Are you a code talker? A few weeks ago I caught the end of a great discussion on NPR about code switching. Code switching in linguistics is the use of two or more languages or dialects in the context of one conversation. As humans, we do it all the time. We may use a slang word picked up from somewhere else in a new context with a friend, or create an entirely new set of definitions for common words or phrases.
I sat down the other day to write an email to a friend who is just about to have a baby. In my email I detailed the “code” words new mom’s use to describe baby behaviors. Such as, “Does your baby transfer?” In mommy language this means can you take your napping kid out of the car and “transfer” them into the crib while keeping them asleep. (As if that happens a lot in my world.)
Anyway this got me thinking about how travelers use language. Seemingly travelers are always code switching. Even if you speak the language, let’s say Spanish, you are constantly using, inserting and learning new definitions to common words as you cross political or even physical land boarders. Living in South Florida, I hear many different dialects of Spanish throughout the day and more often than not I can get information about the speaker just by the words they use. Because we never heard THAT word used THAT way in Peru, only in Central America or vice versa. Although it’s been several years since I’ve been in a Commonwealth country, I still find myself using terms like “brilliant” to describe something that I think is pretty interesting or unique, or “university” to describe the education I received as an undergraduate. These are simply not American terms, and yet I use them regularly and they identify me as someone who has perhaps explored the boundaries of the world in more than one way.
Code switching is perhaps the most fundamental example of the power of travel. Language allows us to communicate with each other, to explore our own world and that of someone else. There’s a reason why Inuit languages have dozens of words for snow while indigenous languages spoken near the equator have dozens of words for heat or the sun- because language tells our secrets and tells others all about us.
How do you speak the language of travel? Are you a code switcher? Do you bring new codes back as souvenirs on your travels?
And oh yea, if you figure out how to transfer a baby let me know. I’d like to learn how to do it myself.