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Exploring languages and cultures
Exploring languages and cultures

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3.2.3 The purpose of slang

Tom McArthur is the author of numerous works on the English language, including the Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, from which the following extract is taken.

Reading 3 Why people use slang

The aim of using slang is seldom the exchange of information. More often, slang serves social purposes: to identify members of a group, to change the level of discourse in the direction of informality, to oppose established authority. Sharing and maintaining a constantly changing slang vocabulary aids group solidarity and serves to include and exclude members. Slang is the linguistic equivalent of fashion and serves much the same purpose. Like stylish clothing and modes of popular entertainment, effective slang must be new, appealing, and able to gain acceptance in a group quickly. Nothing is more damaging to status in the group than using old slang. Counterculture or counter-establishment groups often find a common vocabulary unknown outside the group a useful way to keep information secret or mysterious. Slang is typically cultivated among people in society who have little real political power (like adolescents, college students, and enlisted personnel in the military) or who have reason to hide from people in authority what they know or do (like gamblers, drug addicts, and prisoners).

(McArthur, 2003)

Activity 19

Does McArthur’s account add anything about the forms and functions of slang which are not mentioned by the previous three speakers discussing Polari, Lunfardo and argot?

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Answer

McArthur’s account discusses fashion, which was not mentioned by the three speakers you listened to in Activity 18. For a slang to retain its vitality and social purchase, it needs to be continuously evolving. This is true of all language but particularly so of countercultural slangs.

The jargons associated with certain professions and activities, like the varieties of slang featured so far in this section, serve to reinforce a sense of group identity. In the next activity you will listen to an interview in which Nigel White, who teaches intercultural communication skills, discusses his first career, in the City of London’s financial district.

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Figure 4 Nigel White

Activity 20

Listen to the interview with Nigel White, then answer the questions that follow.

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Broker culture
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1 Write a few words about how Nigel White characterises the language of:

  • city brokers
  • pharmaceutical workers
  • website developers.
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Answer

Nigel White characterises the language of city brokers as obscene and aggressive; pharmaceutical workers as far more polite and website developers as ‘different’ in terms of language, tone and speed.

Nigel doesn’t explicitly state how website developers’ language is different in tone and speed, but one would guess that the nature of the job would allow more time for reflection than a city broker’s would, suggesting that the tone and speed are more gentle.

2 The descriptions of Polari, Lunfardo and argot that you heard in Activity 18 focused on their respective origins. What does Nigel White focus on in his description of the language of the different sectors he mentions?

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Answer

Nigel’s focus is not on the words used by his fellow workers in the City, with the exception of the swearwords he alludes to. When describing the brokers’ language and that of the other sectors he mentions, he concentrates on their communicative style rather than the specific words they use. This indicates that adopting a group’s mode of communication involves more than merely learning its specialist vocabulary.

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Figure 5 The world of the broker

In the next part of this section you will look more closely at how language is used in the workplace and at what point specialist terminology becomes jargon.