Traditional interest in the variety of language called ‘slang’ and the usage of this variety has been highly prescriptive, something that budding linguists are always told not to be. Hence, a different approach is needed, namely a more descriptive one that relates to ideas and concepts relating to the field of study called Pragmatics.
A concise definition of the term ‘slang’ is: a dynamic variety of language that is used to show solidarity and claim in-group membership, and as suggested by Gibbs (1994). Slang is also one of the most important ‘mechanisms’ or devices for showing social awareness. This variety of language often occurs around ‘taboo’ subjects such as sex, drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, etc.
According to Lodge (1997), the colloquial or vernacular use of language is extremely important, not only to sociolinguists, but in the study of semantics and meaning in context. In his study, Lodge identifies three features of language variation that he believes are essentially true:
Variability is natural in language and essential to its social role in our everyday lives. A broad and increasing lexicon is essential in order to express the ‘nuances’ of human emotions and personal identity and experiences.
There are no ‘breaks’ in language varieties, meaning that there are no pure homogeneous styles and dialects that exist. Rather, there are scales or gradations of linguistic style and language, and these scales are fluid and are subject to change.
Language variation is not a free or unrestricted process. Even slang is subject to factors that are outside language, such as age, gender, and cultural background.
In-groups and out-groups
An element that is vital to the usage of slang is notion of in-groups and out-groups. One of the reasons that slang develops is the need for group solidarity (Cutting, 2001). This means that a certain group of people,
for example a bunch of moody teenagers, feel the need to alienate their parents and use language that the older generation will not understand. In this case, the in-group would be the teenagers, and the out-group is the parents. The in-group has ‘shared knowledge’ (Cutting, 2001), and amongst the members they all possess the in-group vocabulary.
In addition, and on a slightly more technical note, there is interesting concept of the Standard Pragmatic Model. This model proposes that people would experience difficulty in understanding and interpreting slang, when compared to the literal meanings of the same expressions. The pragmatic model suggests that meaning should not be hidden or obscure, as all language should follow rules like Grice’s Maxims. However, the reason why slang does not follow this model is since in attempting to understand slang on a literal level, it would cause many problems for someone trying to interpret such an utterance. In trying to interpret the factual or accurate denotation, the meaning would be completely irrelevant and nonsensical. This is why the listener is aware that there is a hidden meaning, or connotation behind an utterance.
Knowing when to use Slang
This relates to a concept defined by Gibbs (1994), who suggests that knowing what kind of slang is appropriate in a particular situation is incredibly important. For example, knowing when to use ”inebriated, drunk, wasted or plastered” when referring to consuming lots of alcohol is what identifies in-and out-groups. Or it’s just whether you’re cool or not.