Code Switching

I don’t usually discuss race, on this blog or anywhere else, unless it is preceded by the acronym “NASCAR.”  Today, however, I’ll give it a go, because I’ve been inspired by the new NPR blog, Code Switch.

At first, I didn’t really know what code switching was.  But then I remembered that in the years that I worked for the state relay service for the deaf, I occasionally heard the term “code switching” used to refer to the phenomenon of CODAs (children of deaf adults) and some hard of hearing people who are fluent in both American Sign Language and English suddenly switching between the two during a conversation, perhaps even during the same sentence.  Of course, bilingual people in every culture do this regularly.  It only makes sense:  Cultural context is everything, and it can be pretty close to impossible to explain a concept native to one language in another.

I find multiculturalism thrilling.  I enjoy being able to experience bits of other cultures and to share some of my own.  Those who can speak two or more languages are able to create bridges that our society sorely needs.  Of course, it is possible to use bilingual ability as a tool to keep others out rather than letting others in.  Growing up, I would hear the Yiddish phrase red Yiddish, der goyim ken nisht farschtehen (“Speak Yiddish, the non-Jews won’t understand us”).  Of course, this can backfire, as described in one of the NPR blog’s stories about two women on a subway switching to French to make comments about a fellow passenger (and being shocked when he responded in perfect French).  Among the hazards of code switching:  This is an equal opportunity game.

Code switching doesn’t have to be between different languages; it can also be among dialects of the same language.  The NPR blog points out that many Americans who naturally speak using a Midwestern, Southern or African-American dialect/accent switch to a standard, white bread, “professional” brand of English on their jobs.  Receiving a phone call at work from Mom and slipping right into one’s natural dialect can be rather jarring to coworkers overhearing the conversation.

Although I’ve resided in California for nearly 20 years now and have a relatively flat accent, coworkers often tell me that they can hear the “New Yawk” in my voice.  They should only hear me on the phone with my mother.  As I discussed in a previous post, the Yiddish is flung about with reckless abandon and I sound as if I’ve spent my entire life in Brooklyn.  My wife, a native Californian and daughter of a Pentecostal minister, has learned to understand me when I slip into that mode.  Well, mostly.  I giggle when she starts peppering her own conversation with schlep, schmutz and oy vey.

But the NPR blog points out that code switching isn’t just about language; it’s about multiculturalism as a whole.  It points out that hip-hop music has either become ubiquitous as it merges and assimilates into the larger culture, or has been (mis)appropriated by whites, depending on one’s point of view.  This, of course, has been going on for a very long time.  For years, my father reminded me that the music of the 1950s became less homogeneous when Hoagy Carmichael sang “white” and Elvis sang “black.”

Meanwhile, today’s white kids listen to rap music and enjoy emulating the clothes, hairstyles, lingo and mannerisms of their black peers.  To relate to kids of any race, teachers need to be fluent in African-American jargon and cadence (yet be able to code switch to standard English with the administration).

I should pause here to say that I am a white boy.  Caucasian.  Despite my eastern European ancestry, all the melanin seems to have skipped right over me, leaving me with skin that is pale as a ghost.  Growing up with parents who have graduate degrees, standard, textbook English is all I learned from square one.

My mother gets upset when my sister calls her a racist.  My mother strenuously objects, citing her early years as a teacher in a heavily African-American public school and how she went into “the projects” to tutor kids in jeopardy of failing when none of the other teachers would do so.  It was just a few years after the Newark riots and most white people were afraid to “go up on the hill.”  Despite all of that, today my mother continues to refer to African-Americans as “colored.”

“Nah, I think they were born that way,” is my father’s usual retort, ever the wit.  Never mind that he habitually refers to African-Americans using derogatory terms that I will not repeat on this blog (or anywhere else).

The NPR blog cites the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s decision to refer to African-Americans as “racialized people.”  Well, how dumb is that!  What about the rest of us?  Caucasian, Asian and all the rest are races too, you know.

The U.S. Census, I’ve learned, can’t seem to decide how to refer to the various races, changing the terminology they use nearly every decade.  These days, of course, most of us have backgrounds consisting of multiple races.  I think of my little grandniece, whom I had the pleasure of spending some time with today.  Her father is Filipino (I think) and her mother is part Hispanic, part Caucasian.  I vote for a check box that just says “cute.”

Racial terminology is, of course, anything but cute.  It is loaded with a sad history of discrimination that continues to this day.  And everyone knows that saying the wrong word can get you in trouble, get you fired from work, get you hauled into court, maybe even get you killed.

The NPR blog mentions that the idealists who hoped to forge a post-racial society have not succeeded in their plans, and that it’s not looking good for the foreseeable future.  Despite all the code switching and the melting pot of cultural norms, for unfathomable reasons we still have to pigeonhole each other with terminology that describes the color of our skin and/or the history of our DNA.

I smile broadly when I see how much my grandniece enjoys watching children’s videos in Mandarin Chinese and in Spanish, and when I observe her expressing what she wants in ASL.  I try to remember to say the words for things in English, Spanish and French.  On the day she was born, I whispered a song to her in Hebrew.

I hope she grows up to be an expert code switcher and that she doesn’t find herself hampered by a lot of inaccurate, unfair and discriminatory racial stereotypes.

And I know that I will be happy with whatever languages she ultimately decides to use, as long as her mother tongue remains the language of love.

NaBloPoMo 2014 Logo



I’d like to thank my many readers who so kindly left comments on my recent post, “No Text Please, We’re Parents.”  Many of your comments described technophobic experiences with your own parents.  Quite a few of you agreed with my parents’ objection to texting as “impersonal.”

More than one comment mentioned that text-based messaging is rendering conversation a lost art.  When my parents visited for my birthday last weekend, they agreed, pointing out that abbreviations commonly used in text messages are destroying both written and spoken forms of the English language.  By way of example, my mother stated that it grates on her nerves when even radio personalities say “that’s how they do” (omitting the implied “it”).  My father cited the deplorable spelling and grammar that he regularly sees in email and on websites.

I tried to point out that any language changes and grows over time, adding new words and changing acceptable forms of grammar and spelling.  The English of Chaucer’s fourteenth century works and that of Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century works barely resemble each other, much less modern forms of English.

Every generation seems to bemoan the increasing informality of language embraced by their children.  Slang lingo has been a part of teenage culture since the dawn of time.  Kids seek to separate themselves from their parents by embracing vocabulary and grammar alien to their elders.  There was a time when the words “groovy” and “cool” annoyed adults; when I was growing up, it was considered “hip” to tack the word “man” on to the beginning or end of every sentence.  “What’s up, man?”  “Man, that sucks.”  And then there was the ultimate expression of disgust, disappointment, amazement, sympathy or any other emotion of the moment:  “Maaaaaaaaannnn!”

It’s nothing new for parents to believe that their children are destroying the English language.  And yet English soldiers on.

As for abbreviations, I fail to see much difference between today’s CUL8R or ILY and yesteryear’s SWAK and XYZ (“sealed with a kiss” and “check your zipper”).  And it is easy to forget that keystroke-saving abbreviations were rampant on the internet long before text messaging came into vogue.  When I first got online in the mid-1990s, I had to acculturate myself to a whole lexicon of BRBs, IMHOs and FWIWs.  These have found their way into the spoken language; I’ve heard people say “imho” and I myself have been known to say “bee ar bee!”

It is my belief that text messaging, both the kind on cell phones and the kind on the internet, brings people together rather than separating them.  Any form of language that makes it easier for people to communicate is, in my view, a positive development.

And so, I concluded my recent conversation with my parents by telling a story about some text-based communication that I enjoyed on Friday night.  In my goofy way, I took a photo of my dinner using my cell phone, typed the word “Yum!” and sent it to my nephews and nieces using SnapChat.  Every last one of them responded.  These are young people who won’t bother to call me and, likely as not, won’t answer their phones when I call them.  If I want to have much of a relationship with them, I need to be able to send and receive text and photos.  This is one of the main reasons I procured a cell phone in the first place.  So texting or SnapChatting them is my way of saying “I love you” and “I’m thinking of you.”

My niece’s response to my photo was particularly poignant.  “I love how you randomly Snap me!” was her text response.  We all feel loved when we know we’re thought of, now don’t we?

And if that’s “impersonal,” then I’ll take impersonal any day of the week, man.




blue hair

I have always understood “bluehairs” to be a pejorative term for old ladies.  From whence did this disparaging term arise?  Equating white hair with blue doesn’t make much sense to me.  Does this have something to do with poor hair coloring jobs performed by questionable salons upon the white hair of seniors?  And why doesn’t this disparaging term seem to apply to men?

In my quest for elucidation on the subject, I checked a few online dictionaries.  (My real dictionaries are languishing in boxes in my parents’ garage about 3½ hours’ drive down the interstate.  I miss my doorstop pals.)


Webster’s online dictionary completely omits the terms “bluehair” and “bluehairs,” leading one to believe that the word is too controversial for that website’s conservative sensibilities.

Citing to Richard Spears’ Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions (4th ed.), provides no hint of word origin, simply defining the term as “an old lady, especially one whose hair is tinted blue.”  I still don’t understand why an old lady, or anyone for that matter, would want to tint his or her hair blue.

The Urban Dictionary offers multiple possible definitions of the term; one that provides a bit more insight is “an old person, but especially a slick, well-dressed retiree that still thinks that they have it going on.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.  Although I continue to remain ignorant regarding the connection between the color blue and the forelocks of our esteemed elders, I am starting to see that the disparaging nature of the term “bluehairs” has more to do with attitude than pigment.

Now, some of Urban Dictionary’s suggested usage examples refer to the term in the context of little old ladies with poor driving habits and stature that has shrunk to the point that only their blue hair is visible above the steering wheel.  That is a rather low blow, don’t you think?  It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out that our fear of aging has reduced us to the point of belittling those whose physical features so clearly exclude them from the American worshipful cult of youth.

Fear of aging is just one piece of the puzzle, however.  I can’t help thinking that perhaps the use of negative-sounding terms to describe senior citizens betrays a bit of “longevity envy.”  With everything from the environment to politics going to hell, we doubt that we ourselves will ever make it to the proud ranks of octogenarians, nonagenarians and centenarians.

word freak

In his book Word Freak (arguably the best book ever written about the subculture of tournament Scrabble), Stefan Fatsis bemoans the fact that, early in his Scrabble tournament career, he was soundly trounced again and again by the “blue hairs” of the circuit.  Fatsis’ use of the term could be interpreted as a way of feeling better about ourselves by resorting to put-downs of those with greater experience who give the lie to the conventional wisdom that younger is better.


When in the mood for some mindless entertainment, I have been known to check out Betty White’s TV show “Off Their Rockers” on NBC.  Here’s where we move into what I like to refer to as “longevity levity.”  Ms. White and her crew seek to turn the bluehair stereotype on its head by “punking” members of the younger generation who never see it coming.  Among her stock in trade is poking fun at the common misconception that those in their eighties and beyond have no interest in sex and would probably die of a heart attack should they ever attempt such a strenuous, risky maneuver.  My favorite bit is the one in which she asks a stranger to have sex with her right there in the street so that she can cross this item off her bucket list.  The look on the young man’s face (not to mention the fact that he actually considers it) is priceless.

I don’t know whether Betty White’s antics will succeed in turning around Americans’ attitudes toward the elderly.  Either way, it appears that the term “bluehairs” remains reserved for a special variety of “uncoolness” that we like to attribute to old folks.  But, as we know, all things eventually come full circuit.

blue anime

And sure enough, digging further, I discovered that having blue hair has become cool again!  One of the contributors to Urban Dictionary points out that having characters with blue hair is “a necessity in anime.”  But of course!  I had totally forgotten that blue hair (usually bright blue) is a standard of Japanese animation.  As my Bay Area niece and nephew (who are into such things) would quickly point out, no self-respecting Japanese graphic novel or comic is without at least one character with blue hair, and usually a heroine at that!

So, thanks to our wonderfully rich, constantly evolving English language, it seems that the term “bluehair” is gradually transitioning from an insult to a badge of honor.  And why shouldn’t it?  It’s hard not to notice how blue hair (and green and pink and purple hair) has been gaining a foothold in popularity among the young.  Could it be (Heavens!) that the young are actually imitating the old?

These days, most of us barely take notice when a young woman or man with a blue streak in his or her hair, as well as a pierced lip, tongue and eyebrow, is seen walking down the street or pushing a shopping cart at Wal-Mart.  (The phrase “blue streak” deserves a blog post of its own.  Once used to indicate speed, as in something that goes by in a flash, it is now primarily associated with profanity, as in “swearing a blue streak.”)  I was once placed in the ignominious position of trying to keep a straight face as I conversed with a young woman who had her hair parted in the middle, with one side dyed entirely bright blue while the other side was flecked with streaks of deep red.  I have to stop being such a fuddy-duddy and recognize self-expression when I see it.  But it’s still hard not to laugh.

So when I walked into Starbucks on Thursday (after they once again got my drink order wrong in the drive-through), I barely registered an amused grin when I noticed that a woman sipping a latte at a table in the center of the store had bright blue spiky hair that might have been a bad attempt at imitating a cerulean Statue of Liberty.

As I waited for the barista to remake my decaf soy latte, I slowly registered the fact that the bluehair Lady Liberty wannabe was sharing her small table with a Renaissance maiden and Merlin, the magician.

I had forgotten that it was Halloween.


NaBloPoMo November 2013