LINGUIST List 10.1092

Fri Jul 16 1999

Review: MacSwan: Code Switching

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  1. Cecilia Montes-Alcala, Re: Review

Message 1: Re: Review

Date: Tue, 13 Jul 1999 22:02:37 -0700 (PDT)
From: Cecilia Montes-Alcala <>
Subject: Re: Review

MacSwan, Jeff (1998) "A Minimalist Approach to 
Intrasentential Code Switching", Garland Publishing; 
Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics

Reviewed by Cecilia Montes-Alcala, UCSB.


This dissertation addresses grammatical aspects of 
intrasentential code switching and their relevance to 
education. It is organized in six chapters, the first one 
serving as a general introduction to the field, as well as 
setting the unifying thesis of the work. Chapter 2 reviews 
the relevant literature in bilingualism, code switching, 
syntactic theory, and studies on Nahuatl and Spanish. 
Chapter 3 addresses the research design, and chapter 4 
presents the findings. Chapter 6 deals with educational 
policy and teaching in bilingual education. 

For the purposes of this review, I focus on chapter 5, 
which constitutes the core findings of the dissertation. The 
basic claim is that in the spirit of minimalism nothing 
constrains code switching, apart from the requirements of 
the mixed grammars.

Code Switching on Minimalist Assumptions 

Adopting the Minimalist approach to syntax(Chomsky, 1995), 
MacSwan states that "nothing constrains code switching apart 
from the requirements of the mixed grammars." This would 
entail that we ignore the differences between particular 
languages for the purposes of linguistic theory, and the 
language-specific requirements would be represented in 
morphology (parametric variation.) In minimalist terms, a 
conflict in language-specific requirements is just a 
conflict of lexical features. The computational system 
selects items from one or the other lexicon, or it can 
select items from both lexicons, and then we would have a 
code switching sample. Although much work has been devoted 
to proposing grammatical clashes for code switching, MacSwan 
pursues an explanation in terms of conflicts in the lexical 
requirements, rather than code switching-specific 

The Spanish-Nahuatl Corpus.

 MacSwan applies a number of previous approaches to his 
Spanish-Nahuatl corpus and shows them all to be lacking. 
Among these, Poplack's (1980, 1981) Free Morpheme 
Constraint, and Equivalence Constraint; Joshi's (1985) 
constrain on closed-class items; Di Sciullo, et al.'s (1986) 
anti-government condition; Mahootian's (1993) approach; and 
Belazi, et al.'s (1994) Functional Head Constrain are all 
refuted based on numerous counterexamples found in the 
corpus. MacSwan concludes by stating that all these 
proposals are empirically incorrect, and the analysis 
certainly flawed.

 Language specific differences in functional categories 
explain some properties of code switching: in particular 
constructions with pronouns and agreement morphemes. A 
switch between a Spanish pronoun and a Nahuatl verb may 
occur for third person (which has a null subject agreement 
morpheme in Nahuatl), but not for first or second persons 
(which are not null.) MacSwan arrives at the conclusion that 
Nahuatl NP's must be (usually) arguments. Nahuatl pronouns 
and DP's do not overtly mark case or gender distinction, 
while Spanish pronouns and DP's have morphological marking 
for both. There is thus a mismatch of Nahuatl verbs, which 
have weak features, with Spanish verbs, which have strong 
features. Similarly, there is a gender mismatch: Nahuatl has 
no overt gender marking, while Spanish gender is two-valued. 
As it appears, then, code switches between DP's and 
predicates in languages with like gender systems should be 
allowed, otherwise disallowed. Code switching between a 
Spanish verb and a Nahuatl direct object is disallowed 
unless a Spanish clitic doubles the object. Under the 
analysis presented here, no Spanish subject or object may 
occur in a construction with a Nahuatl verb bearing a 
subject agreement morpheme, and no Nahuatl DP's are allowed 
with Spanish verbs.

 With respect to embedded clauses, Spanish verbs of 
speaking may take a Nahuatl CP complement and vice versa, 
but switched IP complements are always ill-formed. Much 
attention has been given to V-V sequences. The conclusion 
seems to be that languages cannot be switched in V-V 
compounds. MacSwan proposes that this is due to his PF 
Disjunction Theorem, which bars code switching within a PF 

 For durative constructions, a switch between Spanish 
auxiliary (estar) and a Nahuatl durative is allowed only 
when the latter does not have inflectional material. Note 
that Nahuatl does not employ auxiliaries before present 
participles like Spanish (MacSwan assumes a null copula.)

 For negatives, the data shows that a switch between a 
Spanish negation and a Nahuatl verb is unacceptable, but a 
switch between a Nahuatl negation and a Spanish verb is 
allowed. MacSwan explains this by assuming that the Spanish 
no is a clitic (like French ne). Under this assumption, the 
property of Neg would attract V, and therefore the PF 
Disjunction Theorem would bar a switch here, while 
constructions with the Nahuatl negation are allowed because 
it does not attract V.

 Gender features in DP's are also examined. A Nahuatl 
determiner before a Spanish noun is well-formed, but not 
vice versa. Baker (1996) argues that Nahuatl has no "true 
determiners", but these are rather adjuncts to NP, and that 
explains their flexibility regarding word order. Movement of 
N to D is seen in Spanish, but not in Nahuatl. Thus, no 
problem arises if a Spanish N does not check its features 
with a Nahuatl D, but if a Spanish D attracts a Nahuatl N 
the construction will be ill-formed because of a gender 
feature conflict, and a violation of the PF Disjunction 
Theorem. An interesting fact also is that constructions with 
Spanish feminine D's are worse than those with masculine 
D's, because Spanish has masculine gender as the default 
form, and it is more acceptable with the Nahuatl null gender 
system. There are some counterexamples involving the verb 
"have" for which MacSwan gives no explanation.

	MacSwan concludes that all the samples could be 
analyzed in terms of mechanisms independently motivated for 
the analysis of monolingual data and, therefore, code 
switching phenomena can be explained without appealing to ad 
hoc constraints specific to code switching. The underlying 
assumption is that those do not exist, and once again, 
nothing constrains code switching apart from the 
requirements of the mixed grammars.
	MacSwan also considers some conflicting findings in 
other code switching corpora and develops similar 


 The dissertation concludes that there are no code 
switching-specific constraints. The Nahuatl-Spanish data 
presented here has been analyzed in terms of principles 
motivated to explain monolingual data without specific 
reference to the bilingual phenomena. This leads to the 
conclusion that nothing constrains code switching apart from 
the requirements of the mixed grammars. Furthermore, code 
switchers have the same grammatical competence as 
monolinguals for the languages they use, although MacSwan does 
not explain what a "native bilingual code switcher" really is, 
but this has important potential implications for 
educational policies and teaching. 


As we have seen, much of the literature on code 
switching regards this phenomenon as something isolated 
from, or in opposition to, monolingualism. The advance 
proposed in this dissertation is its claim that other theories 
of codeswitching do not account for all the empirical data, 
and moreover, that code switching data can be explained in 
the same terms as monolingual data. Without necessarily 
agreeing with this claim in absolute terms, I must admit 
this statement constitutes a big step towards a better 
understanding of this natural phenomenon, and a good point 
of departure from the social stigma that code switching has 
always carried. The last chapter on educational policy 
offers a new insight in using code switching as a tool for 
learning, rather than as an obstacle for bilingual 
education, which is certainly commendable. I have no objections 
regarding the basic thesis of the dissertation, nor with its 

However, I do have certain minor problems in relation to the 
methodology used in the data. More specifically, regarding 
data collection, we can pose the following questions: is any 
data collected valid to refute the proposed theories? How 
can one distinguish what MacSwan calls a "native bilingual 
code switcher" from a non-native one? 

However, all in all, this book constitutes a rather 
original piece of work which contributes to a better 
understanding of code switching within the framework of the 
Minimalist Program.

The Reviewer:

Cecilia Montes-Alcala is a Ph.D. candidate in the 
Linguistics Program of the Spanish & Portuguese Department 
at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her main 
research interests are Sociolinguistics (bilingualism, 
code-switching) and Applied Linguistics (second language 
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