British slang and its classification

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Tony Thorne

Slang, style-shifting and sociability

Encounters with what is loosely called ‘slang’ in speech or in print are
ubiquitous. In the UK ‘well-brought-up’ speakers move easily in and out
of slang in conversation and the previous reluctance by the print and
broadcast media to admit slang terms has given way to a tendency to
embrace and in some cases to celebrate this extremely informal level of
lexis. Interest in collecting and analysing slang is keen especially
among adolescent learners, but in Britain, as opposed to the US and
certain European countries, teachers and academics have hitherto paid it
little or no attention. Although there may be valid reasons for this –
it is obvious that the study of non-standard varieties of language is of
little use in teaching communication skills or preparing for
examinations – we should remind ourselves that any disapproval of slang
can only be a social and not a linguistic judgement. Indeed, there are
grounds for seeing slang, diffuse and ill-defined as it is as a
category, as a particularly interesting aspect of language, both
formally in that it mobilises all the morphological and metaphorical
possibilities of English (Eble 1996 25-60) – rather as poetry does, but
without the dimension of allusiveness and ambiguity – and functionally
in that it often occurs in association with heightened
self-consciousness and charged social interactions. Lexical innovation
is also, of course, a function of cultural change, notoriously raising
problems of decoding by ‘non-natives’ (and some natives, too), but
worthy of attention for that very reason, especially for working or
trainee teachers and translators.

An obvious reason for choosing to concentrate on slang is that it is
itself a controversial and spectacular social phenomenon, an ‘exotic’
aspect of an otherwise predictable language environment. An even better
reason is that it is a variety which belongs (to a varying degree – of
course some young people are quite innocent of non-standard usages) to
young people themselves.

The recorded slangs of the past have been quite rightly characterised by
Halliday in terms of ‘antilanguages’, the secretive codes of
transgressive or deviant subcultures – criminals, beggars, travelling
entertainers – with their salient features of relexicalisation and
overlexicalisation (Halliday 1978). Later sociolinguists have focused on
the role of adolescent slangs in the construction of social identity,
among for example street gangs or high school students (Labov 1982,
Eckert 1989), showing how acceptance into and exclusion from peer-groups
is mediated by slang nomenclature and terminology.

Researchers into adolescent language usage have tended to concentrate on
the links between language and hierarchies, status and deployment of
social capital. More recently, however, some specialists have started to
look at such ‘carnivalesque’ manifestations as profaning, mischief,
banter and teasing, the borrowing of ethnically marked codes to signal
empathy and solidarity in ‘crossing’ (Rampton 1995), and anticipated a
change of emphasis in Bernstein’s words ‘from the dominance of
adult-imposed and regulated rituals to dominance of rituals generated
and regulated by youth’ (Bernstein, cited in Rampton 2003). None of
these studies has taken slang into account although there has been a
plea, again by Rampton, for more attention to ‘the social symbolic
aspects of formulaic language’.

Eble, in the only book-length study in recent times devoted to North
American campus slang, has shown that the slang of middle-class college
students is more complex and less a product of alienation than has been
assumed in the past (Eble 1996). Her recordings of interactions reveal,
too, that the selective and conscious use of slang itself is only part
of a broader repertoire of style-shifting in conversation, not primarily
to enforce opposition to authority, secretiveness or social
discrimination, but often for the purposes of bonding and ‘sociability’
through playfulness.

Eble’s tally of student slang, collected at Chapel Hill, North Carolina
since 1979, prompted the compiling of a similar database at King’s
College London. A crude categorisation of the London data (as in the
American survey largely donated by students rather than recorded in the
field) by semantic clusters gives a picture of student preoccupations
that can be compared with the US findings (Thorne 2004 forthcoming).
Interpretation is problematical – for example, the large number of terms
for intoxication do not prove that London students are necessarily
drunkards, but suggest that they do enjoy talking about excessive

Tentative insights from the lexicology have been bolstered by analysis
of conversations in which slang is used extensively. This also shows in
many cases that speakers are operating not as deficient or restricted
linguists but as empowered actors, not exactly, in Claire Kramsch’s
phrase, the ‘heteroglossic narrators’ of recent myth, but enabled to
vary their language strategies just as they use assemblage and bricolage
in their presentations of self through dress, stance, gesture and

By bringing the study of slang into the classroom and helping students
to reflect upon their own language practices – especially on how they
are potentially or actually able to style-shift and thereby play with
identities – we can sensitise them to issues of register, appropriacy
and semantic complexity. At a deeper level we can explore together what
Bhabha calls the ‘social process of enunciation’ (Bhabha 1992, cited in
Kramsch 1997) and bring into play students’ values, feelings and

If we turn from the mainly monolingual, although multi-ethnic
environment of the London campus to that of the international learner,
there seem to me to be potential experiential links which suggest
themselves in terms of Byram and Zarates’ notion of the intercultural
learner (1994) and more especially Kramsch’s promotion of the ‘third
space’ or ‘third place’, a metaphorical or actual setting in which
language learners move beyond appropriation or assimilation and explore
the actual boundaries between themselves and others, and begin to focus
less on the formal features of language and more on the ludic, aesthetic
or affective qualities of encounters across languages and cultures
(Kramsch 1997). It has been proposed that there are certain boundary
activities, including for instance pastiche, re-telling of stories and
code-mixing, etc, that are especially useful in this context. To these I
would modestly suggest that we could usefully add a number of
slang-based activities.

Of course slang itself has gone global; there are now local hybrids,
often incorporating English lexis alongside the pervasive effects of
dominant inner-circle varieties such as the high school argot propagated
by Hollywood movies and TV soaps, and the black street codes of rap and
hip-hop. Authenticity – not just a concept among analysts but an
emblematic term for members of subcultures – is complicated by the
development in the media and in literature of pseudo-slangs (a
phenomenon that goes back at least as far as Raymond Chandler and P.G.
Wodehouse). So-called virtual or electronic literacies developing for
the Internet, email or text messaging have generated new slangs and an
enormous proliferation of websites designed to celebrate or decode them.

Looking at young peoples’ small-culture codes, whether these be
wide-ranging alternative lexicons or the narrower hobbyist
(surfboarding, DJ-ing) or media-influenced (pop music and fashion) or
technological (email, text-messaging, internet) vocabularies that shade
into jargon, revalues young people as expert linguists and their own
experiences as worthwhile and meaningful. In nearly all cultures there
are examples of this expertise, sometimes also involving catchphrases,
media quotes, one-liners, jokes and puns. Language crossing is also a
feature of many slangs, bringing into play the question of linguistic
imperialism (I recall lessons looking at Franglais, Chinglish and
Spanglish, and, in Slovenia, debating the borrowing of ‘cool’.)

Published materials presenting English slang to international students
have generally been limited to glossaries; a recent exception being the
listening material prepared by Beglar and Murray (2002). Expertise in
slang incidentally is not a requirement of the teacher: definitions,
usage guidance and even etymologies can be provided by reference
materials or come from students themselves. In the classroom I have used
componential and cultural analysis of slang keywords, comparison and
contrast of slang vocabularies from various languages and regions,
critical reading of slang in the media and literature and scripting of
slang-rich interactions. Outside the classroom, students have carried
out surveys and ethnographies to observe slang usage and uncover
attitudes to it held by different speech communities.

Halliday suggested that ‘a study of sociolinguistic pathology may lead
to additional insight into the social semiotic’ (Halliday 1978). I
should emphasise that focusing in this way on stigmatised or taboo
language, if it is culturally permissible at all, does not, in my
experience, restrict learners’ ability to operate with privileged
varieties (whether ‘British English’ or EIL); it does not, as some fear,
subvert standard usage or devalue it in the eyes of young people but
rather the opposite. It helps language users to objectify the way that
spoken varieties can be fitted to contexts and enriches their sense of
the possibilities of lexical variety.

The idea of the adolescent as the master or mistress of his or her
subcultural identity and owner of his or her idiolect and sociolect is
not new, nor is the notion of the intercultural learner as a bilingual
or multilingual actor consciously operating across boundaries. What is
still lacking, however, are materials which set out the kind of
‘boundary activities’ that teachers can draw upon in order to activate
third places and empower learners. I have suggested that slang is worthy
of the attention of linguists in its own right, but further that, as an
exciting and controversial form of language which belongs to young
people and to youth culture, it is a valuable entry-point into
discussion of sociocultural issues, whether in a monolingual or
multilingual setting. Using or talking about slang is only one of many
experiences which can be mobilised ‘at the boundaries’ in this way, and
as a final cri de coeur I would add that whether or not we are
interested in slang per se, the urgent need is for practical, usable
methods and materials – whether developed and exchanged informally or
published commercially – which will help the teaching of
language-and-culture in the global classroom to catch up with and profit
from a decade or more of theory.


Andersson, L. G. and P. Trudgill. Bad Language. London: Penguin

Beglar, D. and N. Murray. Contemporary Topics 3. New York: Longman,

Crystal, D. Language Play. London: Penguin Books,1998.

Dumas, B.and J. Lighter. “Is slang a word for linguists?” American
Speech 53 (1978). 5 – 17

Eble, C. Slang and Sociability. London and Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1996.

Eckert, P. Jocks and Burnouts: Social Categories and Identity in High
School.New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1989.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978), Language as Social Semiotic: The Social
Interpretation of Language and Meaning, London: Edward Arnold.

Kramsch, C. (1997), ‘The cultural component of language teaching’ in
Wadham-Smith (ed) British Studies Now 8, London: British Council

Labov, T. (1982), ‘Social structure and peer terminology in a black
adolescent gang’, in Language and Society 2, 391 – 411

Rampton, B (1995), Crossing: Language and Ethnicity among Adolescents,
Harlow and New York: Longman

Rodriguez Gonzalez, F. (ed) (2002), Comunicacion y cultura juvenil,
Barcelona: Ariel

—————————(2002), El lenguaje de los jovenes,
Barcelona: Ariel

Sornig, Karl (1981), Lexical Innovation: A Study of Slang,
Colloquialisms and Casual Speech, Amsterdam: Benjamins

Thorne, T. (1998), The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (New Edition),
London: Bloomsbury.

———————-(2004 forthcoming) ‘Campus talk’, in King’s
English Vol 1.2, King’s College London

Wierzbicka, A. (1997), Understanding Cultures through their Key Words,
Oxford: Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in Multicultural Perspectives on English
Language and Literature (Tallinn/London 2004)

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