Slang is the non-standard use of words in a language of a particular social group, and sometimes the creation of new words or importation of words from another language. Slang is a type of sociolect aimed at excluding certain people from the conversation. But that's not all. It develps with ordinary interaction in a subset of ordinary language development. Slang initially functions as encryption, so that the non-initiate cannot understand the conversation, or as a further way to communicate with those who understand it. Slang functions as a way to recognize members of the same group, and to differentiate that group from the society at large. Slang terms are often particular to a certain subculture, such as musicians, skateboarders and drug users. Slang generally implies playful, informal speech. Slang is distinguished from jargon, the technical vocabulary of a particular profession, as jargon is (in theory) not used to exclude non-group members from the conversation, but rather deals with technical peculiarities of a given field which require a specialized vocabulary.
Functions and origins of slang
One use of slang is a simple way of circumventing social taboos. The mainstream language tends to shy away from explicitly evoking certain realities. Slang, and also the informal forms of language, permit one to talk about these realities in a special language stripped of the usual connotations in the normal register. Slang vocabularies are particularly rich in certain domains, such as sexuality, violence, crime and drugs.
There is not just one slang, but many varieties – or dialects – of slang. Different social groups in different times have developed their own slang. The importance of encryption and identity vary among the various slangs.
Slang must constantly renew its process of expression, and specifically its vocabulary, so that those not part of the group will remain unable to understand the slang. The existence of slang dictionaries, of course, cancels the effectiveness of certain words. Numerous slang terms pass into informal mainstream speech, and thence sometimes into mainstream formal speech.
Originally, certain slang designated the speech of people involved in the criminal underworld, hooligans, bandits, criminals, etc. Therefore, their vocabulary carried very vulgar connotations, and was strictly rejected by speakers of "proper" language. Other groups developed their own slangs, in general, groups on the margins of mainstream society who were excluded or rejected by it.
Examples of slang
Historical examples of slang are the thieves' cant used by beggars and the underworld generally in previous centuries: a number of canting dictionaries were published.
A famous current example is Cockney rhyming slang in which, in the simplest case, a given word or phrase is replaced by another word or phrase that rhymes with it. Often the rhyming replacement is abbreviated further, making the expressions even more obscure. A new rhyme may then be introduced for the abbreviation and the process continues. Examples of rhyming slang are apples and pears for stairs and trouble (and strife) for wife. An example of truncation and replacement of rhyming slang is bottle and glass for arse (ass). This was reduced to bottle, for which the new rhyme Aristotle was found; Aristotle was then reduced to Aris for which plaster of Paris became the rhyme. This was then reduced to plaster.
Backwards slang, or Back slang, is a form of slang where words are reversed. English backwards slang tends to reverse words letter by letter while French backwards slang tends to reverse words by syllables. Verlan is a French slang, that uses backwards words, similar in its methods to the cockney back slang. Louchebem is French butcher's slang, similar to Pig Latin.
Nadsat is a form of slang used in the book A Clockwork Orange, which borrows words from Russian and from various types of English slang.
Polari is an interesting mixture of Italian and Cockney back slang (i.e. common words pronounced as if spelled backwards e.g. ecaf for face, which became eek in Polari). Polari was used in London fish markets and the gay subculture in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, becoming more widely known from its use by two camp characters, Julian and Sandy, in Round the Horne, a popular radio show.sd
Procedures for developing slang
A social group may use several different methods to develop its own slang. The most important is lexical: the slang is associated with a particular unique vocabulary. There can also be a modification of syntax, but this is of less importance.
Slang is always known for its vocabulary, but that doesn't mean that it follows the regular syntax, grammar, phonetics, pragmatics, etc. of the standard language. The formation of sentences, pronunciation, intonation, gestures, etc. can be very different from the normal official language, and therefore assist with the differentiation of the slang group. Nevertheless, these elements of slang other than vocabulary are in general not limited to the slang: they are typically elements of more widespread informal or vernacular speech.
The lexical development may be of two types: semantical (modification and play with the sense of words), or formal (creation or modification of words). When the lexical development is formal, it often is a deconstruction of mainstream language: the slang deforms, mixes, destructures, cuts, etc. the words, and breaks the rules. This deconstruction leaves transparent the will of the social group to reject the mainstream society and demarcate itself from it.
- Lexical composition.
- Derivation or resuffixation of existing words with popular suffixes (-ist, -ism, -ic, etc.)
- Apocope : truncation of one or several ending syllables of a word.
Apheresis : truncation of one or several initial syllables of a word.
Doubling of a syllable, possibly before truncation
- Reversal : simply reversing the letters in a word. This is particularly popular in French verlan slang.
Abbreviation : denoting a word by only several of its component letters.
- Assimilation : absorbing words from other languages and incorporating them into the slang vocabulary. Popular in multilingual areas.
This list is inspired by the classification of Marc Sourdot .
Various jargons are also loosely considered to be slang:
- For British slang, see http://www.peevish.co.uk/slang/
- For Internet slang, seeInternet Slang translator and website validator
- For Australian slang, see http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Plains/9740/slang.html (This page appears to be missing from its server)
- For Singaporean slang, try http://www.talkingcock.com/html/lexec.php?op=LexView&lexicon=lexicon
- For some Cockney rhyming slang, see http://www.bio.nrc.ca/cockney/process.html
- For an example of a canting dictionary, which incidentally illustrates the tendency for English to adopt and make respectable words that were originally coined by the criminal classes http://www.holoweb.net/~liam/dict/ .
- For more about Polari, see this page: http://members.aol.com/frij/
- For more American slang, see http://www.urbandictionary.com/
- For Irish Slang, see http://www.at.artslink.co.za/~gerry/irish.htm