Talk That Talk*

Code SwitchingOne of the important skills that sleuths need to develop is the ability to communicate effectively. That seems like a blatantly obvious point to make, but if you think about it, communication is a key part of what sleuths do. They have to communicate with witnesses, suspects, the family of the crime victim, colleagues, superiors and more. The challenge of course is that we all speak differently and many of us speak different languages. So a sleuth who can speak more than one language and switch languages when necessary has a real advantage. In linguistics, moving from one language to another is called code switching, and we see it in crime fiction more than you’d think. I’ll just give you a few examples; I’m quite certain you’ll be able to give me many more than I could suggest.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is multilingual. His first language is Belgian French, but he is also fluent in English. And in several novels that feature Poirot, he code switches as it’s necessary. In Murder on the Orient Express for instance, he is traveling back to London on the famous Orient Express train when he gets caught up in a murder investigation. A fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett has been stabbed and Poirot and M. Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits, have to search among the passengers for the killer. Interestingly (‘though not surprisingly) the passengers speak a number of different languages including English, French, Swedish, German and Italian. So Poirot has to code switch frequently as he interviews them. In the end, it’s what the witnesses tell him and what the evidence shows that helps Poirot figure out the truth. 

In the case of Poirot, he code switches in order to be comprehensible to others. But there are other reasons we might switch codes. One of them is to identify with or express solidarity with one or another group.  We see that in M.J. McGrath’s White Heat. One of McGrath’s protagonists is hunting guide Edie Kiglatuk. She’s half Inuit and for the most part, that’s how she self-identifies. She speaks English and uses that language with people who don’t speak Inuktitut, but she is also a native speaker of Inuktitut, and uses that language too. Edie gets embroiled in a case of multiple murder and greed when one of the men she’s leading on an expedition is shot. At first the police and the council of Elders puts it down as a tragic accident, but Edie isn’t sure of that. She’s even more convinced it was murder when there’s a second death. Throughout this novel we see her code switching as she talks to various people. She finds that skill quite useful when her investigation takes her from her own Ellesmere Island community to Greenland.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee also code switches and quite frequently it’s to express solidarity as much as anything else. A member of the Navajo Nation, he is a native speaker of that language and he self-identifies that way. So when he is investigating cases, he speaks to other members of the Navajo Nation in Navajo. Using Navajo in those situations also makes Navajo-speaking witnesses more comfortable speaking to Chee, so he’s able to learn more from his interviews than would a cop who only spoke American English. At the same time, Chee, like most Native Americans, is a fluent speaker of English. He uses that language when he communicates with non-Navajo witnesses, suspects and colleagues, and it proves very useful of course in novels such as Talking God, where Chee travels off the Reservation.

Travel is also the reason for which Helene Tursten’s Inspector Irene Huss code switches. She is based in Göteborg, so her first language is Swedish. But she code switches when the situation calls for it. For example, in The Torso, Huss makes use of her Danish when a lead on an unknown dead man takes her to Copenhagen. In this case, Huss finds that code switching is very much worth the effort, but effort it can be:


‘It was unbelievably tiring always having to strain to understand Danish…Up to now, she had managed pretty well, but it wasn’t always easy. Especially when people spoke Danish quickly.’


Huss also makes use of her English from time to time. In The Glass Devil for instance, she travels to London to track down a member of a Swedish family that seems to be targeted by a killer. In Huss’ case, it’s a matter of code switching for the purpose of being understood, and it’s interesting to see how she accomplishes it.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney. Keeney is an Australian ex-pat who lives and works in Bangkok. She’s also spent time in France. So besides her native Australian English, Keeney is fluent in Thai and also speaks French. Being able to code switch sometimes turns out to be extremely useful for her. As an example, in The Half Child, Keeney has tracked down a lead in the investigation of an untimely death. Maryanne Delbeck was an Australian volunteer in a Pattaya children’s home when she jumped (or was pushed, or fell) from the roof of the building where she lived. Keeney’s been hired by Maryanne’s father Jim to find out what really happened to his daughter. Her search leads to a bar where she ends up playing pool with some American soldiers, one of whom has important information she needs. For that encounter she uses her English. But shortly thereafter she needs to make a hasty retreat. She escapes to another part of the bar, where some young Thai women are getting ready to do a show. She quickly code switches to Thai, and that allows her to hide herself just long enough to get out of trouble.

There are a lot of other examples too of fictional sleuths who find that code switching can be a very effective tool for solving cases. And as a side note, I think it’s worth mentioning that code switching is (at least in my opinion) best integrated into a novel when the author refers to it without using a lot of words in another language that readers may not understand. In other words, code switching that doesn’t interrupt the pace and flow of the story, or pull the reader out of it.  See now? Don’t you wish you’d paid more attention in your foreign language classes??  😉



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Van Morrison’s Walk and Talk.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Helene Tursten, M.J. McGrath, Tony Hillerman

26 responses to “Talk That Talk*

  1. hokhanh25

    Margot–Code switching is one of the critical skills for success not only in detective fictions but in life in a globalizing world. Language is a system so it stands to figure that Detectives find themselves embedded in new systems-languages-that they must decipher. Poirot hears somebody speaking in an American idiom in Murder On The Orient Express and he realizes she isn’t as she appears.

    • Khanh – You’ve got quite a well-taken point. Each culture has its own language system and with our world becoming more ‘global’ all the time, detectives have to be able to connect with those different systems. And yes, so do the rest of us. I like your example from Murder on the Orient Express, too

  2. In Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers, there’s a long letter in French, produced right at the climactic point of the book, which gives vital information. I’ve never known if this was a myth or not, but there was always a rumour that DLS only put in an English translation at the insistence of her publisher – she thought the kind of people who read her books would of course speak French perfectly…

    • Moira – Oh, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s intriguing isn’t it? And thanks for the reminder of that letter. It’s a terrific example of code switching. Hmmmm… now you’ve got me thinking about whether that was true of DLS…

  3. Very interesting. I wonder if there are any other books where the code switch in itself contains a vital clue? I can’t think of any off-hand, but it is a nice way of twisting a plot.

    • Martin – Thanks. And you’re right; a code switch would be a great plot twist. I know in Murder on the Orient Express there’s a clue at one point where something is said in a language that the person saying it didn’t know. Can’t say more without spoiling the story, but I think you know what I mean. I’ll have to think if there are other examples. ‘Food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  4. Margot: In Canadian crime fiction the ability of sleuths to be speak languages outside our official languages of English and French has involved ethnic communities where the ability to speak the language is integral to pursuing an investigation.

    In Murder in Gutenthal by Armin Wiebe his sleuth, Neil Bergen, would never be able to get his neighbours to talk unless he spoke Flat German.

    Matteesie Kitologitak, especially The Shaman’s Knife, in the short series by Scott Young is far more successful interviewing older people in Sanirarsipaaq because he speaks Inuit.

    More recently, Ava Lee in the series by Ian Hamilton would not be as successful in the world Chinese community without speaking Chinese.

    I may do a post some day on my first court hearing 38 years ago where we needed an interpreter and I did not know until court started we would require someone to translate between Saulteaux and English.

    • Bill – I hope you do that post on that court case. It’s so interesting how the right of witnesses and defendants to interpretation services plays out. It’s not always straightforward. Thanks too for your suggestions. I almost mentioned the Ava Lee series. And The Shaman’s Knife is coming up soon on my TBR. I’m glad that you filled in those gaps. They’re great examples of the way the need to be able to switch codes plays out in crime fiction.

  5. You’re touching on one of my favourite subjects here. Code switching exists (albeit to a lesser extent) even in similar, nearly identical languages, such as British and American English, or French and Quebecois French (there is an example of that in Fred Vargas’ ‘Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand’).
    Most recently, I was entranced by John Burdett’s half-Thai and fully Buddhist cop Sonchai Jitpleecheep, with his fantastic ability to weave in and out of Western and Eastern mindsets and lifestyles.

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, I like Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a terrific character. You’re right that he moves easily among different communities when he investigates. His ability to code switch and his understanding of the different cultures is very helpful to him. He’s really an interesting character. Thanks to for mentioning the Vargas. You wouldn’t think there’d e difficulty switching codes among dialects, but it does involve the same process as does switching codes between languages, and it can be challenging.

  6. And this is an area, sadly, where many US writers will be at a disadvantage, since our language skills are sub-par. After 5 years of French, I still can really only read it (speaking it is tough). But I do love reading about code switches.

    • Elizabeth – You know, a student of mine just wrote an interesting paper about the U.S. approach to foreign language education and what might be done about it. You’re right that a lot of people in the US are not fluent in more than one language. There are all kind of debates about why, but it’s quite true.

  7. It is hard for Americans outside of the southwest to take languages seriously because they so rarely come into contact with them. Whereas Europeans are minutes away from another language.

  8. Brits are the same as Americans on the whole. We just assume everyone else will be able to speak English, so don’t bother to learn other languages properly. Reading Scandinavian crime always amazes me the way they think it quite normal to be able to switch between three or four languages quite easily.

    • FictionFan – I always think it’s good for me to get caught up short and reminded that most people are multilingual. Scandi crime fiction is terrific for that isn’t it? Some other European crime fiction does that well too.

  9. I just finished Dead Before Dying by Deon Meyer. In that book, people are often switching between Afrikaans and English. Very interesting. I know very little about South Africa and I want to learn more.

    I had never heard the term code-switching before. Another thing I learned today.

    • Tracy – Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned Deon Meyer’s work. You’re quite right that he mentions code switching, and in more than one novel too. Did you know South Africa has 11 official languages? True story. Talk about the benefits of multilingualism…

      • That is very interesting, Margot. It did seem that more than just Afrikaans and English were mentioned, but I was getting confused. I want to read his books in order (which he recommends), even though I know I don’t have to.

        • Tracy – Actually I recommend that too. In my opinion, you’ll have a more solid feel for his style and for the stories. You don’t need to as you say, but I think it helps.

  10. kathy d.

    I’ve always found it fascinating that in Donna Leon’s series, that Commissario Guido Brunetti speaks Italian and Venetian, which I gather is a separate language, not just a dialect of Italian. Sometimes he’ll encounter people who speak Italian dialects, depending on the region of origin.
    And Salvo Montalbano speaks Sicilian and encounters people speaking Italian. But I gather it’s controversial about whether Sicilian is an Italian dialect or a separate language.
    A friend who is a Montalbano fan, watched TV episodes on the Italian Rai network. He understands Italian but said the show is in Sicilian, and he couldn’t get all of it.
    And I’m in awe of people who speak one Scandinavian language and can read and understand others because the languages are similar.

    • Kathy – You make such an interesting point about Venetian, Sicilian and Italian. They are different dialects, but they’re different enough that some people think they’re different languages. It’s a bit like some of the different Chinese dialects. I don’t speak Chinese, but some people tell me that Shanghai Chinese is quite different to Mandarin Chinese. Either way, I think you make a good point about both Motalbano and Brunetti and their uses of different dialects. And In Blood From a Stone, Brunetti shows that he can speak English too.

  11. You’re right that the author needs to be careful not to pull the reader out of the story with language shifts. This especially applies to using hard-to-interpret dialect in a novel. I’m most amazed by the writers who have Native American characters and are able to capture the lilt/rhythm of their speech. Colorado’s Sandi Ault is another mystery writer who does this very well.

    • Pat – I really respect writers who can do that too. It’s hard to pull it off without seeming contrived; it really is. I’m not as familiar with Sandi Ault’s work as I wish I were, so thanks for reminding me to remedy that.

  12. Col

    I ought to get back to Chee and Hillerman next year. Meyer, who Tracy mentioned I read fairly recently. I’m pretty sure a few other recent books have the same theme present in the story; usually a transplanted American operating in a foreign climate. J. Sydney Jones with his investigator in Ruin Value working in Nuremberg. Furst and Mission to Paris, with his US/Austrian back in Europe and crossing paths with Germans.

    • Col – I hope you’ll get the chance to read Hillerman again. I think his books are worth a re-read. Interesting that you’ve been reading several books with the code switching theme. Those are good examples too of the kind of thing I mean, where the sleuth finds it useful to be able to manage more than one language.

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