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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’

As such, it must come from somewhere. People demand that it should come from somewhere. It has creation myths. Like the Biblical original they are undoubtedly unsound. They involve a great leader and his community of criminal beggars and the establishment of codes both social and linguistic. In France it was le Grand Coesre, a word surely linked to Caesar, who gathers his followers and lays down the laws, including those of secret communication. In England it was one Cock Lorel, King of the Beggars, who performed the same office, bringing his people together at the pleasingly named Devil’s Arse Peak in Derbyshire. But since cock lorel means no more than what we would term a ‘top villain’, then this story must be just that: a story.

And if as I say slang is hard-wired, then the creation myths are just that: myths. Nonetheless the need for secrecy was genuine. The French term  argot denoted a people before it was a language (or rather jargon) and when it became a language, then it was for criminals only. In France, at least, this was probably true until the last world war: the milieu had its own lexis and it, as much as any street, delineated its boundaries. It was not the same as l’argot commun, the slang of civilian life. It is harder to see where cant, the criminal jargon of the underworld and the slang of the common user draw their lines in the Anglophone world. Cant dictionaries abounded, albeit plagiarizing relentlessly each from its predecessor, until the 19th century. But by the end of the 17th they were already being overlapped and the cant words that appear in volume after volume are estranged ever further from their original users. Today we all speak ghetto, black American, a by-product of rap’s world-conquering proliferation.

And then there is the job itself.

The lexicographer as Johnson informed us, tongue surely deep in cheek, is a harmless drudge. Maybe so when the research is in train, but when the dictionary appears and the world consults it, then the drudge has turned deity, somewhat tin-pot of course, but a deity whose commandments are heeded, nonetheless. I speak, of course, only for myself, but I wonder.

As slang lexicographers we are making a vast and complex concrete structure with no choice but to settle its foundations on sand – sometimes well-packed sand, sand that at its best can be moulded into a prize-winning castle that wows the beach, but otherwise shifting sand, at worst even quicksand with all its treacheries.

Such records that we have of early slang use are as frustrating as they are insufficiently informative. Slang was not a privileged discourse; slang was thus left largely unrecorded. The earliest material on which we draw is minimal, quite fragmentary. Some 13th century passion plays in France, a few terms in Chaucer or Piers Ploughman, the trial, in 1455, of the mendicant Coquillards in Dijon, the near incomprehensible poetry of Villon, the so-called ‘beggar books’ of 16th century Europe. In no sense is this a substantial record. And in nearly all cases these are examples of underworld jargons, of criminal codes rather than general slang. Yet the fact that records are relatively scanty in no way ‘proves’ that such codes had not existed, to take the UK as an example, priot to Robert Copland’s glossary of c.1535 or, as in Germany, the Liber Vagatorum of 1510. As for slang ‘proper’, France’s bas-langage, literally ‘low language’, slang as used by the butcher, the baker and their urban peers, the term does not even exist, at least as so far recorded in England, until 1756.

I do not care. That there are no records in no way ‘proves’ the language’s non-existence. I cannot ‘prove’ that I am right, but I believe that I am. I believe in a natural, even hard-wired human drift from conformity. In language as in other aspects of existence. The dictionary, which to the best of its writer’s ability, must deal with unimpeachable facts, cannot allow itself this luxury – and nor can I in making one. But in theory, if not in practice, I can and do.

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