A big up to nang slang

September 23, 2005

Student argot is rich in creative tricks and rhetorical devices, and is spoken by thousands of young people. So why do academics refuse to engage with it? asks Tony Thorne

"The test was a stroller; I rinsed it."

"I'm totally twatted after that aardvark sesh."

"He used to be a bit of a catalogue man, but she seems to think he's well bun."

"I think he's chung, too - but I heard he'd dingo'd her."

These snatches of conversation, overheard not far from my office on campus, point to one of the most fertile sources of novel language usage today.

Nang, for example, is a word familiar to hundreds of thousands of speakers aged 12 to 25 across the UK. It means "great" or "wonderful" and comes either from a Thai proper name or from the Hindi and Bengali for "naked".

How and why those young people are using it is a story that fascinates me.

But nang belongs to the one language linguists refuse to learn. It is a language that is sophisticated, innovative and ubiquitous - not merely a means of transferring information, but a vehicle for humour, a symbol of solidarity and an essential component of social ritual. There is huge public interest in such linguistic novelty, witnessed not least by the dramatic increase in the number of websites recording and celebrating slang and jargon. These are funny, dynamic and surprisingly comprehensive, in addition to being user-driven and interactive. But they lack the scholarly rigour and, ultimately, the authority that academics could provide. Yet professional linguists, despite student slang being readily available - in the UK at least - have chosen to completely ignore it.

Students in higher and further education are remarkably creative and innovative language users. This should hardly be surprising because they should be the most articulate and self-aware section of society, unconstrained by parents' or teachers' disapproval, or the strictures of the adult workplace. But students' role as impresarios of slang is relatively recent, dating back, as far as I can tell, to the late 1980s.

Before then, it was younger teenagers or older professionals - soldiers, police officers, criminals - who set the pace. Of course, students are privileged linguistically, speaking from a kind of intersection where all types of slang - of young and old, drawn from family and workplace, from local and global sources, learned and street - mingle with their own original coinages.

They are especially fond of puns (a "Pavarotti" for a tenner), borrowings ("action gagnée" for a successful seduction, "rasmala" for a sweetheart), knowing revivals of earlier terms ("smashing", "posh", "groovy") and their own rhymes: "Mahatma" (randy), "Posh and Becks" (sex), "Britneys" (beers), "Mariah" (scary), "Jekyll" (snide). For them, slang has little to do with study - instead, it is about bonding by way of bragging, raillery, "dissing" or "chirpsing".

It might be said that slang was never intended for the wider world but exists only for the purposes of secrecy and subversion. This may be true of Parisian verlan, the Indian tongue exclusive to mothers-in-law or Polish prisoners' grypserka . But student slang is not what the linguist Michael Halliday called an "anti-language" - an insider's code invented by outsiders - it is more a knowing celebration of diversity and (to use that dreadful word) empowerment.

Can academics even talk the talk - let alone walk the walk - when it comes to engaging with slang and colloquialism? There is still a vestigial stuffiness or sniffiness that prevents them from getting to grips with real, current English; the authentic demotic - as opposed to literary or historical versions of it.

The writers, teachers, students and parents who contact me to ask about linguistic novelties often make the same complaints. These range from "Academic linguists won't or can't answer the questions we want to ask"" to "If they have the knowledge, they are unwilling to communicate it to us in words we understand."

As far as their research goes, as one journalist lamented to me, the academy is talking only to itself. This is not to denigrate the work being done by linguists in the areas they have chosen to concentrate on, merely to suggest that they are missing a trick and that more engagement with their own students and the wider public would be good for all three constituencies.

An unwillingness to engage with this type of language is a conscious or unconscious social prejudice, or a deliberate imposing of academic boundaries. Whichever is the case, that is indefensible. We should be excited by language change and new coinages, not merely recoil from them or take them for granted.

Looked at objectively, slang is in no way substandard. It has claims to rival poetry, with which it shares all the creative tricks of word formation - compounding, blending, inversion and so on - Jand all the rhetorical devices - metaphor, irony, alliteration and the rest - available to Western languages. The only difference is that poetry plays on its ambiguity and allusiveness, whereas slang depends on shared understanding.

In the multilingual, multicultural real world, code and style-shifting and borrowing from other languages has become the norm. Speakers of the demotic are adept at choosing the right register for the right context - formal for exams and job interviews, street-smart for the club or bar. Slang is now routinely admitted into the media and is celebrated there, along with cliche, catchphrase, jargon and all the other sub-varieties of colloquial speech.

Beyond the academic compound, old distinctions between respectable and unacceptable have simply dissolved, and even so-called taboo language can be printed in the quality press and uttered in post-watershed broadcasts.

The descriptive terms used by linguists - "nonstandard", "stigmatised" - are out of date. But even if we admit that slang, jargon and the rest are not a top priority for teaching, they surely merit study - Jnot as something inherently marginal or exceptional, but as part of that fascinating spectrum of registers, codes, dialects that lies behind the myth of a monolithic "British English".

Slang is no more or less a "nonstandard variety" than is the language of bureaucracy and corporate culture ("metrics", "deliverable", "iteration") or of academic critical theory ("discourses", "performative", "intertextuality"). I recently took part in a radio debate - part of the BBC's recent "Voices" season - that drew out the angry e-mailers and phone callers protesting, as they and their predecessors have done since Roman times, against the contamination and decline of language. On the programme, Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools, referred to adolescents "babbling" and to their "inarticulacy". By the end of the show, though, we had begun to agree that the failure to teach "proper" English convincingly and the upsurge in other forms of language are two different phenomena.

It is wrong to assume that the creation of slang, jargon and linguistic novelties subverts "good English", which is just the neutral or prestige dialect and is one among many. The liberated use of all our language's potential does not edge out or replace formal or literary styles. Rather, it extends our linguistic repertoire, pushes the boundaries of the sayable.

By shunning the debate and focusing all their attentions elsewhere, academics, liberals in the main, are unwittingly allying themselves with the puritans - and puritanism in language has always been a lost cause.

I'm with those romantics who suggest we are returning to a far-from-pure Elizabethan world of linguistic licence and that this should be a cause for celebration. Why not embrace the abbreviations of txt msging? Why just study slang - why not learn it and use it? To revive the moribund tradition of "high-table wit", to inject a little spice into arid pedagogy, what better way forward for teachers than to play creatively, like their students, with the fantastic potential of global English and to fashion a glittering conversation worthy of Rabelais, Burns, Runyon - or, come to that, of Ali G and Snoop Dogg.

Tony Thorne is director of the language centre at King's College London and author of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang , published this month by A&C Black, £19.99.

CAMPUS SPEAK

Aardvark - hard work
Big up - praise
Blin, battered, lifted, hamstered, rubbered - drunk
Boom, nang, nanging - excellent
Bun, chung - attractive
Cagoule - nerd
Catalogue man - unstylish dresser
Chirpsing - flirting
Cotching, jamming - relaxing
Dingo - to stand up or dump (a partner)
Diss - to snub or belittle
Get down with - become friendly with
Gout, gruse, jank - awful
Hectic, nectar, tusty - excellent
Keener, beaner - swot
Ledge - show-off
Long, gay, dry - tedious
Meeting, lipsing - kissing
On one's J's/bates - alone
Ornamental - Oriental person
Papes, cheese - money
Rinse it - succeed
Road - streetwise
Scrapaloids, scripaloids, chuddies - underpants
Sesh - session
Stroller - easy task
Twatted - exhausted

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