Focus on Language and Society, Essay Example
The relation of slang to society is fascinating and complex: slang often emerges within particular bounded subcultures or peer groups, and yet it can spread throughout mainstream society. Slang is often a semiotic marker of one’s status in a particular in-group: it is used by speakers to self-index, identifying with particular people in particular situations. As such, slang has many in-group functions, inasmuch as it serves as a marker of identity, as a private language, as a means of dissent from mainstream society, and as an outlet for creativity and humor. As with other aspects of culture, the creative word-play of slang can sometimes achieve much broader appeal, particularly in the era of social media: thus, slang terms can become mainstream and widely-used. Fundamentally, all slang is creative word-play, even “word-magic”, but slang terms differ in many ways with respect to their engagement with society: slang can knit in-groups together, serve to indicate aspects of one’s social identity, involve the transgression of bounded semiotic taboos, and in some cases, even achieve widespread appeal and use throughout mainstream society.
A sound definition of slang is that provided by Spolsky (1998), who characterized it as “special kinds of ‘intimate’ or in-group speech” (35). Thus, by definition, slang is not mainstream speech, or at least not at its inception: it is speech that binds together in-groups, functioning as an important semiotic and linguistic marker of membership in the group in question (35). As such, slang serves as a means of reinforcing solidarity, inasmuch as it allows members to communicate with each other using a special shared jargon of their own, demarcating and delineating them from others (35). Inasmuch as it is informal, intimate, in-group speech, slang rejects the power dynamics of non-slang language: formal language, as Spolsky (1998) explained, often carries implicit claims of relative power, and serves as a means of reinforcing social and occupational status claims (35). By contrast, slang rejects all of this: those who use a slang are claiming membership in a group, and they are claiming membership as peers (35). This is why slang is often associated with peer groups and with gangs (35). The intriguing thing is that this phenomenon of slang as a language for peer groups is by no means confined to Western culture: Spolsky gave the example of a secretive men’s society in an aboriginal Australian culture, which has “a secret language in which every word means its opposite” (35). Another example provided by Spolsky is that of Hispanic-American youth in southern Arizona, who developed a secret slang known as Pachuco, which consisted of “idioms translated literally from English to Spanish, which couldn’t be understood by either their Spanish-speaking elders or their English-speaking fellow students” (35-36).
As Reyes (2005) explained, African-Americans have contributed greatly to American English slang, with the result that European-Americans, especially European-American youth, have often adopted African-American-coined words that they find “cool” or “hip”—and in fact, both of those words are good examples (509). This has long been recognized, but the question of whether or not Asian-American youth do the same thing has not drawn nearly as much attention. Reyes studied lower-income Southeast Asian youth, whose socioeconomic status and experiences offered more parallels with that of low-income African-Americans than the mainstream European-American society, and found that in fact, many of them had adopted aspects of African-American youth culture and slang: they participated in hip-hop culture, “wore clothing, accessories, make-up and hair styles popular among African American youth, and many of the male teens practiced breakdancing, graffiti art, spinning records, rapping and R&B singing” (515).
The language that most of these Southeast Asian-American teens spoke appeared to be a particularly fascinating hybrid: a heady mix of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), Mainstream American English (MAE), and their own native home languages, such as Vietnamese, Khmer, and Lao, etc. (Reyes 2005: 515). By comparison, those teens who did not adopt the cultural and linguistic practices, the sociolinguistic attributes, associated with lower income African American youth tended to be those who lived in more middle-class neighborhoods and had more contact with European-American youth than African-American youth (515).
Some good examples of this slang which originated with African-American youth but was then adopted by mostly lower-income Southeast Asian-American youth included aite, a slang form of ‘all right’, and na mean, a slang form of ‘do you know what I mean?’ (Reyes 2005: 515). In some cases, the young people explicitly racialized slang, linking it with sounding more ‘black’: one young woman revealed that she used this racialized slang when she was angry, to sound more “black”, which she indexed in terms of sounding more intimidating (517-518). Although the young woman intended this in admiration, it is still an indication of the unfortunate racialized stereotypes that remain associated with this racialized slang terminology.
Coombs et al. (1993) investigated medical slang, and found a rich potpourri of terms in this subculture (988). As these authors explained, like other subcultures, the medical subculture has produced slang that has gone on to become nearly universal: the acronym DOA, which stands, of course, for Dead On Arrival, originated in the health care context and has since spread (988). These authors found slang terms in the medical setting could be categorized according to setting, actors, social processes, and death and dying (989). Colorful slang terms for medical settings included “Doc in the Box” for a walk-in clinic; “Knife and Gun Club” for emergency room; “Rock Garden” for the ward for chronically ill patients; “Doom Tomb” for the ward for comatose patients, and “Vegetable Patch” for the coma rehabilitation center (989).
Slang words were also coined for patients: a “crock” was a patient with no diagnosable condition, the implication being that the patient was a hypochondriac with imagined symptoms; “Cashew” or “Fruit Loop” for a psychiatric patient; “FOS”, which stands for “Full of Shit—a patient whose symptoms are psychosomatic”, and “Groupie” for a patient “who repeatedly comes to the Emergency Room without a real emergency” (Coombs et al. 1993: 991). Other colorful slang terms included slang terms for medical personnel: “Stud” or “Slave” for a medical student; also “Wedge”, the implication being that the wedge is the most primitive tool; “Dwarf” for a third-year medical student, and “Elf” for a fourth-year medical student (990). Still other terms described working conditions and mentor-trainee relations: “White Cloud” for a quiet night on call, “Black Cloud” for an extraordinarily busy night on call, and “Liver Rounds” for an excursion with coworkers for the purposes of imbibing alcoholic beverages (990).
The terms are all quite colorful and interesting, but the thing that is truly of interest from a sociolinguistic perspective is what to make of it all. Coombs et al. (1993) found that in fact, as with other subcultures and peer groups, etc., slang in the medical community serves a number of well-attested functions: as a marker of in-group, select status; as a sign of a particular, unique identity; as a means of communication that is private and not open to outsiders; as an outlet for “creativity, humor and wit”, and finally, as a way of softening tragedy and venting strong emotions (992-993). It promotes a very great deal of camaraderie, and helps the medical personnel to feel like insiders: this trend begins with medical students, and helps them to feel a certain connection with other physicians (993). As such, they are made to feel included, as actual members of the group: “no longer merely students, but ‘real docs’” (993). Thus, slang promotes in-group solidarity and cohesion (993).
Medical slang also serves as a means of establishing a unique identity, inasmuch as there is a great deal of friendly banter and so-called “’sibling rivalry’” between different medical specialties: slang helps professionals to express this in a relatively low-key, good-natured and humorous manner (Coombs et al. 1993: 994). There are also subversive aspects to some slang terms: for example, an attending physician who acts in a demeaning or condescending manner is a “shark”, the implication being that the physician attacks without provocation (995). This enables medical students to reframe their social world in terms that they find more amenable: in essence, they are recouping something of their wounded or affronted dignity with this word, and others like it (995).
A great deal of the medical slang studied by Coombs et al. (1993) was simply creative and fun, so-called “speech play”: a means for medical students to express aspects of themselves that are more fun-loving and creative, in an environment that might rightly be described as extremely high-pressure, stifling, and authoritarian (995). For example, slang redefinitions of medical terms, such as “a district in Rome” for cesarean section, “to live longer” for dilate, “lower than the day rate” for nitrate, and “a doctor’s cane” for medical staff appeared to be simple exercises in fun and humor, creative and snarky plays on words that helped the medical students to deal with the pressures and rigors of their high-pressure environment (995). Finally, some slang terms were clearly designed to help medical students deal with the stressors, pathologies, and death that surrounded them (995). For example, slang terms for mortuary or burial included “Ready For a Pine Tuxedo”, “TTBS—Toe Tag to Bedside”, and “Dirt Nap”; additional death-related terms included “Coded”, “Reached Ambient Temperature”, “Crumped”, and “Turned In His Lunch Basket” (994).
And yet, many slang terms have become mainstream: slang terms in Elizabethan English such as “hubbub, to bump, and to dwindle” all entered mainstream English thanks to the influence of Shakespeare (Danesi 2010: 509). A much more recent example is the word jazz, which today refers exclusively to a style of music, but originated as a slang term for sexual congress in houses of assignation(509). Slang terms and idioms frequently and repeatedly ‘catch on’ and become mainstream: what may have begun as an in-group, possibly even subversive word becomes, in due time, so commonplace that scarcely anyone even remembers that it was once “edgy” (509). Indeed, this process appears to be accelerating, due to the increasingly pervasive influence of social media, such as the Web 2.0 sites: words that are coined as new and experimental slang now have a better chance than ever before of catching on and becoming entirely mainstream (509).
How, then, to account for this phenomenon in sociolinguistic terms? Danesi (2010) suggested that a focus on slang as solely the province of in-groups versus the mainstream is too narrow and restrictive: instead, slang needs to be understood in a broader sociolinguistic context (507-509). According to Danesi, slang terms begin, fundamentally, as a way for people to creatively explore their social worlds in their own ways, and on their own terms: there is even a certain poetic aesthetic about this process, as language users experiment with new words to describe and thereby (re)order the world around them (509-510). This is especially noticeable with teens, because they are experimenting with expanded autonomy and, speaking from personal experience, often enjoy coining and utilizing the newest and most “hip” language (510). The word jock originated in just such a fashion in the 1950s: it was teenage slang for a physique- and sports-obsessed, extremely athletic young male (510). More precisely, however, a jock “is someone who is in love with his physique and overall muscular and energetic appearance” (510). Thus, the term not only describes a certain personality type, but also effectively satirizes it (510).
In addition to being in-group and often secretive, slang can also be deeply subversive in other ways, to the point of outright dissent: for example, in contemporary American English the use of a variety of words that are considered obscene or vulgar in mainstream language has become relatively common in slang variants (Spolsky 1998: 36). These so-called “four-letter words” are often considered unclean or uncouth, and as such are eschewed by polite society (Danesi 2010: 511). In a sense, this is another example of what Danesi referred to as the “word magic” properties of slang: slang is seen as language with a certain aspect of excitement and special status, language that is not simply ordinary language (511). “Profane” slang terms are precisely this, profane—and as such, using these words can have a certain social importance, as a marker of one’s willingness to flout social taboos (511). In my own experience, the use of these words often indicates a certain level of familiarity: although this varies from speaker to speaker, in many instances I have found that amongst my peers, I use more of these kinds of words in conversation with those I am closer to than not, and vice-versa for them. To my mind and my way of thinking, many of these so-called “four-letter words” have simply become colloquial speech, and as such serve an important function of delimiting the informal, casual sphere of one’s own personal life and associations from the more formal sphere of work and/or school, wherein one is expected to be much more “professional.”
This essay has helped me to realize the true depth of diversity in slang: it is not simply informal or “vulgar” speech, I see now, but fundamentally word-play, exercises in defining and controlling the reality that one confronts. As such, slang serves a number of very important, inter-related functions: as an outlet for humor and creativity, it is a great deal of fun for those who engage in it; as a marker of in-group status, signaling important information about one’s self, it establishes intimacy and closeness, as well as identity with others. And too, slang can also be subversive, in that it rejects taboos: some slang words are considered “obscene”, while others cheekily make fun of particular people or situations.
Coombs, R. H.,et al. 1993 Medical slang and its functions. Social Science of Medicine 36(8): 987-998.
Danesi, M. 2010 The forms and functions of slang. Semiotica182(1-4): 507-517. DOI: 10.1515/semi.2010.069
Reyes, A. 2005 Appropriation of African American slang by Asian American youth. Journal of Sociolinguistics 9(4): 509-522. DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-6441.2005.00304.x
Spolsky, Bernard 1998Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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