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Slang is a language with attitude


Michael Adams has a huge problem with those who wish to crystalise and preserve the ‘purity’ of English. Rules, he says, never work in a language because they belong to the streets, not grammar books. The associate professor of English at the Indiana University, Bloomington, tells TOI Crest that slang is perfectly legit.

Do you believe that a language should be allowed to evolve over time without fretting about preserving conventions?

First, all languages are conventional - meaning is something we have to agree on, for instance - without anyone doing anything. It's just the way language works. Also, languages should be, left alone, "pure" in one sense of the word, unadulterated by the interference of busybodies who think they can regulate grammar or meaning so that they are more logical or more consistent or better grounded historically, etc. Many of the rules we impose on language aren't "preserving" anything. In America, Ulster, and Scotland, speakers have, for a long time, used multiple modals - "I might could go to church this Sunday, " or "You might should come to Mr Foster's wake. " Insisting that a dialect feature like this is "wrong" isn't preserving conventions but reforming language to favour some conventions over others. You can call whisky whisky or you can call it booze. If someone says, "Oh, don't call it booze, because that's slang, " they're overlooking the fact that booze has been in English since the 16th century - slang that old ought to be preserved by the National Trust!

Has social media brought on more radical changes in English than a host of historical events?

My short answer is "No. " In 1860, Charles Carroll Bombaugh published an Essay to Miss Catherine Jay, which ends with the following stanza: "Now fare U well, dear K T J/I trust that U R true/When this UC, then you can say/An S A I O U. " The poem is filled with the sort of abbreviation we now associate with texting, but there's nothing particularly new in what texting does. We have earlier examples of poetry in this style, and the stanza just quoted reminds us that English has long had initialisms like IOU, RSVP, and OK.

But my long answer is "Yes. " There's no doubt that English will adapt to the media in which it's used. Tweets require a lot of meaning packed into few characters, so initialism is handy in that medium, and new forms are likely to pop up at a slightly faster rate than when new media didn't prompt them. Just as newspaper headline had effects on English, new media will have effects of some historical importance, IMHO.

You see slang as an expression of creativity, not as an absence of education. Can you site some usages that impress you?

Slang is language with attitude, and in some measure speakers of slang are dissatisfied with the language they're given. At the same time, slang is a means of consolidating group relationships and sorting out group hierarchies, a means of fitting in, in other words, as well as a means of standing out, of being creative with language in a way that invites attention - the language we're given is often not up to the task of helping us to fit in or stand out, so we innovate, drawing on the poetic resources of language without taking the time to write a poem, which wouldn't be useful, really, in conversation. As the great slang lexicographer, Jonathon Green, has pointed out, a lot of slang is language for things we don't talk about in polite company, so I'll offer a couple of "clean" examples of what sort of slang impresses me.

Since the 1970s, American slang has included a peculiar use of 'much', in short sentences, usually framed as questions, used to modify adjectives and nouns. If you trip on the pavement and your sarcastic friend says, "Walk much?" there's nothing odd about that, but there is something odd, something very nonstandard, if she asks, "Clumsy much?" or "Pavement much?" This 'much', which became popular when it was used to great effect in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003 ), always evaluates : "Jealous much?" or "Self-absorbed much?" or "Pathetic much?" It packs a lot of judgment and a lot of attitude into two words, which, BTW, makes it ideal for photo or video captions on the web, or in texts and tweets. Another sort of slang I admire is blended infixing. Infixing you'll recognise from a form like 'absobloodylutely' but nowadays infixings don't need to be expletive: so, if you do something "accidentally on purpose, " you do it 'accipurpodentally';if you make up new words because the language you've been given dissatisfies you, you engage in lexifabricography. In other words, slang isn't always or only crude, though it's the register of language in which we are poetically licensed to be crude, too.

A hoarding in Hyderabad advertising a picnic to a distant film studio offers a "home back home" facility - as in pick up and drop offered. Are Indianisms like these valid?

Of course they're valid! To paraphrase the late Richard W Bailey, the most humane linguist I've ever known, these are "real speakers of real language in real situations, " not copy editors, pundits, teachers, all of whom nonetheless have their hands in sculpting the language, but mostly in sculpting our attitudes about language.

If someone says it, it's valid. Is it valid in all times and places, for all speakers and situations ? No, of course not, but that's as true of the standard variety of a language as it is for slang. I don't know what political rhetoric is like in India, but you won't get elected to public office in the US with impeccable English!

I suppose anything slangy might, sometime in the future, make it into a school text. But slang isn't meant for school texts;if an item of slang is used seriously in a school text, from that point forward, it can't possibly be slang. But our conversations don't sound like school texts, and there's every reason that they shouldn't.
malini. nair@timesgroup. com

Reader's opinion (1)

Aunque1 Nov 4th, 2012 at 11:11 AM


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