Restricted entry: online code-switching and long-distance belonging

This week’s RDM guest blogger, Antonella Gazzardi, takes us on a multilingual journey that started in Orlando’s Epcot center – and eventually found its way to Facebook.

Antonella writes:

I am interested in code-switching practices, their underlying creativity, and how they spill over into social media. I am referring to a way of playing with languages that is shared by a small community of practice I belong to – and Facebook is what allows me to be exposed to it daily. Our community consists of Italian expats who mix Italian and English in a distinctive way, which is very much tied to a specific work environment that we all shared for one year: Epcot’s Italian pavilion food & beverage facilities.

For people who must leave this environment when their visa ends and then scatter around the world, language practices that originally emerged in this face-to face context eventually leak over into social media communication, where it’s possible to reach many people across the globe with one fast, cheap, and simple click. So when a Facebook page was opened to share our memories , it was quickly flooded by comments reminiscing about those days, conveyed, of course, using the particular hybrid language that we have come to identify with our Epcot experience.

The most active participants in the FB group are former employees, who post, comment, and comment on comments, using a jargon that can only be understood if you are … one of us.   This is because some of the unique blends only make sense in that Italian-American working context.  Some of these expressions take on entirely new meanings, which are virtually obscure to outsiders – even if they are bilingual. I’ve been collecting samples of this context-specific language for roughly 8 months, and I have classified them in two major categories.

The first category is word blends and expressions that are context-specific to Orlando/Industry expats. For example, an Italian speaker who is fluent in English may quickly (and correctly) infer that “ciargiare” is an Italianized infinitive for “to charge,” since it has become common for many Italians with some knowledge of English to Italianize technology-related words in exactly the same way. These days, everybody understands “postare”, “taggare”, “hackerare”, or “spammare”, blends that bounce back and forth from offline to online exchanges.  So what exactly  is distinctive about our Facebook posts? This is where I think context, creativity, bilingualism, and code-switching all come into play in a uniquely clever way:

What is a cippettone? What does stampare mean here, if it is not the literal translation of “to print”– which it is not. What is pompa time for bananas? What does push push push and pusha babe! mean when the speaker does not specify what needs to be pushed? And, if one’s “final trip” is not the one to the graveyard, then what is it?

“Cippettone” is a blend of the English word “cheap” and the Italian suffix “-one,” which translates into a “big” whatever noun precedes it. In this case, the augmentative (“-one”) is pejorative in connotation: it refers to a very cheap patron. “Stampare” means to stamp checks, a metaphor for a priori adding gratuities to the bill based on the number of patrons. “Pompa time” is when the “pompatori” (literally, people who inflate) get into action, i.e. servers who are known to regularly make much more money than average ones. So “pompa time” is rush hour, when skilled servers can upsell and turn tables as fast as possible, which is what “push push push” and the blend “pusha babe!” mean. Of course, in so doing they make lots of money, affectively nick-named “bananas”, maybe because of their golden skin. And when their one-year work contract is over, it’s time to use  time left on their visa to travel around the United States before heading home: the “final trip.”

The second group of posts consists of somewhat less context-dependent, but still community-contingent, instances of code-switching used by expats for communicating specific types of information.  These language switches often refer back to a past event, or a memory of the time spent working at Epcot.  Here’s are a few examples from FB:

“Se per quelli che erano all’Alfredo, many years ago, ma ve lo ricordate Charlie, il cameriere brasiliano?”           (For those who worked at Alfredo’s, many years ago, do you remember Charlie, the Brazilian server?)

No way!! Il vino la sua ossessione!”                                    (No way! Wine was his obsession!)

“(…) Family numerosa !”                                                                   (Big family!)

These three comments, like many others, use Italian syntax and vocabulary for the most part, but occasional English phrases or words are dropped in that tie their authors back to this specific bilingual community. Because most of the members of the FB group are Italian, there is no need to use “many years ago”, “no way”, or “family” instead of their Italian counterparts here.

This language use is automatic, it expresses being part of a community, and it reinforces the bond shared by those who have had common experiences in this particular setting. In fact, I have found that this jargon is kept alive across continents by those of us who are former Epcot employees – but when we communicate online about things other than our Epcot experience, we very rarely code-switch.  Therefore, the mixing of codes that I have been studying is both functionally and contextually specific.

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