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Commutazione di codice | Alternance codique | Code-Switching


Code switching indicates the transition from one language to another during an act of utterance. Originally defined by Weinreich (1953, 73) as a phenomenon depending on changes in the speech situation that would not occur within single utterances, it is now known to occur even within sentences (Muysken 2000, 1). It certainly depends on the multilingual competence of the speaker, and may be triggered by diglottic scenarios, contexts and pragmatic changes.

When dealing with ancient languages that are only attested in written corpora, phenomena of code-switching are fairly rare, but this fact depends on the rigidity of the written medium, on the scholarization of the scribes, on the scarce tendency of substrate features to emerge in the writing in societies in which the textual production was limited to a class of trained professionals.

Cases of alloglottographic heterography should be treated as forms of code-switching only with extreme caution, because, in cases like the cuneiform writing system, they simply belonged to the standard graphemics of the code.

True loanwords present a similar but different problem: our scarce ability to recognize their degree of true integration and adaptation in the target language makes it difficult to establish, in some cases, the code they belonged to based on the linguistic competence of the writer.

Finally, multilingual glosses in a language different from that in which the main text is composed do not represent cases of code-switching, unless the commentator changes the code within a single gloss.


Notwithstanding the difficulties and limitations mentioned in the above section, in a limited number of cases forms of code switching may emerge in epigraphic materials from the Ancient Near East and Anatolia.

While Yakubovich (2020, quoting Waal 2015, 81-83) correctly employs the label code-switching to refer to the Glossenkeilwörter of Hittite, it is in principle impossible to demonstrate that all words marked as unusual by the Hittite scribes by means of the gloss wedge were in fact foreign words: some may have been loanwords.

A case in which the switch between Hittite and Luwian is not limited to single words is, however, present in the Ritual of Pittei (CTH 767.7). In the following passage, the parts in Luwian are in bold:

EME.ḪI.A EME.ḪI.A ku-wa-pí-wa pa-⸢it-te⸣-[ni] ⸢NA4⸣pé-ru-ni :pal-ḫu-na pa-a-i-ue-ni «a-u-⸢e⸣-ni» A-NA NA4ZÚ :du-wa-ar-nu-ma-a[n-zi p]a-a-i-u-e-ni UR.MAḪ GIŠ-ru-an-zi KI.MIN UR.BAR.RA :pa-tal-ḫa-ú-na KI.MIN :zạ-ạm-mạ-an-ti<-in> DUMU.NITA la-la-u-na! KI.MIN


Muysken, P. 2000. Bilingual speech: a typology of code-mixing. Cambridge; Waal, W.J.I. 2015. Hittite Diplomatics: Studies in Ancient Document Format and Record Management. Wiesbaden; Weinreich, U. 1953. Languages in Contact. New York; Yakubovich, I. 2020. Hittite. In: Hasselbach Andee, R., ed., A COMPANION TO ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN LANGUAGES, Hoboken, pp. 221-238.