Codeswitching, language use, and social distance in Anna Karenina

I can’t believe that I’m coming back to the US next week. Where did the time go? It’s been an absolutely amazing ride living in London, but it will be nice to come back to the land of elevators, bathrooms, car trunks, pants (as external leg garments), and cookies. Since books add to luggage weight, I’m going paperless until I’m back in the USA, and being the utter cheapskate that I am, I’ve decided to get my Dead White Men literary canon fix by plowing through some of the free selections on iBooks; my latest undertaking is Anna Karenina.

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed Anna Karenina; I think it’s not least because of how central language use is as a theme. As was common among the elite of the time, the Russian aristocrats in the world of Anna Karenina are multilingual, often speaking English and French in addition to Russian. The characters frequently switch languages at the drop of a hat, and most interestingly, choose languages from their linguistic repertoires based on what they want to convey to the person whom they are speaking to. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a private encounter between Anna and her lover, Count Vronsky, when Vronsky speaks to Anna in French “to avoid using the stiff Russian plural form, so impossibly frigid between them, and the dangerously intimate singular” (Tolstoy 1877, p. 537).

I talked in my last post about languages expressing politeness and social distance in very different ways; when these expressions don’t exactly align with what needs to be conveyed, multilingual people can draw from their linguistic repertoires to find the best/most expedient way of expressing both the spirit of their message and their relationship with their interlocutor — Vronsky’s interaction with Anna is a great example of the pragmatics of codeswitching.

Like politeness and formality, one of the key things codeswitching hinges on is mutual understanding. Not just knowing the language — what an awkward interaction it would be if Vronsky tried to whisper sweet nothings to Anna in French only to find that she couldn’t understand him — but knowing why the language was chosen. We can safely assume that Anna knows that Vronsky is trying to bridge the gulf of social distance between them, but cannot come too close, and thus uses (I assume) the vous form in French to establish the desired level of intimacy.

I think I found this moment in Anna Karenina particularly interesting because it reminded me of a study I analyzed for one of my classes: in this study by Albakry and Ofori (2011), researchers went to Catholic churches around Accra, Ghana and analyzed the languages clergy and parishioners used — English is the official language of Ghana, but Ghanaians speak a variety of indigenous languages, most notably Ewe, Twi, Fante, and Ga. Albakry and Ofori (2011) observed how Ghanaian churchgoers, like Vronsky, used their linguistic repertoires strategically to establish relationships and social boundaries. At one point, a priest at a church with parishioners of mixed English proficiency delivered an announcement first in English, translated it into Fante, but said a final utterance, “if I forget anyone, please let me know”, only in English — indicating that he was only addressing churchgoers who understood enough English (educated and of a higher socioeconomic status than those who would only speak Fante). Albakry and Ofori (2011) found similar patterns in other interactions at the churches they studied, where people would switch languages to indicate that they were addressing a different group. It’s worlds away from 19th century Russian high society, but the phenomenon is similar: picking languages from a repertoire to indicate social distance or rapport.

Albakry and Ofori (2011) surmise that codeswitching is at least in part motivated by a speaker’s need to reach and relate to different audiences; it’s evident that codeswitching is a carefully calculated communication strategy, whether you’re a Russian count trying to DTR or a Ghanaian priest addressing different linguistic groups at your church.



Albakry, M. and Ofori, D. (2011). Ghanaian English and code-switching in Catholic Churches. World Englishes, 30(4), pp. 515-532.

Tolstoy, L. (1877). Anna Karenina. eBook.


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