Does slang make you sound stupid?
Doc Brown, rapper and comedian, and Robert McCrum, Observer associate editor and author, consider whether slang is a force for good or bad
Actress Emma Thompson last week attacked the use of slang and sloppy speech by young people. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AFI
Robert McCrum and Doc Brown
The Observer, Sunday 3 October 2010
Last week, actor-director Emma Thompson attacked teenagers’ use of slang, saying it drives her “insane”. She said, “Just don’t do it. Because it makes you sound stupid,” adding, “We have to reinvest, I think, in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal human freedom and power.” Over to our debaters…
Doc Brown: My initial response is that slang may indeed “sound stupid” if heard out of context or removed from its natural habitat. But I can guarantee a lovely bit of RP will sound pretty stupid at 3.45pm on the basketball court on my estate. As with all forms of language, there is a time and a place for slang. It is worthy, even vital, in some arenas, useless in others.
Robert McCrum: I think that’s a good starting point. And I want to add another pretty crucial distinction (actually, two). The first is that we need to distinguish between the written and the spoken. Slang in literature, from Shakespeare’s Falstaff to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, has an important place, and I’m emphatically not going to argue for proper English in our literary tradition. That would be bonkers. Also, second, we must draw a distinction between accent or dialect (estuary English, scouse etc) and slang (sloppy usage).
DB: Distinctions accepted, I would like to debate your description of slang as “sloppy usage” of language. It is a mistake to qualify repetition and the use of impotent words such as “like” or meaningless rhetoric such as “knowwhatimean” as slang. We are all guilty of such verbal tics to differing extents. Slang, however, for me should be set apart as a way of speaking that, while perhaps not grammatically correct, has a richness of culture and history that said tics play no part in.
RM: Every generation has its verbal tics – more or less irritating – and “like” is clearly one of those. Anyway, accepting your definition of slang – a way of speaking that articulates an alternative, rich culture – I would still want to argue that it’s fine on the basketball court but serves to keep its speakers in a linguistic ghetto if used, in – for example – a school classroom, or a job interview. I would want to argue for the importance of a lively range of spoken registers, combined with an understanding that an internationally recognised norm is, well, just plain useful. No point trading zinc futures in Caribbean creole, is there ?
DB: Haha! Nice. So who are these people that transfer slang from the courtyard to the classroom? Outside of my career in music and comedy, I have worked with teenagers in songwriting workshops for nine years now. My last job was for Southwark council with eight boys all fresh out of Feltham on knife charges, and every one of them naturally switched their patter to “correct” English when addressing me and other staff (monosyllabic at times, but correct!).
Thus, from my own experience, I would question your fear of young people continuing to use slang in the formal world. If a person is idiotic enough to use slang in a job interview, for example, I would have thought the last thing the employer should worry about is the way that person speaks!
RM: Phew! So that’s all right, then… Your experience suggests that Emma Thompson should chill out with her fear and loathing. But before I accept your soothing words – this is a debate, right? – let me raise the spectre of slang polluting the pure well of standard English. There’s a danger (I wouldn’t put it higher) that if too many new lexical items (dictionary slang for “words”) creep into the mainstream, it becomes unintelligible.
So, my question to you, Doc, is: how do we accommodate slang in a culture that retains a strong sense of linguistic rightness?
Another question: are we worried about the influence of texting on the written standard?
DB: Right, so there are two points to respond to here. Let’s begin with the perception of “danger” and “pollution”– perhaps you should split that chill pill with Emma and wash it down with some reality juice.
First, the fear of slang is in my opinion a manifestation of a latent fear of the working classes – a closeted sense of foreboding that our children may be corrupted by an army of hooded Eliza Doolittles raping our green and pleasant land in some kind of grotesque, inverse Pygmalion.
I wholly accept that slang can appear in the mainstream in a pop-cultural sense. We already see it in the speech of our television and radio presenters – I’ve actually heard Andrew Marr and Jeremy Paxman use phrases such as “diss” instead of “disrespect”. But it’s a drop in the ocean and that’s all it will ever be. I strongly disagree that it has the ability to make English as we know it “unintelligible”. Slang adds colour and humour to our language.
Second, the influence of texting. I’d be lying if I said that texting didn’t have an influence and that slang isn’t naturally a part of that. But I do not believe that a young person would write in an essay “I *HEART* Hamlet Xcept wen he murked Claudius *SADFACE*.” Any kid with half a brain will know the difference between pens and keypads.
RM: Eliza Doolittle a hoodie? I love it! I agree with your first point, that there’s a strong class element at play. Actually, I think there is also a not-so-latent prejudice against the perceived menace of a tribe of burqa-wearing, al-Qaida-supporting, Qur’an-toting foreigners whose “black” and “Asian” slang is endangering the decent, honest speech of England’s horny-handed sons of toil. Fundamentally, for islanders, fear of “the other” and “the outsider” is a default position. It’s part of the national DNA (though of course we should be vigilant against its influence) so on to your second point.
If I’m honest, I do think text-speak is pernicious. It’s a coarse vulgarisation, and a reduction of the expressive capacity of the language. The joy of English is its extraordinary range of nuance and subtle capacity to articulate an extraordinary spectrum of feeling and meaning.
Here’s another question: putting slang to one side, do you share my view that learning standard English is vital for our children, and also for those new arrivals to our shores ?
DB: Funnily enough, the one issue I do get a bit Daily Mail about is the encouragement of young children and immigrants to learn English to as high a standard as possible. I live in a Turkish area where, if so inclined, you could move from Istanbul, work in a family business and never have to learn a word of English. This saddens me on two levels because I think this dramatically lessens their ability to experience all aspects of life in the UK, but also they create an island around themselves that makes further communication between communities unnecessarily hard, which in turn can lead to prejudice and fear.
As for children, there is no greater power for a young person than the ability to communicate. Eggs is eggs!
RM: The trouble with this subject, I find, is that it’s always morphing into something else: politics, culture, society – you name it – it’s a moving target. What do I take away from this ? On the pro-slang side, I believe that an aggressive use of slang is essentially a form of display. It’s a kind of verbal costume that says: I’m smart, distinctive and cutting-edge. Try me.
But here’s the danger (on the anti side). A vigorous use of slang risks isolating the speaker, keeping him/her in a linguistic and cultural ghetto, out of the mainstream in a place where they simply cannot communicate with others. The solution? Save the slang for the weekends! Sad but true.
Now, in the words of the French, “an oeuf is an oeuf…”