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Taking Slang Seriously II

December 28th, 2010

What I do know is that I have dedicated my life to taking slang seriously. In every sense of the phrase. Amassing a database and thence a dictionary from the widest possible sources, and assessing what I have found in a manner that I hope both exceeds and by-passes the slipshod, easy dismissal of the topic as ‘dirty words’.

That said, slang certainly offers a vocabulary and a voice to all our negatives. Our inner realities: lusts, fears, hatreds, self indulgences. It subscribes to nothing but itself – no belief systems, no true believers, no faith, no religion, no politics, no party. It is, for Freudians, the linguistic id.

The id, as laid out in the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis of 1933:  ;is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, […]  most of this is of a negative character […]. We all approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.’

Id. The German and before that Latin for ‘it’. And it, as you will all know, stands in slang for sex.

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Taking Slang Seriously III

December 28th, 2010

And for all that I suggested earlier, is it really a language? or no more than an aggregation of words. A lexis. A vocabulary. If a language demands the fulfillment of certain rules: pronunciation, word order, grammar, then no, it is not. It is marginal, used by the marginal, expresses marginality. Those who use it may see it as a language, they may be wrong. That posited etymology, the s for ‘secret’ and lang for ‘language’ suggests that the belief is deep. But that suggested etymology is wrong too. It may be, or rather may have been secret, but no matter: it still fails the tests that render it a fully fledged language. What it is, perhaps, is a lexis of synonymy. There are themes: topics it embraces, the philosophy of its use (‘counter’ / ‘subversive’) but even if it demands dictionaries, it is not a language as such.

Yet with all that said, the diagram with which Sir James Murray, its first editor, prefaced the OED, setting linguistic groupings around a central core,  does equate slang with jargon / technical terms / dialect / etc. as equally valuable subsets of the over-riding ‘English language’. Even if Murray seems to mix the concepts of ‘vocabulary’ and language’.

The current OED offers this under language

Definition 1.a. The system of spoken or written communication used by a particular country, people, community, etc., typically consisting of words used within a regular grammatical and syntactic structure.

In that case, no. It is not a system. Nor, even if Victor Hugo wrote, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, of ‘the kingdom of argot’, and playwrights such as Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson rendered visible a ‘beggar’s brotherhood’, is it a community. But let us look further:

Definition 2. a. The form of words in which something is communicated; manner or style of expression

Then yes, slang is certainly that. And here the OED even cross-references to ‘slangism’ and ‘slanguage’

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Taking Slang Seriously (IV)

December 28th, 2010

Lexicography might be represented as the great jigsaw puzzle. Constantly turning the bits until one fits another and gradually, so gradually, the picture emerges.

And like the accumulation of money for the very rich, who no longer need it, the amassing of a slang dictionary is no more than a means of ‘keeping score’. Or if one seeks an alternative image, slang lexicography – perhaps all lexicography – is an attempt to map a territory that remains fluid, shifting and in the end un-mappable. The lack of full and/or accessible records ensures that we must leave blank spaces on our maps. ‘Here Be Dragons’ or anthropophagi – or at least we hope so. But the ‘game’ will continue whether or not the score is maintained; the territory exists, mapped or otherwise. The interested world requires its guides.

But the slang dictionary, that shifting, unfinished scorecard, that map that can never fill in every territory, is inadequate in almost every way.

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The Rat Language

December 28th, 2010

The rat cannot speak. It can communicate – rat to rat, and in extremis rat to human and doubtless other predators   – or more properly vocalise, in a series of tones and registers that mainly exist beyond human hearing. Only when, characteristically, the human brings pain to the rat, can its squeaks be heard. Perhaps it is better thus: were rats to speak, their justified charge-sheet of human cruelties, tortures and misrepresentations might even prove shameful to that one fellow creature that surpasses all others in its capacity for inflicting pain. But even could rats speak, it is unlikely that they would be heard, or if heard attended. For if rats, those quintessential denizens of the literal and metaphorical lower depths could speak, then their language would be of those depths. If rats spoke, they would not adopt the standard, privileged as it is on every level. If rats spoke, they would speak slang.

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Pennac vs Argot

October 19th, 2010

Just finished reading my friend Sarah Ardizzone’s mistressly (?) translation of the French novelist and former teacher Daniel Pennac’s School Blues (Maclehose Press ISBN 978-1-906694-64-7). It originally came out last year in France as Chagrin d’école and like everything Pennac does – he’s considered a national treasure across the Channel – sold in spades. The book, essentially an extended essay, is an autobiographical memoir coupled with a dissertation on Pennac’s take on teaching French, i.e. French grammar and literature, to teenage pupils who, as he himself was once was, are categorised as cancres, or dunces.

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