Purists decry the reign of such words as “sick”, “bruv” and “lol” (if we’re being fussy, this isn’t even a word: it’s an acronym). Our parents don’t understand them, and our teachers despair of them. Many people view today’s youth slanguage as the plague of our previously rich English tongue. Language, though, is constantly evolving; if it didn’t, first years wouldn’t struggle quite so much while reading Chaucer. Is, then, our modern slang another natural step on the trajectory of the English language? Or does it pose a risk to our independent and personal expression?
Slang enriches language: who doesn’t love taking the mickey out of someone gallivanting around looking fetch? ‘Yakking’ is simultaneously the most elegant and onomatopoeic term for throwing up. Phrases such as ‘big up’ (Jamaican) and ‘yo’ or ‘bro’ (black American) add to a multicultural lexicon which has Latin, Greek and Germanic languages at its roots and has influences ranging from French to Urdu. Modern slang continues this tradition and, as with all slang, creates a vocabulary within which a certain group, in this case young people, can communicate. The only marked difference of the slang of the 21st century is its tendency to squeeze out language – OMG, CBA, GTG – rather than add to it.
Slang enriches language: who doesn’t love taking the mickey out of someone gallivanting around looking fetch?
Today’s generations are more susceptible to using slang due to social media. Memes and hashtags make virtue of the snappy, easily understood slogan; Twitter, allowing 140 characters, doesn’t exactly encourage the use of a thesaurus. Our desire for a simplified form of language manifests itself in the dominance of the emoji. That the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2015 was the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji is testament to its ubiquity. It is, to some, a glorious symbol of the possibilities of mass human expression in pictorial form, and demonstrates the potential for cross-cultural communication in a globalised world.
Social media is highly valuable as a space of both personal expression and human interaction and cooperation. The danger, though, is that its platforms normalise a mode of casual discourse which doesn’t do justice to the richness of the language at our disposal. Previously, slang has lived more in the realm of the spoken word; never before has it permeated such a litany of written culture. The written word especially demands rigour in communication, lacking the subtle signals of face-to-face human interaction. It is ironic, then, that technology, which requires increased care of expression, actually encourages us to use less language. Take, for example, the emoji of two hands, palm together: are they praying or are they high-fiving? Here is the kind of ambiguity which exists far less in non-pictoral language.
As long as slang contributes to that purpose, adding depth, nuance and humour to our communication, it is to be welcomed
Problems arise particularly for children if they don’t understand that slang is just that. A conversation with their grandparents incorporating the words “calm”, “lit” and “bare” could result in much confusion. A reduction of language to a series of letters – lol, omg, jk – will not develop their ability to spell. Nor will it teach them to articulate thoughts in complex sentences with evocative vocabulary. With a series of emotive pictures literally at their fingertips, how will they develop the patience to learn grammatical structures and punctuation or discover the joy of delving into a thesaurus? Of course, not every child wants to become a writer and neither should they be forced to. They must, however, learn the possibilities of the language at their disposal and be able to deploy its range and versatility in order to communicate effectively. Such a grasp of language will aid them in all of their life’s pursuits. Once children understand these basics of language, they can make an informed choice about the slang they use. They know it is not for all audiences, in all contexts; they can turn to a more individual and subtle form of expression if need be.
Ultimately, our language distinguishes us as human beings. It conveys complex thoughts, emotions and ideas; it enables us to collaborate, cooperate and effect sophisticated change. Language is the cornerstone of society. As long as slang contributes to that purpose, adding depth, nuance and humour to our communication, it is to be welcomed. Only when it becomes reductive, hindering sophisticated communication with a wide audience when necessary, should we begin to question its ubiquity. Sick fam. Laters.