence and your reader having to go back and forth, but it’s possible.  It would look weird, but it could be done.


2) Transliterate.  Use the closest English approximation of the Hebrew and hope it comes out okay.  I wouldn’t do this for much more than a few words though.


3) Just write it all in English but make it clear people are switching languages, the same way you might for text messaging, telepathy, parseltongue, sign language, or even Spanish.  This can take the form of bolding/italicizing/putting symbols around the less usual speech, or it can simply be something like “’What are you doing today?’ he asked, the Spanish sounding weird coming out of his mouth.”  


Unless you’re writing for a truly bilingual audience, you’re going to want to minimize your use of other languages anyway.  Since for every sentence you write in another language, you’re going to either need to translate it yourself (alt text or end notes) or hope your readers will use a translator to figure out what you meant.  The more of another language you include, the less they’re going to bother if it’s not a language they speak.


So in general, I’d go with option three for anything more than a sentence here and there.


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