Regulated Spaces: language alternation in writing.

Copyright © 2002 Mark Sebba

Colloquium on Code-Switching, Class and Ideology

2nd International Symposium on Bilingualism, SIB2002, Vigo, October 23-26, 2002.  


Mark Sebba

Department of Linguistics and Modern English Language

Lancaster University

Lancaster LA1 4YT, England 



Regulated Spaces: language alternation in writing.

The mixing of written languages (which  is not necessarily the same thing as written code-switching), though not uncommon, is confined to certain genres of text. This paper will examine how and where such mixing takes place, linking it with another phenomenon of written language: the use of non-standard or unconventional orthography.

The world of written texts is theorised here as a set of spaces in which the ideology of standardisation is imposed to varying degrees, depending largely on the institution within or for which the text is produced. The fully regulated space, which is the largest of these at this point in history, does not permit any deviation from the rule: one and only one standard language. Other spaces, which are liminal, peripheral or non-legitimated, allow mixing of languages as well as the breaking of other conventions, e.g. those of spelling.


This paper is based on

(a) A cross-linguistic study of social and cultural aspects of orthographic practices

(b) Miscellaneous examples of written mixed code, from various historical periods, genres and languages.





1          Introduction


Although the study of code-switching, code-mixing, language alternation and similarly named phenomena is by now extremely well advanced, most of the research, and nearly all the progress made, relates to spoken language. Research into mixed language texts is very limited, and a tiny fraction of the amount done on talk. There are doubtless many good reasons for this, and while there are similarities and parallels between language alternation in speech and in writing, there are also some important differences, so that the two are not easily studied together. This paper is an attempt to approach the phenomenon of written code-switching from a social perspective, drawing attention to similarities it displays with another phenomenon of written language: the use of non-standard or unconventional orthography.


2          Orthography: ideology of the Standard


Standardisation of the written [English] language is easiest to demonstrate with reference to orthography: spelling is the most uniform level of language use, and contrasts in this respect with the variability of its counterpart in speech - pronunciation. [...] Twentieth century English spelling is almost absolutely invariant. [...] the idea of an absolutely fixed spelling system is recent; particular spellings of words are now regarded as uniquely acceptable, other possible spellings being rejected as “errors”. (Milroy and Milroy 1991:67)


In orthography, as the Milroys point out, there are few options, at least for the highly standardised languages. English spelling is 'almost absolutely invariant’. This emphasis on regularity and invariance is part of an ideology of prescription and standardisation which pervades all areas of English language use, but is stronger with respect to written than spoken, language and probably at its maximum in spelling.


Spelling is that bit of linguistic practice where issues of authority, of control, of conformity can be most sharply focused. Spelling is the domain par excellence - no matter how tiny it may seem - where the politics of conformity can be sheeted home. [Kress 2000:x]


Although Kress and the Milroys are doubtless correct in emphasising the extent to which English spelling is controlled, there is another area of language where the norms are equally strictly enforced, but which is often overlooked because it is so obvious: this is the medium itself. In printed texts, monolingualism is the norm and the great majority of texts are written in a single language. Even where texts are produced bilingually, for example for official purposes, this in practice always means that two (or more) separate monolingual texts are created, one of which is a complete or partial translation of the other [fig. 3 ].


[Sign: Ni chaniateir cwn / No dogs are allowed]


Thus in addition to the tyranny of orthographic standardisation we have to put another tyranny on the list – the tyranny of written monolingualism.


In this paper I will focus on the exceptions to the norms: non-standard or “deviant” spellings and texts which deviate from the monolingual norm by including elements of more than one language[1].

I will argue that there are similarities in the places where these two types of text occur, namely, at the margins of the world of written texts.


4          An historical perspective


As mentioned by the Milroys, the notion that spelling should be absolutely fixed is a recent one. In the history of orthography, it was usually printers who first imposed standardisation on spelling. English spelling, for example, was not highly standardised or normative until after the arrival of printing. Furthermore, English allowed relative freedom in the spelling of private texts for a century or so after the imposition of uniformity in print (Strang 1970: 107).


There is a parallel here between orthographic practice and written bilingual practice. Text 1 is an extract from a Letter to Henry IV, King of England, from one of his officials, written in 1403. The letter is in a mixture of Anglo-Norman (a form of French) and a contemporary form of English (in bold face). The subject of the letter is a serious one (an appeal to the King to come in person to repel raiders) and we can conclude that the genre is one appropriate for matters of gravity. At the time, the king himself and/or his close advisers would have been bilingual in Anglo-Norman and English.


Clearly, an official letter of such importance would today be written in a single language without mixing, even where there was reason to believe that its recipient would be able to understand a two or more languages. Thus a permissive norm, which did not specify that a single language should be used in the text (though clearly other features of the text were prescribed, witness the elaborate address formulae and closing greetings), has given way over the centuries to a monolingual norm which is rarely transgressed. We can thus see that norms in respect both of orthographic standardisation and ‘medium standardisation’ are subject to change over time.


Text 1: Extract from a Letter to Henry IV of England (1403)


Tresexcellent, trespuissant, et tresredoute Seignour, autrement say a present nieez. Jeo prie a la benoit triniteque vous ottroie bone vie ove tresentier sauntee a treslonge durre, and sende yowe sone to ows in help and prosperitee; for in god fey, I hope to almighty god that, yef ye come youre owne persone, ye schulle haue the victorie of alle youre enemyes.


And for salvation of youre schire and marches al aboute, treste ye nought to no leutenaunt. Escript a Hereford, en tresgraunte haste, a trois de la clocke apres noone, le tierce jour de Septembre.


Vostre humble creatoure et continuelle oratour


Richard Kygneston, deane de Wyndesore.


(Royal and Historical Letters during the reign of Henry IV, I, pp. 155 - 159.)


5          Orthographic ‘deviance’: three genres


In this section I will give examples of three genres where deviance from standard orthography is sometimes found.


5.1         Graffiti


Graffiti, which by definition is a kind of ‘deviant’ practice since it involves using a surface for writing which is not legitimated for the purpose, is a common site of deviant spellings and other types of orthographic innovation.


Figure 3 shows adolescent graffiti from a British setting, showing non-standard and sound-letter correspondences and innovative letter shapes.


[Lisa 2K1 Lüvin Lewis. T. 4eva !!!!!!!!]


Figure 2 shows some graffiti from a wall in a small town in Catalonia, where the Standard Spanish spelling <QU> in QUE (/ke/, ‘what’)has been substituted by <K>[2]. This practice is widespread  in Spanish graffiti and connotes a strongly anti-establishment attitude (see .




Similarly, Romiti (n.d.) reports on a group of graffiti writers in contemporary Rome, collectively known as ‘the writers’ who are influenced by Hip-Hop culture. Their graffiti consists of continually reproducing their signatures, ‘paying enormous attention to aesthetic and formal aspects.’ According to Romiti, ‘they prefer to use letters which are not frequent in Italian (h, w, k, y, j).


5.2         Advertising and marketing


The use of unusual spellings in product names is pervasive – so much so that it is almost expected.

‘unconventional spellings can achieve a variety of sometimes quite subtle effects, contributing to or emphasising the visual, phonological or semantic appeal of the trade name’(Davies 1987: 57). Distinctive spellings are usually confined to product names but sometimes also occur in advertising slogans. They are much less likely to occur in longer passages of advertising text.


5.3         Computer-mediated communication


This is a broad heading. We can find various types of orthographic deviation from the standard, depending to some extent on the medium and the type of addressee. E-mail messages, for example, are much more likely to observe all the normal spelling conventions if they are sent to colleagues within an organisation, rather than to friends within an adolescent network.


On bulletin boards and in chat rooms, deviation from standard orthography may not be merely tolerated but even encouraged. The following example comes from a website devoted to the discussion of the British media phenomenon Ali G (a white comedian who performs an identity which is perceived as either as black or as a person of a different ethnicity pretending to be black). The websites attract postings in imitation of Ali G’s language and rely heavily on orthographic deviations to produce a sense of non-standard speech.



Wot you is on Dave?????

Listen up dave. Da Ali G is da big man. E is wot I is callin' "MR B". So wot I is sayin, is dat if u dont stop talkin out of da punani, den me an my boyz is gonna know where you live, and I is not afraid to tell u dat if u keep on talkin like dat, den you is gonna get ure punani face full of shit. Know what I mean??


6          Medium ‘deviance’: three examples


6.1         Graffiti


Surprising though it seems, at least to me, multilingual graffiti is not uncommon.  . Here are three examples which I have photographed in the course of travelling around:


6.1.1        [Estonian bilingual graffiti]

 Snega is cool graffiti

Here two alphabets are used for the names of the writers – the Latin alphabet and the Cyrillic. The Cyrillic CHEGA [snega] is combined with the English ‘is cool’.


6.1.2        [Latvian bilingual graffiti]


Here the names are joined by the Latvian conjunction un ‘and’ while the second part of the sentence is in English, though the  copula is (which anyway should be are) is spelled using Latvian conventions: iz.

 Elina un Rasa iz best friends

6.1.3        [Chinese bilingual graffiti]


This graffito (carved on a tree in Shamian Dao, Guanzhou, Guangdong, China) makes use of an internationally recognised collocation: I © for ‘I  love’ and uses the normal Chinese characters for ‘you’ and the loved one’s name. ‘I love you Jia’

I love you Jia graffiti

It is surely no coincidence that all this bilingual graffiti mixes English with another language which is local to the writer(s). Thus as well as being evidence that medium mixing is tolerated in these non-legitimated genres, it shows the pervasive influence of English in youth culture. This can also be seen in the orthographic choices made by young Roman graffiti writers (Romiti n.d.) who often incorporate English or English-origin spelling conventions into their graffiti.


In a paper on gangland graffiti by Adams and Winter, they state that ‘In the writing by Hispanic groups, Spanish is present to different degrees and code-switching is common’ (Adams and Winter 1997:344). However, the examples in the text do not actually illustrate this.



6.2         Advertising and marketing


Advertising texts for commercial products do not as a general rule involve medium mixing. However, there are a few examples:


6.2.1        [POM-BEAR]


This product name actually includes French (pommes de terre) and English. The product is a teddy-bear shaped potato waffle.




Aandag special offer


This is a ‘small ad’ from the classified section of an English-medium South African newspaper. Although medium mixing is not a common feature of such advertisements, advertisers often make their adverts more noticeable by including the Afrikaans words aandag ‘attention’ or aanbeveel ‘offered’ as the first word. As these words begin with <aa> the advertisements will be placed near the top of the section, as the order is alphabetical based on the first word.



Finally there is an example of ‘Franglais’ used for humorous effect. While not common, examples of this occur from time to time in English-medium advertising in Britain.


This Coq au Vin lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Wouldn't you like to know quoi?


If vous voulez cook Coq au Vin like les francaises cook Coq au Vin, investez vous in a pack of Knorr Chicken Stock cubes, and follow cette recipe.


It is les Knorr stock cubes that make toute la difference to the flavour of any meal, be it the specialité de votre maison or a simple supper.


The following appeared more recently in various national publications:

6.3         The Internet


There are a number of studies which describe medium mixing in computer-mediated communication, for example Verra 1997 (Greek/English e-mail), Chan 1999 (Chinese/English chat rooms), Sebba 2002 (English/Creole message boards). Other studies have used mixed-medium e-mail as a source of data, e.g. Kibogoya 1995.


The following example is from Verra’s study of e-mail messages sent by first-language speakers of Greek:


 ..I got sunburnt yesterday as it was sunny and me xegelase o bromokairos tous. I got out walking me to kontomaniko mou, kaifisika tsourouflistika ..ha!.. (....I got sunburnt yesterday as it was sunny and / was fooled by their horrible weather, I got out walking with my sleeveless top, and I got burnt of course... ha!) (Verra 1997:40)


Other recent research shows the wide use of second-language user English together with a first, local language on Internet sites used by adolescents (Androutsopoulos 2001(?), Choi 2002.


7          Analysis: ‘regulated spaces’


Elsewhere (Sebba to appear) I have conceptualised the universe of written texts as divided into a set of spaces in which orthographic standardisation is imposed to varying degrees, depending largely on the institution within or for which the text is produced. Different orthographic regimes of regulation hold sway within these spaces. At the present time, for English and probably the majority of languages with long literate traditions, the largest of these spaces is the one we may call fully regulated: where no deviation from the orthographic norms is permitted. At the other extreme, and currently small by comparison, is an unregulated space where standard norms are adhered to only optionally, and alternative norms, or none, are accepted. Table 1 gives an overview of this conceptualisation.


Table 1: Orthographic regimes for different types of writing (Sebba to appear, adapted)








texts for publication

Publishing/journalism etc.

General public


texts for circulation (memos, business letters etc.)


Colleagues /competitors


“school” writing




poetry, ‘literary’ writing


identified readership


personal letters

not institutional



private diaries

not institutional



personal memos (notes, lists)

not institutional



electronic media

(e-mail, chat rooms)

not institutional



fanzines, ‘samizdat’







general public



We may note that this table also gives a fairly accurate indication of where we may and may not find ‘medium deviance’ in written texts, with the proviso of course that this requires a different set of sociolinguistic conditions.


An alternative representation would show the regulatory spaces as a set of concentric circles around a most tightly regulated ‘core’, as below[3]. Historically, the ‘core’ has grown, pushing the unregulated genres to the margins, but recently, the core has contracted a bit again.

 Diagram of 'regulated spaces' as a set of concentric circles




Both with respect to orthography and medium mixing, advertising and marketing occupies a somewhat anomalous position. Although the use of deviant orthography is pervasive in advertising, it is mainly confined to the names of products or to short slogans which are like fixed expressions. Thus while for many people advertising and marketing may be the source of their main exposure to unusual spellings, and occasionally also to medium mixing, it is not clear that it should be treated as a ‘genre’ on the same level as the other categories referred to here. What is clear is that advertising and marketing are in some sense positioned as ‘different’ and ‘free to do their own thing,’ thus escaping the regulatory net.


8         Conclusions


There are some striking similarities in the distribution of non-standard spellings on the one hand, and written medium mixing on the other. The analogy should not be taken too far; there are clearly also some significant differences. However, the similarities we find indicate that a similar process is involved, an ideology of conformity to a ‘standard’, a set of norms which is highly prescriptive both of form and of medium. In each case, we find that the degree of regulation is dependent on how close the particular written genre is to the ‘centre’, the place where language is most highly standardised and controlled. Peripheral or marginal genres – e-mail and graffiti, for example – which escape (to a degree) regulation of orthography also are possible sites for language mixing.


Adams, Karen L. and Anne Winter 1997: Gang graffiti as a discourse genre. Journal of Sociolinguistics 1:337-360

Castilla, Amelia 1997 ‘La letra ‘malkerida’: ‘Okupas’, ‘bakaleros’, ‘vallekanos’ y ‘ákratas’ reivindican la ‘k’.’ Madrid, El País (newspaper), Sunday 16th February 1997.

Chan, Derek H. C. (1999) Code-Switching in Bilingual Chatroom.  M.A. in Language Studies dissertation, Lancaster University.

Davies, Eirlys E. 1987 ‘Eyeplay: On Some Uses Of Nonstandard Spelling’.  Language & Communication, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 47 – 58.

Kibogoya, A. (1995) Kiswahili/English code-switching: some morphological and syntactic aspects. Lancaster University Ph.D. thesis.

Kress, G. 2000. Early Spelling. London, Routledge.

Milroy, James, and Lesley Milroy 1991 Authority in Language. London, Routledge.

Romiti, Sara ? ‘The Mural Writings of the Young in Rome’ Unpublished paper.

Sebba, M.  (to appear) ‘Spelling rebellion’. To appear in Discourse Constructions of Youth Identities, ed. J. Androutsopoulos and A. Georgakopoulou. Amsterdam, Benjamins.)

Strang, Barbara M. H. 1970 A History of English. London, Methuen.

Verra, Maria 1997 ‘Making fun of them in our language’: functional language use in Greek/English bilingual email messages. M.A. in Language Studies dissertation, Lancaster University.



[1]  I do not include cases where e.g. foreign loan words are included on a small scale.

[2] There is another deviation from standard spelling in this graffiti, viz.  falta is spelt <FARTA>.

[3] I am indebted to colleagues in the Centre for Language in Social Life for this suggestion.