Why do people use slang - Universitatea "1 Decembrie 1918"

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Why Do People Use Slang?
Asist. univ. Gabriel BĂRBULEŢ
Universitatea ,,1 Decembrie 1918” Alba Iulia
The present paper deals with the question why people use slang. Because most people are
individuals who desire uniqueness, it stands to reason that slang has been in existence for as long
as language has been in existence. Even so, the question of why slang develops within a language
has been hotly debated. Most agree that the question is still unanswered, or perhaps it has many
answers. Regardless, there is no doubt that we can better explain slang's existence by analyzing
how and why it exists.
1. Introduction
A living language such as English is a dynamic flow of spoken and written terms, eternally
evolving. Each time a new person is born into a language, each time a person who speaks that
language dies, the language becomes something different. Whenever people use the language they
cause it to flow in and around itself, creating new meanings, new ways to express, new ways to
think about that very language.
Non Standard English reflects that process of language becoming. This "English" is really a
collection of "English's" comprised of dialects, slang, technical jargon and slogans we learn from
TV, movies and politicians. There are rules of grammar found in each of them, some of those rules
are common to all, many of them are different. Whether you are a hip teenager growing up in
Harlem or a cultured patriarch of the Deep South or a Louisiana native singing some Zydeco blues,
there are rules, certain grammatical structures unique to each way of speaking English. These rules
are there, but they are not the rules spoken of in grammar books or in handbooks or in manuals of
style.
Grammar books commonly describe one of the many dialects spoken in America, "Standard
English." When people use terms such as "good" grammar; or when they describe a different dialect
as "bad" English, they usually mean good or bad (correct or incorrect) in "Standard English". In any
of the forms of English "good" or "bad," however, is more a quality of whether or not your words
convey the meaning you intend, rather than any particular combination of the language. There is
nothing "naughty" about the word "ain't." But, as there are times when "ain't" carries meaning better
than any other word, there are also times when "ain't" will get in the way of good communication.
2. What is slang?
Slang is the informal style of language that everyone uses on some occasions, but it is not
easy to define the word itself. As discussed in Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia, slang can be
described as informal, nonstandard words or phrases (lexical innovations) which tend to originate in
subcultures within a society. Slang often suggests that the person utilizing the words or phrases is
familiar with the hearer's group or subgroup--it can be considered a distinguishing factor of ingroup identity. Microsoft Encarta states: "slang expressions often embody attitudes and values
of group members." In order for an expression to become slang, it must be widely accepted and
adopted by members of the subculture or group. Slang has no societal boundaries or limitations as
it can exist in all cultures and classes of society as well as in all languages.
Slang expressions are created in basically the same way as standard speech. As stated in
Microsoft Encarta, "expressions may take form as metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech."
In addition, it is noted that the words used as slang may be new coinages, existing words may
acquire new meanings, narrow meanings of words may become generalized, words may be
abbreviated, etc. However, in order for the expression to survive, it must be widely adopted by the
group who uses it. Slang is a way in which languages change and are renewed. Slang develops
from the attempt to find fresh and vigorous, colorful, pungent or humorous expressions and
generally either passes into disguise or comes to have a more formal status.
In other words, “slang is the highly colloquial language consisting of either new or
established words which are used imaginatively to secure a vivid or comic effect (Claiborne,
1983:65).
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, sixth edition, slang is vernacular vocabulary not
generally acceptable in formal usage. It is notable for its liveliness, humor, emphasis, brevity,
novelty, and exaggeration. Most slang is faddish and ephemeral, but some words are retained for
long periods and eventually become part of the standard language (e.g., phony, blizzard, movie).
On the scale used to indicate a word’s status in the language, slang ranks third behind standard
and colloquial (or informal) and before cant. Slang often conveys an acerbic, even offensive, nononsense attitude and lends itself to poking fun at pretentiousness. Frequently grotesque and
fantastic, it is usually spoken with intent to produce a startling or original effect. It is especially
well developed in the speaking vocabularies of cultured, sophisticated, linguistically rich
languages. Characteristically individual, slang often incorporates elements of the jargons of
special-interest groups (e.g., professional, sport, regional, criminal, and drug subcultures). Slang
words often come from foreign languages or are of a regional nature. Slang is very old, and the
reasons for its development have been much investigated. (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth
Edition. 2001)
Slang is usually metaphorical in that it substitutes a colorful image for the standard word
(for example, "chew the fat" for "idly talk"). Slang begins as the talk of the insiders, people who
share a common experience or attitude, and sometimes spreads to the general vocabulary. The new
coinage "wetback" in American English describes a Mexican agricultural worker who enters the
United States illegally by swimming across the Rio Grande. The old word "flop," which once meant
"to flap around loosely," was first applied to a sudden change in political policy, and then it
substituted for "bed" and later for "failure".
Slang usually has a short life, because it is invented to fit a particular situation at a given
moment. Such words as "wetback" and "flop", since they are descriptive of events or actions for
which the standard language or precise words seem inadequate, tend to remain in the colloquial
language and to be admitted into dictionaries.
3. Why Do People Use Slang
Because most people are individuals who desire uniqueness, it stands to reason that slang
has been in existence for as long as language has been in existence. Even so, the question of why
slang develops within a language has been hotly debated. Most agree that the question is still
unanswered, or perhaps it has many answers. Regardless, there is no doubt that we can better
explain slang's existence by analyzing how and why it exists.
Foreign words are a common resource for the development of slang, as are regional
variations of standard words. David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English
Language, calls the introduction of foreign words into a language "borrowings." Likewise, slang
may incorporate "elements of the jargons of special-interest groups (e.g., professional, sport,
regional, criminal, and drug subcultures)." The Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that
"Slang is lexical innovation within a particular cultural context." (Lighter:Historical Dictionary of
American Slang, 1994:431). Sometimes these foreign words and regional variations become part of
the standard language. The Columbia Encyclopedia notes that slang is often "well developed in the
speaking vocabularies of cultured, sophisticated, linguistically rich languages." (The Columbia
Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001)
Whereas slang was once considered as the lowest form of communication, many now
consider slang to be an intelligent and insightful variation to the blandness of the standard
language. Gerald Parshall, in a 1994 article for U.S. News & World Report, describes this as
"proletarian poetry."(Parshall: U.S. News & World Report:61). The Oxford English Dictionary
points out that George Eliot's character in Middlemarch, written in 1871, says that "Correct English
is the slang of prigs who write history and essays." (The Oxford English Dictionary:1989) For
some, it is enough that Shakespeare often used slang.
Others, however, condemn the use of slang, believing that it undermines the standard
language and reflects poorly upon its users. Parshall notes that Ambrose Bierce, in his dictionary,
called slang "the grunt of the human hog." Even The Oxford English Dictionary's 1989 edition
defines slang as "the special vocabulary used by any set of persons of a low or disreputable
character; language of a low and vulgar type." (The Oxford English Dictionary's 1989) In fact, both
Crystal and The Historical Dictionary of American Slang point out that Samuel Johnson and
Jonathan Swift produced the very first dictionaries partly out of great concern for the corruption of
the standard English language.
Whatever the reason(s), slang is here to stay, and its longevity demands attention and
explication. Below is an excerpt from David Crystal's book. Crystal cites examples from Eric
Partridge's Slang, Today and Yesterday to illustrate the many uses of slang. Of Partridge's "fifteen
important impulses behind the use of slang," Crystal notes that he considers numbers 13 and 14 to
be the most significant:
"According to the British lexicographer, Eric Partridge (1894-1979), people use slang for
any of at least 15 reasons:
1. In sheer high spirits, by the young in heart as well as by the young in years; 'just for the
fun of the thing'; in playfulness or waggishness.
2. As an exercise either in wit and ingenuity or in humour. (The motive behind this is
usually self-display or snobbishness, emulation or responsiveness, delight in virtuosity).
3. To be 'different', to be novel.
4. To be picturesque (either positively or - as in the wish to avoid insipidity - negatively).
5. To be unmistakeably arresting, even startling.
6. To escape from clichés, or to be brief and concise. (Actuated by impatience with existing
terms.)
7. To enrich the language. (This deliberateness is rare save among the well-educated,
Cockneys forming the most notable exception; it is literary rather than spontaneous.)
8. To lend an air of solidity, concreteness, to the abstract; of earthiness to the idealistic; of
immediacy and appositeness to the remote. (In the cultured the effort is usually
premeditated, while in the uncultured it is almost always unconscious when it is not rather
subconscious.)
9a. To lesson the sting of, or on the other hand to give additional point to, a refusal, a
rejection, a recantation;
9b. To reduce, perhaps also to disperse, the solemnity, the pomposity, the excessive
seriousness of a conversation (or of a piece of writing);
9c. To soften the tragedy, to lighten or to 'prettify' the inevitability of death or madness, or
to mask the ugliness or the pity of profound turpitude (e.g. treachery, ingratitude); and/or
thus to enable the speaker or his auditor or both to endure, to 'carry on'.
10. To speak or write down to an inferior, or to amuse a superior public; or merely to be on
a colloquial level with either one's audience or one's subject matter.
11. For ease of social intercourse. (Not to be confused or merged with the preceding.)
12. To induce either friendliness or intimacy of a deep or a durable kind. (Same remark.)
13. To show that one belongs to a certain school, trade, or profession, artistic or
intellectual set, or social class; in brief, to be 'in the swim' or to establish contact.
14. Hence, to show or prove that someone is not 'in the swim'.
15. To be secret - not understood by those around one. (Children, students, lovers,
members of political secret societies, and criminals in or out of prison, innocent persons in
prison, are the chief exponents.) (Partridge,1970: Slang: Today and Yesterday, 1970, Ch.
2.)
Bibliography:
Claiborne, Robert (1983) Our Marvelous Native Tongue, Times Books, New York.
The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (2001) at www. Bartleby.com / 65 / la /language.html
Lighter, Jonathan E., ed. (1994) Historical Dictionary of American Slang. New York: Random
House, Inc.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® 97 Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation, 1993-1996 "Slang."
Parshall, Gerald (1994) U.S. News & World Report, 06/27/94, v116:n25.
Partridge, E. (1970) Slang To-Day and Yesterday. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.
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