Alternation | Occurs when a speaker alternates between two or several styles, registers, forms of speech, or linguistic. Alternation enables to deal with contexts of multiactivity, to take into account several partners, to switch between specific ranges of action.

During her appearance on French television station TF1’s Carré VIIIP in 2011, Afida Turner gave a fellow contestant a specular, bare bones masterclass on how to behave as a pop star on stage. Her frame of reference clearly being the Anglo-Saxon entertainment machine, she punctuated her explanations and feigned gestures with incantatory English-language catch phrases. She alternated. Although difficult to explain with certainty, this alternation can at least be described as a resource for enlivening her simulations, all while asserting a certain skill (at least that of belonging to the category of “international singers”). Alternation refers to this act of shifting from one form of language to another. Means of alternation are as diverse as the actions they help accomplish.

Alternation forms a continuum running from functional distribution between clearly demarcated situations (speaking Russian in the fields, French at the court), to shifts that are more entangled in the conversation itself. A great variety of cases arise from alternation’s porous nature, which opens the process to underlying knowledge, strategies, or even accidents. If we were to unpack: alternating for, with, over, between—these prepositions do not exclude one another, but rather function, in this context, as vectors.

Alternation often takes place within a community (family, coworkers, etc.) that it helps define (alternating with). One can be in the habit (and share this habit with one’s partners) of shifting, seemingly out of the blue, between French, English, and Spanish over the course of dinner. This pliability of alternation needs no justification when it takes place: it is simply how things are done. We can make the hypothesis that such an alternation implies that at least one conversation partner is capable of understanding one or more of these linguistic varieties (see also En grec avec ma mère en italien avec mon père). Alternation would thus play a minimal role here, that of forming a network of presences which would manifest itself through regular forms of validation that participants could pick up by chance (see also Coraggio).

In this sense, it is quite distinct from the learning process, as can be heard in this excerpt from a German class with Michel Thomas. Here, alternation is an end in and of itself: like a step toward bilingualism, alternation expresses itself in attempts and jump-starts, as in this excerpt of an English-speaking teenager trying her hand at different varieties of French in front of her camera. Comments on her failed attempts are made as much in her mother tongue as in the language she is studying. At various levels of mastery, alternation can thus reflect a distinction between tasks, as in this excerpt of a class at the Lycée Français of San Francisco (see also You see the difference?).

Continuing in this didactic vein, alternation can be a planned mode used to explain or comment by insertion. This excerpt shows us how a speaker can deliberately establish a contrasting position between two forms—or in other words, how, rather than giving us two forms alternating in equal ways (alternating between), we can be given one form alternating over another. Another example of this can be found in the scene from Pierrot le Fou in which Raymond Devos sings “Est-ce que vous m’aimez?” The song alternates over his disastrous love story by punctuation, or punctum (in Barthes’ sense of the term—that which pricks us from within the frame), and eventually by saturation. Alternation works partly through affinity in this case (see the entry on Affinity, even if in this case the affinity is built from a speech-music relation and not from a speech-to-speech relation), as the actor relies on a melody played by a piano that he expressly points to, on stage. Finally, in certain situations, one form can almost come to another’s aid (alternating for), as in this interview excerpt (see also I’m sorry that I’m a girl).

Very different things can be found among alternation’s degrees of depth or complexity, whether seen in pragmatic terms, as in this example from Échaudé gâteau petit chou chaud, or in lexical-syntactic terms (see also Like you were talking). When an English speaker, living between Paris and Naples, endeavors to include both Italian and French-speaking participants, the mixing process becomes highly dense and almost reaches an inner conflict, caught as it is between Italian indexicals, French presentative forms, and English pronunciation. One can also hear examples that just barely borrow from another domain, as in this excerpt where English-language forms function as advertising dictates, in the manner of pop-ups or other surreptitious images (not to be confused with certain English-language items that can “belong” to a linguistic variety, as might be the case in Votre dernier mot en français). One can hear an almost coquettish version of Hitchcock illustrate this idea of borrowing when, speaking with film critic André Labarthe, he concludes his explanation of a film passage in French, in the manner of the popular use of the term “voilà.”

In this excerpt of a television show about the stock exchange, the commentator alternates between a hunter’s voice (“hunting around”) and one that is more enamored, more emotionally pronounced. Such an alternation between vocal modes can also be found in this radio show host’s voice, who breaks out into song while presenting the show, as if elliptically avoiding being too longwinded–a song is worth more than a lengthy speech. This process of vocal switching can incidentally overtake the speaker’s control, as in this example of a teenage guest on a television show, or this woman having her senses triggered.

children’s games, one can also hear alternation functioning like polyphony, where a story is told for oneself as well as one’s projected self—a process that sits somewhere between dramaturgical routines and emerging forms of creativity. Not only does the child alternate between voices in this excerpt, she also depicts bodily activities such as walking or opening a door.

As in the last example, alternation can be used to organize and share a complex activity made up of and for multiple semiotic resources (like singing while walking vs. singing and walking). It is common to hear orchestra rehearsals where conductors comment, speak the rhythm, sing, etc.—in short, where participants oscillate between conversational regimes and instrumental ones.

From very regular to (supposedly) completely random forms, alternation is much richer than a simple shift from one form of speech to another, firstly, because the shift can be very pronounced or semi-accidental (dialectic, embraced, or intertwined), and secondly because, for all that we may detect them, we are regularly (daily) taken by, and invited into, these adjustments. Give it a nudge and say hello.


Pour que Spider y passe

Child playing, recording of Camille Gaudou, 2016.

Bola fora

Excerpt from a soccer commentary, 2017.

Om de halve finale af te ronden

Announcement of the program at the Queen-Elisabeth-de-Belgique International Music Competition, 2018.

C’est de l’Éluard

Jean-Marie Royer and Georges Pompidou, excerpt from a press conference, ORTF, 1969.

On entend mi la sol fa

Excerpt from an oboe class, personal recording, 2016. 

Ich hasse diesen Tag

Monologue of a youtuber in her car, 2013

Perché il y a le store

Philip, Vincenzo, Raffaella, Nicolas, recording by Nicolas Rollet, Napoli, 2015.

What do you want ?

Jacques Chirac on an official visit to the streets of Jerusalem, excerpt of the France 2 daily news hour, 1996