Viewpoints and Notes on Hungarian Slang Research

This study tries to survey certain unavoidable basic problems from the point of view of Hungarian slang research, to draw the outline of the history of Hungarian slang research and some theoretical and practical issues of old Hungarian slang.

I. Slang research and linguistic science: Slang: deviance of the language, slang research: the deviance of the linguist — this sentence gives the summary of the popular view, which, for many years, rendered slang the illustration of incorrect language usage. Until recently, the attention of Hungarian linguists was focused on those language layers that were considered outstanding from the point of view of national language. Slang, as a language phenomenon thought to be peripheral, did not draw attention.

Today the “disadvantageous distinction” of slang is disappearing, it is more and more treated as a sociolinguistic problem, and its importance in the life of a language is being discovered.

II. About the definition of slang: On discussing the birth and function of slang it is important to state that this is primarily not a linguistic, but a (socio ) psychological problem. Slang as a language phenomenon should be discussed in much broader terms than it has been customary in Hungarian literature. Slang is not simply the language variation of a population or a social group that has reached a certain level of civilisation, or a kind of urban popular language of the modern age, but a phenomenon much more widespread both in time and space, what is more: slang is a language universal. The basic, and probably the most important condition of its coming into being is a speech community whose members have intensive daily speech relations with each other. If this intensive speech relation exists, slang phenomena will appear in the language. The more intensive the speech relations of a (speech)community are, the more frequent slang phenomena will be in speech. Crusequently, slang is present in all phases of all spoken languages.

The definition of slang is further complicated by the fact that, by slang, we mean two language phenomena that are closely related, but to be clearly distinquished. This distinction in the description has not been made so far. On the one hand, slang is a word- and phrase-stock, on the other hand, it is a unique form of language usage and stylistics: speech style, or applying Bahtyin’s term: one genre of speech.

Slang is a complex language phenomenon. On describing the types of slang, one must not forget that slang always develops in speech communities (in small groups from the point of view of sociology), therefore, theoretically, we can talk of as many slangs in our language as many speech communities we suppose there to exist.

These slangs can be grouped on the basis of common features. These types take place on three levels, based on the degree of linguistic abstraction:

a) Small group-slangs are the really existing slangs of speech communities. This language material, due to the nature of the group, serves the naming and renaming of important realia for the members.

b) Large group-slangs can be abstracted from the identical features of the slangs of small groups of the identical features, and therefore they are more or less related. Large-group slangs can be broken down into two bigger types:

— Local slangs, by which we mean the large group slangs formed locally (the slang of a village, neighbourhood, school). (It is characteristic of this slang type, that its vocabulary is independent of professions, it originates in the general vocabulary of small group-slangs.)

— Professional slangs are characteristic of groups formed according to profession or interest (military, student, thief, football player, drug addict etc.). (The vocabulary of professional slang depends on profession, it originates in the special slang-vocabulary of small groups of the same profession.)

c) Public slang is formed by the wide-spread words of local and professional slangs. This slang type, shared by the language community, covers slang words that are recognised independently of place or profession.

The life and expansion of slang and its vocabulary is greatly influenced by the features of the group. The differences between communities can be indicated not only by the birth of different slangs, but by considerable differences in the usage of the established slang as well, for example, the number of words the group uses, the coverage of certain words and concepts, the size of synonym sequences, the compulsory or optional slang usage, etc.

III. The history of Hungarian slang research: Systematic linguistic surveys, which can be considered the antecedents of modern slang research, were introduced in Hungary about 100 years ago. The first period of slang research (becoming more and more linguistic in nature) lasted from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the end the first quarter of the twentieth century. These three decades were characterised by the widespread research of cant and student-jargon, and the interest in the “(Buda)pest jargon”.

At the end of the last century slang research started off by the survey of student jargon. The most outstanding study of this early period is Károly Dobos: A magyar diáknyelv és szótára (1898) [The Hungarian Student Jargon and its Dictionary], which is the first Hungarian slang dictionary as well.

The thematically rich slang research of the first quarter of the twentieth century was followed by a fifty-year long period when the study of this language variation slipped to the background. The unfavourable approach from the point of view of language cultivation was the most characteristic feature of the 1930–1980 period.

It seemed that, from the end of the Second World War till the 1960’s, there were no significant studies in Hungarian slang research. Today we know, that there were two major unjustly forgotten initatives for exploring Hungarian slang, which, first in the history of Hungarian slang research, tried to collect all the vocabulary items of Hungarian slang in a single dictionary. One of these studies was the etymological dictionary by Béla Zolnai, the other was the work of Vilmos Zolnay and Mihály Gedényi, A magyar fattyúnyelv szótára [The Dictionary of Hungarian Slang]. Unfortunately, neither of these works could be published.

The revival of Hungarian slang research started in the 1960’s, when, primarily with the didactic intention of language cultivating and didactic intention, the language usage of young people was examined. This new tendency meant narrowing both in scope and method of slang research, but at the same time it resulted in the beginning of newer approaches.

We can talk about modern slang research (as well as about the introduction of the technical term slang into linguistic terminology) since the publication of an article by Mihály Péter in 1980, entitled Szleng és költői nyelvhasználat [Slang and Poetic Language Usage]. This study raised several questions that could not be answered by traditional research of youth language, so, necessarily, it widened the scope of studies and led them in new directions.

IV. Notes on the research of the history of Hungarian slang: In the concluding chapter of my study I described the language relics of Hungarian slang between the 14–19th centuries. (The oldest recognised slang word is the name of a pickpocket Zagyurwagou [i.e.: bag cutter, ‘pickpocket’] from 1364, the first (cant) glossaries were collectedted in 1775–1776.) The aim of this chapter was not only to list individual glossaries and records, but to give a brief summary of slang, the usage of slang, and the features generally characteristic of the users of slang.