A Harangue About Slang

October 24, 2013

Multiple Pages
A Harangue About Slang

Following up last week’s rant about cant, kindly permit me a harangue about slang and the affliction of bad diction. Got that? Last week, the empty, insincere things we say; this week, the sloppy, lazy way we say them.

My inspiration here is a news story from the ever-reliable Mail Online, October 10th: “Why are so many middle-class children speaking in Jamaican patois?” London Journalist Nick Harding is listening to his 11-year-old daughter on the phone with a coeval (which, no, does not mean “a person you’re evil together with”):

I listened in, as I made jam in the kitchen. ‘Lol, that’s well sick!’ Millie said. ‘DW, yolo!’

This indecipherable code-speak (‘sick’ means awesome, ‘DW’ is don’t worry and ‘yolo’ means you only live once) was delivered in an accent I could only place as somewhere between South London, downtown Los Angeles and Kingston, Jamaica.

It certainly isn’t indigenous to our home village of Ashtead, in the rolling Surrey hills.

Surrey is Stockbroker Belt. We’re talking upper-middle-class folk here—the kind who make their own jam. Apparently the offspring of well-heeled Brits nowadays, among themselves, talk like Ali G in a dialect known officially as Multicultural Youth English (MYE).

“I don’t like ghetto slang, but I’m not worried about its use among middle-class youth.”

The main phonological feature of MYE is the collapsing of complex structures to simpler ones. So diphthongs become pure vowels (e.g., “mah” for “my”), the conjugation of the main copulative verb is stripped down to “is” and “was” (e.g., “I is,” “you was”), and all question tags become “innit?”

Semantically there seems to be a heavy reliance on acronyms and text-message abbreviations. I tried to confirm this with a professional linguist friend, but he DK-ed me.

The Brit kids are only talking like this among themselves, mind.

When Millie ended the call, she turned to me, smiled and asked: “What’s for supper please, Dad?” in perfect Received Pronunciation.

And Mr. Harding gets California wrong. The main linguistic problem in downtown LA is finding a person who can speak English in any form. He’s thinking of a different locale:

I asked her: “What did you have for lunch today?” She replied: “I had, like, lasagne.” “Like lasagne? Do you mean cannelloni, or maybe moussaka?” I persevered….“No, I had, like, lasagne.”

As this case from across the pond shows, the “like” construction has escaped from its reservation in the San Fernando Valley and is now well-nigh universal among under-20 Anglosphere females of all classes.

I heard again about this across the lunch table from a lady of high education and refinement who teaches law at a prestigious university. She, speaking of her undergraduate students: “How can I get them to think clearly when they can’t speak clearly? It’s ‘like’ this and ‘like’ that, and ‘so’ this and ‘totally’ that. Their speech is a mess. Doesn’t that mean their minds are a mess, too?”

Perhaps it does. “Language is the dress of thought,” and sloppy language suggests poor thinking. Dumb people don’t speak well; we’ve all observed that.

These are deep waters we’ve waded into here, though. There is an entire academic discipline called Cognitive Linguistics dedicated to untangling the connections between thought and speech. The waters have been considerably muddied by PC log-rolling on the part of the academics (“There’s no such thing as ‘primitive’!”), but they do at least seem to have shown that the structural complexity of an established language bears no relation to the civilizational level of its speakers.

Hungarian has 35 noun cases; English has two (nominative, genitive). I like my Chicken Paprikás as much as the next guy, but are Hungarians really 17½ times more civilized than us? David Crystal says that in the aboriginal Yana language of California, now alas extinct, the sentence “he’ll give you a stone” was expressed as “round-thing away to does-or-will done-unto thou-in-future” (ba-ja-ma-si-wa-numa), with subtleties of meaning English can’t do. (For a radically un-PC view of this topic, see here.)

And speaking of law schools: If precision of language is our touchstone, shouldn’t we expect to find it in purest form among the nation’s senior jurists, especially those educated in the days before nostalgie de la boue took over the nation’s young minds? Do we in fact find it there in their rulings—in, for example, their 35 years of insisting that using race quotas in college admissions is fine so long as the colleges pretend they’re not doing it?

So my own ruling here is going to be uncharacteristically sanguine. No, of course I don’t like ghetto slang, but I’m not worried about its use among middle-class youth.

Here I fall back on Steve Sailer’s theory that postindustrial Anglosphere social dynamics boil down to smart people making war on dumb people. Eleven-year-old Millie Harding is smart, in fact bilingual, or at least bi-dialectical, and she knows to switch from ghetto patois to RP when addressing authority. The poor dumb losers who actually live in the ghetto have only their patois.

For young overclass postulants such as Millie and my lunch companion’s law students, ghetto culture is a plaything to be put away when they land that executive position at a management consultancy or white-shoe law firm; for the underclass, it’s their actual culture.

As for dialects: Why, a dialect can be very expressive. (I spoke one in childhood.) Poets cherish precision of language even more than jurists do, or at any rate they did back when poetry was taken seriously; yet dialect poetry can attain the highest standards.

The most I’ll concede is that society gets along better if citizens understand what other citizens are saying. In that regard, we have much bigger problems than dialect and slang.

Enough of that; let’s do some forward planning. Next week I shall be in Baltimore for the H. L. Mencken Club annual bash. Willard Espy has some dialect tips:

They call their city Balamer, Murlin. They call garbage gobbidge, legal liggle. Paramour is their word for power mower….

Better start practicing.


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