Lexical Cohesion in Multilingual Conversation

Philipp Angermeyer

International Journal of Bilingualism 6 (4), 361-393. (2002).

Studies of the conversational structures of code-switching generally focus on the use of intersentential code-switching as a contextualization cue (Gumperz 1982, Auer 1984, 1998). In this paper, I argue that intra-sentential code-switching can also be explained as related to conversational structure. Based on Halliday's and Hasan's (1976) notion of cohesive tie (as well as Hoey's 1991 model of lexical patterns), I claim that insertions are a consequence of the bilingual speaker's attempt to create coherence between utterances in different languages. By repeating a lexical item from a previous utterance, even if the language of interaction has been changed by an intervening code-switch, a speaker establishes lexical cohesion between the two utterances.

While the use of a synonymous lexical item from the other language would also create lexical cohesion across code-switches, it is important to consider that cohesive ties vary in their effectiveness, as cohesion is not an objective property of the text, but rather depends on the perception and evaluation of the listener. Assuming that the necessary degree of cohesive effectiveness increases with the distance between the two lexemes in question (unlike grammatical cohesion, lexical cohesion can form a tie that spans across a large number of turns), repetition is more reliable than other types of lexical cohesion (synonymy, collocation etc.) because it leaves less room for ambiguity. Also, as Auer (1984) argues, maintenance of language choice has a cohesive effect of its own. Consequently, speakers can be expected to use identical lexical items to establish cohesive ties across the boundaries of code-switching, resulting in the insertion of a lexical item from one language in an utterance that otherwise contains elements from another language.

Interpreting insertions as the result of lexical cohesion helps explain some of the cross-linguistic characteristics of insertion. First of all, since lexical cohesion is basically restricted to open class items, it explains why nouns are the dominant grammatical category in lexical borrowing. Second, as lexical choice is influenced by the context in which a lexical item is used, the model predicts that inserted lexemes are taken from the language that bilinguals speak with monolinguals, and thus explains the direction of insertion and borrowing. Furthermore, it eliminates the need to distinguish between loanwords, nonce-borrowings, or single-item code-switches, as a lexical item is no longer defined in relationship to the lexicon of the language in whose context it occurs, but rather in relationship to the lexical item with which it forms a cohesive tie.


Auer, Peter. 1984. Bilingual Conversation. Amsterdam: J.Benjamins.
Auer, Peter (ed). 1998. Code-switching in conversation: language, interaction and identity. London: Routledge.
Gumperz, John J. 1982. Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Halliday, M.A.K., and Ruqaiya Hasan. 1976. Cohesion in English. English Language Series, No. 9, London: Longman.
Hoey, Michael. 1991. Patterns of Lexis in Text. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

NYUNYU / GSASGSAS / Linguistics / Grad. students/ Philipp Angermeyer

Last modified: 9/26/2001.