Реферат: British slang and its classification

Tony Thorne


Slang, style-shifting and sociability


Encounters with what is loosely called ‘slang’ in speech or inprint are ubiquitous. In the UK ‘well-brought-up’ speakers move easily in andout of slang in conversation and the previous reluctance by the print andbroadcast media to admit slang terms has given way to a tendency to embrace andin some cases to celebrate this extremely informal level of lexis. Interest incollecting and analysing slang is keen especially among adolescent learners,but in Britain, as opposed to the US and certain European countries, teachersand academics have hitherto paid it little or no attention. Although there maybe valid reasons for this — it is obvious that the study of non-standardvarieties of language is of little use in teaching communication skills orpreparing for examinations — we should remind ourselves that any disapproval ofslang can only be a social and not a linguistic judgement. Indeed, there aregrounds for seeing slang, diffuse and ill-defined as it is as a category, as aparticularly interesting aspect of language, both formally in that it mobilisesall the morphological and metaphorical possibilities of English (Eble 1996 25-60)- rather as poetry does, but without the dimension of allusiveness andambiguity — and functionally in that it often occurs in association withheightened self-consciousness and charged social interactions. Lexicalinnovation is also, of course, a function of cultural change, notoriouslyraising problems of decoding by ‘non-natives’ (and some natives, too), butworthy of attention for that very reason, especially for working or traineeteachers and translators.

An obvious reason for choosing toconcentrate on slang is that it is itself a controversial and spectacularsocial phenomenon, an ‘exotic’ aspect of an otherwise predictable languageenvironment. An even better reason is that it is a variety which belongs (to avarying degree — of course some young people are quite innocent of non-standardusages) to young people themselves.

The recorded slangs of the past have been quite rightlycharacterised by Halliday in terms of ‘antilanguages’, the secretive codes of transgressiveor deviant subcultures — criminals, beggars, travelling entertainers — withtheir salient features of relexicalisation and overlexicalisation (Halliday1978). Later sociolinguists have focused on the role of adolescent slangs inthe construction of social identity, among for example street gangs or highschool students (Labov 1982, Eckert 1989), showing how acceptance into andexclusion from peer-groups is mediated by slang nomenclature and terminology.

Researchers into adolescent language usage have tended toconcentrate on the links between language and hierarchies, status anddeployment of social capital. More recently, however, some specialists havestarted to look at such ‘carnivalesque’ manifestations as profaning, mischief,banter and teasing, the borrowing of ethnically marked codes to signal empathyand solidarity in ‘crossing’ (Rampton 1995), and anticipated a change ofemphasis in Bernstein’s words ‘from the dominance of adult-imposed andregulated rituals to dominance of rituals generated and regulated by youth’(Bernstein, cited in Rampton 2003). None of these studies has taken slang intoaccount 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 toNorth American campus slang, has shown that the slang of middle-class collegestudents is more complex and less a product of alienation than has been assumedin the past (Eble 1996). Her recordings of interactions reveal, too, that theselective and conscious use of slang itself is only part of a broaderrepertoire of style-shifting in conversation, not primarily to enforceopposition to authority, secretiveness or social discrimination, but often forthe purposes of bonding and ‘sociability’ through playfulness.

Eble’s tally of student slang, collectedat Chapel Hill, North Carolina since 1979, prompted the compiling of a similardatabase at King’s College London. A crude categorisation of the London data (as in the American survey largely donated by students rather than recorded inthe field) by semantic clusters gives a picture of student preoccupations thatcan be compared with the US findings (Thorne 2004 forthcoming). Interpretationis problematical — for example, the large number of terms for intoxication donot prove that London students are necessarily drunkards, but suggest that theydo enjoy talking about excessive behaviour.

Tentative insights from the lexicologyhave been bolstered by analysis of conversations in which slang is usedextensively. This also shows in many cases that speakers are operating not asdeficient or restricted linguists but as empowered actors, not exactly, inClaire Kramsch’s phrase, the ‘heteroglossic narrators’ of recent myth, butenabled to vary their language strategies just as they use assemblage and bricolagein their presentations of self through dress, stance, gesture andaccessorising.

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

If we turn from the mainly monolingual, although multi-ethnicenvironment of the London campus to that of the international learner, thereseem to me to be potential experiential links which suggest themselves in termsof Byram and Zarates’ notion of the intercultural learner (1994) and moreespecially Kramsch’s promotion of the ‘third space’ or ‘third place’, ametaphorical or actual setting in which language learners move beyondappropriation or assimilation and explore the actual boundaries betweenthemselves and others, and begin to focus less on the formal features oflanguage and more on the ludic, aesthetic or affective qualities of encountersacross languages and cultures (Kramsch 1997). It has been proposed that thereare certain boundary activities, including for instance pastiche, re-telling ofstories and code-mixing, etc, that are especially useful in this context. Tothese I would modestly suggest that we could usefully add a number ofslang-based activities.

Of course slang itself has gone global; there are now local hybrids,often incorporating English lexis alongside the pervasive effects of dominantinner-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 ofsubcultures — is complicated by the development in the media and in literatureof pseudo-slangs (a phenomenon that goes back at least as far as RaymondChandler and P.G. Wodehouse). So-called virtual or electronic literaciesdeveloping for the Internet, email or text messaging have generated new slangsand an enormous proliferation of websites designed to celebrate or decode them.

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

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

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

The idea of the adolescent as the masteror mistress of his or her subcultural identity and owner of his or her idiolectand sociolect is not new, nor is the notion of the intercultural learner as abilingual or multilingual actor consciously operating across boundaries. Whatis still lacking, however, are materials which set out the kind of ‘boundaryactivities’ that teachers can draw upon in order to activate third places andempower learners. I have suggested that slang is worthy of the attention oflinguists in its own right, but further that, as an exciting and controversialform of language which belongs to young people and to youth culture, it is avaluable entry-point into discussion of sociocultural issues, whether in amonolingual or multilingual setting. Using or talking about slang is only oneof many experiences which can be mobilised ‘at the boundaries’ in this way, andas a final cri de coeur I would add that whether or not we areinterested in slang per se, the urgent need is for practical, usablemethods and materials — whether developed and exchanged informally or publishedcommercially — which will help the teaching of language-and-culture in theglobal classroom to catch up with and profit from a decade or more of theory.


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

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