During the summer of 2016, I spent 8 weeks in Mumbai, India interning at a nonprofit. During this time, I was invited to a stand-up comedy open mic by one of my informants. I found that not only did nearly all the comedians at this open mic utilize Hindi in their sets, but many adhered to a particular pattern of code switching. While the main bodies of the jokes were primarily in English and were clearly meant for an English-speaking audience, the punchlines of the jokes were often in Hindi.
As my final paper for a linguistic anthropology course, I was asked to analyze an actual sociolinguistic phenomenon in which "language matters." What is at stake? How do social (e)valuations and materiality overlap?
What I Did:
Analyze my real-world cultural experiences as ethnographic material
Interview cultural insiders
Utilize linguistic anthropology frameworks to uncover insights about the communicative work that language switching does
In order to gather ethnographic material from those with the appropriate cultural context and experience, I conducted interviews with three Indian Columbia students and used this ethnographic material to support my argument. There were several questions that I wanted to answer:
Why are jokes formed in this way? Is the switch a conscious decision on the part of the performer? What effect does the switch have on the listener? What indexical associations do Hindi and English have that may affect the listener’s interpretation of the message?
“English might be like a caress, but Hindi is like a whip.”
Using Peirce’s semiotics and Jakobson’s functions of language to analyze my ethnographic material, I found that the code switch from English to Hindi in many stand-up comedy jokes is an intentional decision that shapes the reception of the joke through the emotive and metalingual functions. There was a common agreement among my interlocutors that Hindi, more so than English, indexes comicality and sarcasm. However, there was less of a consensus on the associations of English, and this disagreement appears to be the result of geographical, and thus sociolinguistic, differences between my informants. Additionally, my research suggested that Hindi speech also functions emotively by indexing access to the interiority of the speaker.
While I was able to scratch the surface of this topic, there is far more inquiry to be done. What is the relationship between colonialism and the use of English? How have class and prestige shaped the comedy industry? I was told by my informants that the Indian comedy industry has changed immensely since I visited Mumbai, including the meteoric rise of comics who speak primarily in Hindi. There appears to be a shift occurring away from the English-speaking urban elite and towards the Hindi-speaking mainstream. I can only anticipate that this burgeoning industry will continue to evolve and present new, interesting sociolinguistic questions in the coming years.