From slang to slanguage: a description based on teenage talk
In a brief article in The Mirror issued 18 July 1997 and headed ‘Mind your slanguage. Kids reveal their new lingo’, the reporter Jo Butler comments on the latest slang words in English teen-speak. He quotes words such as bonkers, (‘fun’), chonged (‘tired’), eggy (‘stressed’), sconned (‘drunk’), snash (‘cash’) and skank (‘horrible’), which result from a survey of the language of 800 boys and girls aged between 11 and 18 made by the book sellers Dillons and Oxford Dictionaries. What I find particularly interesting, although not entirely unexpected, is that none of the slang words mentioned in the article, except bonkers, occur (at least not as slang words) in a corpus of London teenage speech compiled only four years earlier. What this points to very clearly is the tendency for new slang words to crop up at any time and at very short intervals, especially in teenage language and especially teenage language in metropolitan centres.
In this paper, I will discuss the question of ‘What is slang?’ from the point of view of teenage language, notably as it emerges in The Bergen Corpus of London Teenage Language (COLT)[i]. COLT is a half-a-million-word corpus, compiled in 1993. It consists of surreptitiously recorded spontaneous conversations involving 13 to 17 year-old boys and girls with various social backgrounds and from different school districts in London. The conversations were recorded by the students themselves, so-called recruits, equipped with a small Sony walkman and a lapel microphone, and take place in a variety of settings, most of which are connected with school (eg classroom, school playground, common room, study) or home (eg TV lounge, the street outside).
Words and expressions have been identified as slang if they are identified as such in The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992) and Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1987). With reference to The Oxford English Dictionary (OED 1989, vol xV: 651), the lexicographers Ayoto & Simpson, who compiled the former dictionary, state that slang includes the vocabulary of ‘the underworld’ (street gangs, drug-trafficking) as well as the specific vocabulary of ‘a particular calling or profession’ and colloquial language ‘below the level of standard educated speech’, consisting of ‘new words or of current words employed in some new special sense.’ (1992: V). According to the former dictionary, slang is
very informal language that includes new and sometimes
not polite words and meanings, is often used among
particular groups of people and is usu. not used in serious
speech or writing.’ (1987: 987).
As everybody is aware, teenage language differs a great deal from adult language and, as this paper will demonstrate, it is not easy to draw the line between ‘pure slang’ and ‘slangy language’.
2 What has been said about slang in general
Slang is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, the range of words and expressions regarded as slang varies in the literature. Opinions differ not only with regard to the definition of the concept of slang but also as regards the etymology of the word slang.
2.1 The word slang
The origin of the word slang is regarded as ‘uncertain’ or ‘unknown’ by most linguists and lexicographers. One notable exception is Skeat, the lexicographer behind A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (1965: 490), who claims that slang (‘vulgar language’) is of Scandinavian origin and a derivation of Icelandic slyngva (‘to sling’), which can be compared with the Norwegian verb slengja (‘to sling the jaw’) and the Norwegian noun slengjeord (‘slang word’), used for insulting words. In a similar vein, Partridge (1970: 2), referred to by Eble (1996:11) in her book Slang and sociability; in-group language among college students, says that certain resemblances between the English word slang and the Scandinavian sling suggest that the words have developed from a common Germanic root.
In contrast, one of the Swedish dictionaries consulted, Bonniers Stora Lexikon, maintains that the Swedish word slang comes from English slang, and that the origin is not known (1989, vol 12: 91). The same opinion is advanced in the recently published Swedish encyclopedia Nationalencyklopedin (1996, vol 16: 614), which states that the word slang was not introduced in the Nordic countries until the middle of the 19th century. As far as English is concerned, the first occurrence of the word slang is dated 1756 in the OED, according to which its ultimate source is ‘not apparent’ (1989, vol. X: 651).
Thus, according to the later sources the origin of the word slang is still wrapped in obscurity.
2.2 The concept of slang
The meaning of the concept of ‘slang’ and what it includes was much clearer in the old days. Originally, it was ‘used by British criminals to refer to their own special language’ (Andersson & Trudgill (1990: 77). Later ‘the idea of slang gradually evolved to denote other subcultural speech, both high and low’ (Allen 1998: 878), whereas, today, there is no clear-cut definition of slang to be found either in dictionaries, encyclopedias or the literature.
Among the more expressive and colourful descriptions of slang is that of Ayoto & Sampson (1992: V) in The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, who characterize English slang as ‘English with its sleeves rolled up, its shirt-tails dangling, and its shoes covered in mud.’. Allen (1998: 879), in the Concise Encyclopedia of Pragmatics, points to the uncertain existence of slang, describing it as ‘vocabulary in limbo … awaiting acceptance or rejection by standard usage.’, while Eble (1996: 11) stresses the social aspect:
Slang is an ever changing set of colloquial words and
phrases that speakers use to establish or reinforce social
identity or cohesiveness within a group or with a trend or
fashion in society at large.
Some linguists and lexicographers give a rather sweeping definition. In the Swedish Nationalencyklopedin, for instance, slang is said to vary from casual to vulgar, but that the distinction cannot be specified, since it is all a matter of attitude (1996 Vol 16: 614). Similarly, Quirk et al (1985: 27), in A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, mention ‘slang’ under the heading ‘Varieties according to attitude’. Others, such as Dumas & Lighter (1978: 14-16; quoted in Eble, (1996: 11), avoid definitions altogether by instead providing identifying criteria, for instance, ‘Its presence will markedly lower, at least for the moment, the dignity of formal or serious speech or writing.’ and ‘It is used in place of the well-known conventional synonym …’, while still others describe slang by stating ‘what it is and what it is not’ (eg Andersson & Trudgill 1990: 69 ff).
What is generally agreed upon among linguists and lexicographers alike is that slang is a short-lived, group-related, ever changing colloquial language variety that is below the level of stylistically neutral language. It is described as creative and innovative, often playful and metaphorical (eg OED 1989, vol XIV: 651; Andersson & Trudgill 1990; Eble 1996; Kotsinas 1996; Allen 1998). Moreover, the general opinion appears to be that slang occurs predominantly in teenage talk, and some sources say that it occurs especially in male talk (eg Svensk Uppslagsbok 1953 Vol 26: 642; Allen 1998: 881f) and that it tends to emerge in large metropolitan centres before spreading elsewhere (eg Andersson & Trudgill 1990: 78; Allen 1998: 880).
It is also usually pointed out that slang affects vocabulary but not grammatical constructions. In this connection, Andersson & Trudgill (1990: 73) comment, however, but without giving examples, that ‘[t]here are perhaps a handful of features which could be regarded as typical of slang grammar.’. Eble (1996: 22) quoting Munro (1990:13), gives the following example of ‘slang syntax’ represented by the unorthodox use of the definite article, observed among American college students: ‘Susan set me up with her big brother. She’s the homie’. Unlike other scholars, Eble (1996: 21) also mentions the important role of body language and sounds, and the combined effect of pitch, stress and pauses, without which some words would not convey the slang meaning at all.
Opinions differ as to whether cant, jargon and swearing should really be considered slang. Eble, for instance, excludes both cant, although it has contributed a great many items to slang (1990: 19-21), and jargon, which is characterized as a specific professional language with its own terminology. Andersson & Trudgill exclude all three, cant and jargon (1990: 77-78) because they are both specialized terms, and swearing because, unlike slang, it is ‘always connected with taboos of some kind.’ (1990: 74). In contrast, Chambers Concise 20th Century Dictionary defines slang as ‘the jargon of any class, profession, or set’ (1985: 935), and in the OED we find that slang refers both to ‘the cant or jargon of a certain class or period’ and to ‘abuse’ and ‘impertinence’ (1989: 651).
Slang is said to be short-lived. This, of course, is not true for all slang words. Some were created a very long time ago and are still defined as slang. Such words, still used by today’s teenagers, are for instance bogs (‘lavatory’), dated 1789 in The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang, doss (‘sleep’), dated 1785, fucker, a term of abuse dated 1598, and grub (‘food’), dated 1659. Notice, however, that the dates refer to written language, which most certainly means that the first occurrence of the respective words in spoken language was much earlier. Other old slang words would seem hopelessly outdated if uttered by somebody today. Still other words, which were originally referred to as slang, have been adopted in the standard language but are labelled ‘informal’, such as the short forms super in the sense of ‘wonderful’ and telly for ‘television’, to mention but two.
2.3 Why use slang?
Slang is often used on purpose. One reason could be to show belonging to a group or adherence to a trend, another to ‘keep outsiders outside’ (Andersson & Trudgill 1990: 79). Allen (1998: 878) emphasizes very strongly that slang is a sociological rather than a purely linguistic phenomenon, used to mark social differences and, on a similar line, Eble, as mentioned above, argues that slang is used by speakers for the purpose of creating or reinforcing relationship with a group or a trend.
In the Swedish Nationalencyklopedin, it is argued that the adoption of slang terms is dominated by ‘reversed prestige’, ie prestige based on toughness, power (and even criminality) and, moreover, that slang functions to mark the stylistic level of the situation, to emphasize, shock, ease the atmosphere, to express oneself down to earth, show that one masters the situation, and that one is able to play with language and be creative. But it is emphasized that what finally decides its function is the situation.
Most of this is characteristic of teenagers’ use of slang and leads automatically over to the language of the London teenagers in COLT.
3 Slangy language
The above review has shown that, although there is consensus that slang covers a large spectrum of colloquial words and expressions, opinions vary when it comes to deciding exactly how wide that spectrum is.
As regards London slang in general, the London Slang Page on the internet reminds the reader that a great number of slang terms derive from Cockney and constitute so-called ‘rhyming slang’, while many other slang terms have been incorporated as a result of the contact with immigrant cultures (cf http://www.geezer.demon.co.uk/index.html). This, together with other language features, especially accent, it is said, has created what is often referred to as ‘Estuary English’.
Certain features to do with accent that are typical of Estuary English are also observed in the teenage language in COLT, for instance glottal stop instead of /t/. Rhyming slang, in contrast, has apparently not caught on among the London teenagers, and surprisingly enough, very little influence can be traced from immigrant languages in the recorded material.
3.1 The language in COLT
At the beginning of this paper, I said that I rely on two dictionaries, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992) and Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1987) for deciding whether a word or expression is to be referred to as slang or not. Briefly, this includes anything from the vocabulary of the underworld to colloquial language below the level of educated standard speech, which is a very wide area indeed. The question is, however, what exactly is to be included in ‘colloquial language below the level of educated standard speech’. This question is crucial when it comes to defining slang in general and, as the following extracts from COLT will show, teenage slang in particular.
The speakers in extracts  to  below are 16 year-old boys and girls who attend a boarding-school in the Greater London area. They all have a more or less identical social background, (upper) middle class.
In extract  Paula and Sandy are gossiping about two other girls at school:
Paula: … you know that I go on about Jenny
Paula: but I like, I like Jenny really.
Sandy: Yeah I know I like Jenny I mean, but I never really say anything bad about [Jenny]
Paula: [unclear] say anything about you … like it’s only if I … <laughing>got nothing else to say really</>
Paula: <unclear> about me don’t you when I’m not there, yeah?
Sandy: No I don’t, I don’t ….. but I mean anyway I dunno I just get really pissed off with Angela.
Paula: Yeah but I get really pissed off as well cos I … well I, I won’t like when I talk about Jenny and then I feel sort of like really two faced when I like start talking to Jenny and stuff …
Sandy: Yeah I know, but I mean
Paula: Cos I mean like do you do that as well, you know when you’re with Catherine like you talk about people like Rosie or anybody [unclear]
Sandy: [Yeah yeah I d= do] I mean I do that, yeah. I dunno who, who do I m= … I don’t know, I d= do that to s= er see there is somebody that I do that quite a bit to but I can’t remember who it is … or a few people maybe …
Paula: cos Jenny didn’t even know that you could bloody put on weight by drinking.
Sandy: <laughing>Yeah well it’s a bit</> that’s the truth though I mean that is a bit silly isn’t it?
Sandy: I mean I, I mean I dunno I mean I just, I just ha=, I just had to tell you because I mean it really is pissing me off the way fucking Angela treats me, she was alright before … like and when I’m on my [own, no]
Paula: [What, before] she met me.
Sandy: Yeah I mean I’m not, I’m not saying you’re a bad influence on her now, I think she … just sort of jumping in at the chance for someone to victimise personally … And l= and, especially yesterday yeah, you know when we were standing in the foyer after school yeah?
Sandy: And I, and you, you were going on about something to do with your job yeah? And I said I want a job, and and she said something like oh well it doesn’t include you so ha ha ha ha and thought it was really funny, How would, how would she like it? That’s like saying piss off I don’t like you you stupid cow, why don’t you go and kill yourself.
This relatively short extract contains a plethora of colloquial words and expressions, some of which are regular slang words and expressions, while others are fairly marginal, and still others do not qualify as slang at all – although they definitely belong to ‘slangy’ language.
The first category is represented by expressions used for abusing (fucking Angela, piss-off, stupid cow) and expressions reflecting the speaker’s feelings (pissed-off, it really is pissing me off) and the second by a regular swearword (you could bloody put on weight). The third category includes the ‘set-marking tag’[ii] and stuff (talking to Jenny and stuff) and a large variety pragmatic markers, for instance, the ‘appealer’[iii] yeah (when I’m not there, yeah?), the ‘monitor’I mean (but I mean anyway), the ‘hedges’ like[iv] (like it’s only if I) and sort of (just sort of jumping in), and the ‘empathizer’ you know (you know when you’re with Catherine). Notice also the multifunctional word really, which is particularly common as an ‘intensifier’ when teenage girls talk about personal affairs, as in this extract (eg really two faced, really funny). Another common pragmatic marker which reflects the speaker’s attitude is just, which can have a minimising function[v] (I just had to tell you) as well as an emphasizing function[vi] (I just get really pissed off). Finally, there is the reduced form cos (from because), which does not always serve as an subordinating conjunction introducing a clause of reason but rather as a take-off for further talk with no syntactic link with preceding discourse. One example in this extract is when Paula says ‘cos Jenny didn’t even know that you could bloody put on weight by drinking’ despite the fact that Jenny was only mentioned at the beginning of the extract[vii].
Extract  is a boys’ conversation, Nick tells some of his friends how badly he was treated by some of the other boys at the school, when he said he wanted to watch football on TV in the common room:
 The TV incident
Nick: And they wouldn’t let me watch the match with Dave last night
Many: Oh no!
Nick: Well stressed
Nick: Well you see, all see them Van den Berg he’s <unclear> and their fucking faces they come in yeah right you wanna wait for this bloody football na I just wanna watch the Chelsea please can I must watch the Chelsea no piss off please just let me watch the Chelsea please just once let me watch the Chelsea and they turned the telly off and said right you’ve turned the channel over and telly doesn’t go back on, [Fucking annoyed]
Nick The fucking so sad ones is going right you’re clearing up house fuck off! I’m not fucking clearing up the house and he goes, right that’s it you’re clearing up the house for the rest of your life!
Jock: Bet you were well fucked off.
This extract illustrates the use of three different taboo words. One is used for swearing (bloody football), while one, depending on its form, is used both as a swearword (fucking faces) and as a slang word (fuck off as a synonym for ‘go away’, well fucked off for ‘angry’, ‘irritated’). The third is used only as a slang word, equivalent to fuck off (piss off for ‘go away’). But it is hard to say whether fucking in fucking annoyed is used as a swearword or as a slang intensifier?
Other interesting features illustrated in this extract are represented by the word sad in so sad ones, which shows how an old, established word has suddenly acquired a new meaning (‘hopeless’, ‘impossible’), and the irregular use of well as an adjective intensifier, as in well stressed and well fucked off. The fact that this usage is neither referred to in modern dictionaries nor grammar books would seem to suggest that it is very recent, but a look in the OED reveals that it was used in this function at least as far back as the 9th century – but that it fell out of use during the first half of the 19th century[viii]. Another usage that is definitely recent is that of GO and as a reporting verb replacing SAY, here represented by and he goes right that’s it (for BE like in the same function see Extract ).
Forms like wanna for want to (you wanna wait; I just wanna watch), like dunno (don’t know), gonna (going to), gotta (got to), dunnit (doesn’t it) and wunnit (wasn’t it), are examples of reduced, simplified pronunciation (phonological reduction), which typically cooccur with teenage slang in general.
Telly, finally, is an example of a former slang word which is lagelled ‘slang’ in som dictionaries and ‘informal’ in others, which shows that it is on the verge of being accepted in the standard language and no longer regarded as below the stylistically neutral level.
Extract  illustrates BE like used as a reporting verb, or ‘quotative complementizer’ in the terminology of Romaine & Lange (1991). Kate and Jess are discussing James, who is also a student at the school:
Kate: but think about all the people that we are nice to, I mean look at James, prime example have I ever been a bitch to him, never but I <laughing> dtand up here, when I se him I’m like oh yeah ha ha you know laugh along with his jokes
Jess: I’m a bitch to him I tell him I see you love yourself James
BE like used in this way, apparently inherited from American teenage language, is typically found in narratives, especially lievely narratives, and girls’ narratives in particular. The taboo slang word bitch (from the animal kingdom) is generally only used about females, as in this extract.
In extract , where Julian and Alex talk about the way they speak, the main emphasis is on the use of yeah and well:
 Mum’s opinion
Julian: … and I keep saying yeah after each each sentence when I’m describing something to my mum like saying last match yeah, we won yeah eight nil yeah, and i I keep sahing yeah yeah, my mum’s going
Jock: I’ve done that
Julian: yeah shut shut up, that’s what my mum
Jock: my mum says, I go yeah that’s well nice, and she goes erm she goes well nice
Alex: oh [<nv>laugh</nv>]
Julian: [that’s it yeah I know] I’m always saying well well cool
Jock: and I keep saying that, I’ve said it like, about so many things when we’re home and she goes what is this you always saying well with everything 141606: 28-35
There is no doubt that the parent generation, here the boys’ mothers, are not in favour of the use of well as an adjective intensifier, nor of yeah as a kind of combined punctuation mark and appealer for feedback. Incidentally, in the COLT material, both these items were found predominantly in the boys’ talk.
Extract , finally, illustrates the use of the invariant marker innit, which is particularly common among younger speakers with a lower social class background. The speakers are 14-year-old Cassie and her friend Shelley:
 The tapes
Shelly: Well hang on, so who does it go to then?
Cassie: It goes to Norway.
Cassie: A college in Norway.
Shelly: You’ve probably gotta give the tapes, you gotta, you gotta give the tapes to Miss, erm
Cassie: No! I give [the tapes]
Cassie: to the wa=, student from Norway.
Shelly: No you don’t, give it [to]
Cassie: [I] don’t give it to [Miss <name>]
Shelly: [And Miss gives it ] to the student innit? 132607: 254
Since the verb in the statement is gives, one would have expected the tag doesn’t it. But in teenage language, and especially the language of teenagers with a low socioeconomic background, innit is used as an invariant which can be tagged on to any statement, regardless of the preceding verb or verb form.
This extract also shows that not only the ‘recruit’, ie the student who is responsible for the recording, in this case Cassie, is aware of what is going on. This not at all surprising. It is not easy to hide even a small Sony walkman and a little lapel microphone. Moreover, having this responsibility is probably something the students are quite proud of and like to brag about.
3.1.2 Attempting a model
What I hope to have shown by the conversational extracts quoted above is that teenage language involves more than is usually regarded as slang. But instead of trying to broaden the concept of slang any further, I will adopt the term ‘slanguage’ from the above-mentioned article in The Mirror, which I find is a very appropriate term for the slangy language that is typical of teenagers.
In a simplified version, I see slanguage represented by the following linguistic categories on the basis of observations in COLT:
slang words intensifiers
Taboo words reflectors
UAGE Vogue words
Pragmatic markers empathizers
Figure 1: A model of slanguage
· Proper slang is the largest category and consists of words and expressions that correspond most closely to the dictionary definitions of slang presented in this paper. Here I make a distinction between general slang words, which are not related to a particular group or trend, etc, such as booze (‘drink’), dude (‘fellow’), fag (‘cigarette’), rip-off (‘swindle’), spooky (‘frightening’), and specific slang words that are typical of a group or trend, for instance bunk (leave), dorm (‘dormitory’) and prep (‘preparatory’) belonging to school slang and junkie (‘drug addict’), speed (‘drug’) and spliff (‘cannabis cigarette’) to do with the drug traffic.
· Taboo words consist of two categories. Some taboo words are regular slang words, that is substitutes for accepted synonyms, eg piss somebody off (‘irritate’), bugger up/screw up (‘ruin’), to be pissed (‘drunk’), take the piss out of (‘make fun of’). Some of these are used as ‘abusives’ (dickhead, sod, motherfucker, bugger off, screw you), some as ‘intensifiers’ (fucking crap), while some serve as ‘reflectors’ of the speaker’s feelings (fucked-off, pissed-off). Other taboo words are regular swearwords used for nothing but swearing, ie as ‘expletives’ (bollocks, for fuck’s sake, what the fuck, shit). These are sometimes met with in the form of euphemisms (cor blimey).
· Vogue words are words that already exist in the standard language but which are suddenly used very frequently for a short period of time before going back to normal usage. Examples in COLT are massive (‘impressive’), paranoid (‘afraid’), and rough (‘exciting’). In this category one might include old words that are used with a new meaning, such as sad (‘contemptible’) in expressions like you’re a sad bastard and wicked (‘excellent’) in for instance she’s wicked, I love her song.
· Proxy words (words which act for other words) consist of ‘quotatives’, which replace the verb SAY to report what somebody said and are realized by a form of BE plus like (he was like I didnt do, I was like wow!) or a form of the verb GO (he goes I didn’t do it, I go(es) wow!) and of so-called ‘set-markers’[ix], which replace and refer back to a previously mentioned ‘set’ (coffee and cookies and stuff (like that, Josie and Shelley and that lot).
· Pragmatic markers consist of ‘appealers’, for instance the ‘invariant’ tag innit[x] (he’s so bloody stupid innit) and yeah (and then I went home yeah and had dinner yeah), ‘hedges’, realized by sort of (it’s sort of mad) and like (she like follows me around), which often cooccur (it was sort of like fashionable), ‘empathizers’, such as you know (I met Alex you know and …), the ‘monitor’ I mean (that’s the truth though I mean that is a bit silly isn’t it) and finally just and really, which are both used very frequently for a variety of functions in colloquial language.
Judging by Extracts  to , which are by no means unique in the London teenage vernacular, the use of taboo words and expressions and words that are not usually regarded as slang is a more noticeable feature in teenage language than what can be described as ‘proper’ slang, judging by dictionary definitions.
A brief survey involving part of the COLT corpus of all the categories outlined in the model (Figure 1) indicated that, although proper slang makes up more than half of the ‘types’, the situation is quite the opposite when it comes to ‘tokens’. In other words, the list of different proper slang words is much longer than that of words belonging to the other categories, but the individual proper slang words do not recur as frequently.
It is the proper slang words that point to creativity and innovation. These are the ones that reflect new trends and tastes etc. They consist of single words as well as multiwords. The single words are realized by adjectives (cool ‘very good’, funky ‘fashionable’, poxy ‘worthless’, titchy ‘small’), nouns (dude ‘guy’, john ‘toilet’, rave ‘party’), and simple verbs (frame ‘deceive’, nab ‘seize’, nick ‘steal’). The multiwords are realized by phrasal verbs (wind up ‘irritate’, swan around ‘move aimlessly’) and prepositional phrases (for yonks ‘a long time’, off one’s rocker ‘mad’).
The inventory of taboo slang words is far more stable, although the same lexemes tend to appear in various forms and combinations. The majority are related to sex (wanker, tramp, fucked out of one’s head). Others have to do with body parts (arsehole, bum), and bodily functions (crap oneself, no shit, a piss-up session). Abusives, which constitute the most common category, are realized by nouns and adjectives and are generally used about a third person (I don’t really care what Pete’s doing, the prat, But the guy is an arsehole) but are also said directly to the person talked to (Where d’ya get on you dickhead?, Ah you cunt), also in the form of direct commands (bugger off, piss off).
Vogue words, unlike the preceding categories of words, are represented by only a handful of different types. Some of these words are used only by the middle-class teenagers, for instance paranoid, while other words are used by all, regardless of social background, for instance massive, reckon and rough.
The proxy words, too, are represented by relatively few types, which are all the more frequent, however. This refers to the quotatives in particular, which are only realized by BE like and GO. Among the set-markers we find for instance and all that (sort of thing), and everything, and something (like that), or something (like that) besides and stuff (like that), and them, and that lot, and so on. Most of these expressions can of course also be observed in adult standard speech, but not usually and stuff (like that), and them, and that lot.
Pragmatic markers add a different dimension to talk by putting interaction, in the form of appealers and empathizers, and discourse processing, in the form of hedges and monitors, and subjective attitude in the form of reflectors, in focus. Pragmatic markers are realized by relatively few types but all the more tokens. The fact that they are so frequent in teenage talk can be seen as a direct reflexion of the teenagers’ way of interacting; they are lively, expressive, engaged, and very keen on getting feedback.
Teenage slang properly speaking is extremely informal, often obscene, although it would be an exaggeration to go as far as characterizing it as the language of ‘the underworld’, as in the OED. But I agree with what is said in Nationalencyklopedin, that much of what is characteristic of teenage language, at least as manifested in the COLT material, is appropriately referred to as ‘reversed prestige’.
Teenage talk also contains plenty of new slang words and quite a few current words used with a new sense, but, as has been illustrated above, taboo words, both in terms of proper slang words and swearwords, tend to dominate, together with an overuse of pragmatic markers with partly new functions.
One of the most recent innovations is the use of BE+like (beside GO) as a quotative replacing SAY. That this is a recent phenomenon is hinted at by Romaine & Lange (1991), who write that ‘At the moment the use of like as a quotative complementizer appears to be confined to American English, though there are perhaps traces of a similar development in British English.’ (1991: 248-249). A usage that might seem to be even more recent is that of well as an adjective intensifier. However, a look in the OED (1989, vol. XX:117) reveals that well in this function can be traced back at least to the 9th century. However, it turns out that it fell out of use during the first half of the 19th century, which suggests that it has been revived in the London teenage talk.That the use is spreading is manifested by examples in recent fiction, for instance, Llewellyn’s (1998) The man on platform 5 399), where we find ‘I’m up for getting well pissed.’ (1998:399).
Contrary to what has been said in some of the literature, slang words do not seem to be gender-specific judging by the COLT conversations; ie they are not used particularly by boys. This refers to proper slang as well as taboo slang. It is very likely, however, that much slang is used on purpose, by girls as well as by boys, whether it be for the sake of showing group belonging and keeping outsiders outside, showing off or just being ‘friendly’. Taboo words, in particular, are obviously used to shock a potential audience in many of the recordings. In other cases, they just seem to indicate a bad habit. Most of the taboo slang words are used as abusive and would probably be perceived as extremely rude by the outsider, but in the actual situation, they seem to have no negative effect whatsoever. Apparently, none of the speakers involved takes offense. On the contrary, the taboo words rather seem to contribute to the ‘chummy’ atmosphere.
Summing up, what I have tried to show in this paper in answer to the question ‘What is slang?’ is that, in teenage talk in particular, we are faced with is a gradient, ranging from prototypical, generally acknowledged slang words and expressions, (eg thick ‘stupid’, nick ‘steal’, take the mickey out of ‘make someone seem foolish’) via marginal cases, such as words more or less accepted in the standard language (telly) and swearwords to the typical teenage use of pragmatic markers (eg GO and BE like for SAY as quotative verbs and the use of pragmatic markers such as innit, like, really and yeah). This is what I prefer to call ‘slanguage’ rather than ‘slang’.
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[i] COLT has been sponsored by the Norwegian Research Council, the Meltzer Foundation and the Faculty of Arts at Bergen University.
[ii] For this term, see Dines 1980.
[iii] ‘Appealer’, ‘monitor’, ‘hedge’, amd ‘empathizer’ are defined and illustrated in Stenström 1994.
[iv] Andersen (1996) discusses like from the point of view of relevance theory as a ‘looseness marker’.
[v] Lee (1987) discusses the semantics of just, distinguishing between ‘depriciatory’, ‘restrictive’, ‘specificatory’ and ‘emphatic’ meanings.
[vi] Various functions of just in COLT are discussed by Erman (1996).
[vii] The grammaticalization process affecting cos is dealt with in Stenström 1998.
[viii] For a detailed discussion about well as an adjective intensifier, see Stenström (in press).
[ix] For a discussion of ‘set-marking tags’, see Dines (1980).
[x] See eg Stenström, A-B. & G. Andersen. 1996. A corpus-based investigation of the discourse items cos and innit. In C. Percy, Ch. Meyer & I. Lancashire (eds). Synchronic Corpus Linguistics. Amsterdam Rodopi. 189-206.