Code-switching in Monénembo’s ‘Pelourinho’

Following on from a wonderful guest lecture by Dr Diana Cullell in York last week as part of our Seminar Series, where she outlined some of the intricacies of negotiating linguistic identities when translating Catalan poetry, I wanted to continue the theme of sociolinguistics in literary contexts. As such, in this post I will outline some of the arguments I presented last year for a Masters essay on Tierno Monénembo’s (1995) novel Pelourinho.

The novel is set in the Pelourinho district of Salvador, in the Bahia region of Brazil, and it follows the identity quest of an African visitor named Escritore (also known as Africano) from the point of view of two narrators, Innocencio and Leda. These two characters narrate the novel in a mixture of standard and non-standard French, Portuguese, Yoruba, and occasionally English. The substantial use of colonial languages French and Portuguese situate this novel clearly in the category of Europhone literature, which ‘has no language or cultural universe of its own’ and the only way it gains cultural meaning is through the African heritage (wa Thiong’o 2000: 7), by maintaining a dialogue between colonial (Portuguese, French) and heritage (Yoruba) languages.

By joquerollo [2] (Flickr [1]) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Square in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil (used under CC BY 2.0 licence)
The use of many language varieties in this novel is a characteristic of so-called ‘migrant writers’ or ‘hybrid monsters’.  Such writers may feel that they have ‘roots in two cultures’ or more (Jonsson 2012: 217), or that they even possess ‘a third tongue’ which fuses together elements from multiple linguistic roots that have been exchanged cross-culturally, but which maintains its own distinctive form (Nic Craith 2012: 168, 173). Whilst this distinctive form may allow for the author to express their ideas with greater fluidity, it also emphasises the cultural ‘gap’ between the author and the reader, who is distanced or even excluded by the presence of foreignising linguistic elements. The result of this in our example of Pelourinho is a narrative that is simultaneously familiar and foreign to the reader.

Whilst we are used to reading novels in a monolingual format, we must remember than in real life multilingualism is the norm. ‘Migrant writers’ like Monénembo recreate the complex multilingual real world into their fictitious novels with ease, because they can ‘handle a plurality of scripts, orthographies and writing forms that are unequally associated with specific languages, and sometimes overlap’ (Mbodj-Pouye & Van den Avenne 2012: 179). This ‘plurality of scripts’ can also be described as ‘code-switching’ or ‘language mixing’ – the alternation between linguistic varieties within or across clauses (Meyerhoff 2006: 306).

In writing, code-switching or mixing retains a symbolic purpose, rather than aiming to accurately recreate the spoken language (see Sebba 2012). The symbolic importance is key in Europhone literature like Pelourinho because ‘[l]anguage carries the cultural universe of a community and in that universe also resides the entire body of values held by that community’ (wa Thiong’o 2000: 3). This symbolism is important for constructing identities, since code-switching symbolises ‘identities beyond the linguistic fact’ (Auer 2005: 404). In other words, using different codes indexes belonging to particular social groups, whether they be based on heritage, religion, race, or something else. Individuals may choose to use one code to emphasise their belonging to a particular community of practice, and avoid another code to distinguish themselves from another community (Jonsson 2012: 217-218). Thus by code-switching, individuals demonstrate the multiplicity of social identities they own through the symbolic associations of using each code (Auer 2005: 406).

Perhaps some of the best examples of multiplicitous social identities in Pelourinho come from narrator Leda. Leda is presented as trickster-like character with multiple facets to her identity. She does not perceive time in a linear fashion, her skin changes colour, she prays to Exu the trickster deity, and she seems to possess supernatural powers to literally see other times and places despite the fact that she is physically blind. Naturally, the way she uses language is no exception to her character, being fluid and malleable throughout the text, but there is a consistent pattern to which she uses each code:

The main code used by Leda is standard French, though she constantly mixes in other codes. The rare occasions where only standard French is used are the moments in the novel where key plot points are revealed, which lends a sense of clarity to the otherwise confusing narrative.

More informal French appears when she is expressing strong emotions or surprise (‘la garce!’, p35), when she addresses people she feels emotional closeness with (‘ce bordel de cérémonial […] pour foutre le feu […]’, p35), and in nicknames (‘Exu-facécites-de-singe’, p44).

Perhaps the most numerous and obvious examples are those in Portuguese code. This is used for the given names of people and places (‘Nossa Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos’, p33), for direct quotation of others’ speech (‘“Não eu no turisto.” […] “Vôce, Africano?” […] “Si, Africano. Vôce tamben?”’, p37), or to add small details to the descriptions of things she sees which are culturally specific (‘la vieille table de vinaticho’, p47).

Her use of Yoruba indexes her ancestral identity, so she uses it for the names of deities (‘Oxala’, p47), the ancestral homeland (‘Le roi du Dahomey’, p44), and for childhood folklore such as this rhyme:

Éku lai lai
Éku a ti djo
Je salue les gens
Que je n’ai pas vus
Depuis longtemps
Éku lai lai […]                                                                            (pp41, 131)

Whilst Leda’s constant code-switching initially presents a highly disjointed and confusing narrative for the reader to follow, the logical and categorical use of different codes to index different cultural knowledge and social associations actually helps the reader better understand the novel as the narrative progresses.  Code-switching allows for some intangible cultural essence to be communicated to the reader, even if its full semantic content is not immediately accessible.

Code-switching, in this case at least, creates a richer experience for the reader than had the novel been written in one code. Whilst initially this may be off-putting to the reader, who may feel excluded, the moments of clarity provided by passages in plain French allow the reader to feel included once more, rewarded for their efforts as they follow Escritore’s identity quest through a confusing multilingual world.


Monénembo, Tierno 1995. Pelourinho, Éditions du Seuil (Paris).

Auer, Peter 2005. A postscript: code-switching and social identity, in ‘Journal of Pragmatics’, No. 37 (2005): pp403-410.
Jonsson, Carla 2012. Making Silenced Voices Heard, in Sebba, Mahootian & Jonsson 2012: pp212-232.
Mbodj-Pouye, Aïssatou & Cécile Van den Avenne 2012. Vernacular Literacy Practices in Present-day Mali: Combining Ethnography and Textual Analysis to Understand Multilingual Texts, in Sebba, Mahootian & Jonsson 2012: pp170-191.
Meyerhoff, Miriam 2006. Introducing Sociolinguistics, Routledge (London, New York).
Nic Craith, Máiréad 2012. Narratives of place, belonging and language: an intercultural perspective, Palgrave Macmillan (New York).
Sebba, Mark, Shahrzad Mahootian & Carla Jonsson (eds) 2012. Language Mixing and Code-Switching in Writing: Approaches to Mixed-Language Written Discourse, Taylor & Francis (New York, Abingdon).
Sebba, Mark 2012. Writing Switching in British Creole, in Sebba, Mahootian & Jonsson 2012: pp89-105.
wa Thiong’o, Ngugi 2000. Europhonism, Universities, and the Magic Fountain: The Future of African Literature and Scholarship, in ‘Research in African Literatures’ Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring 2000): pp1-11.

Josh is a PhD candiate in French in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Sheffield. He focuses on the historical sociolinguistic landscape of sixteenth-century France. Josh is also a lead organiser for HaCKS and co-convenes a Medieval French Reading Group.

One thought on “Code-switching in Monénembo’s ‘Pelourinho’

  1. ” . . . I wanted to continue the theme of sociolinguistics in literary contexts. As such, . . .”

    You need to use “therefore” or a similar conjunction. To quote the Legal Writing Professors’ Blog,

    “Increasingly, the phrase as such is misused as an all-purpose (but grammatically incorrect) transitional phrase. Such is a pronoun that must have an identifiable antecedent. . . .”


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