Slang and culture

The book Slang and culture provides a comprehensive description of Russian slang as a cultural phenomenon. The opposition of normative ("literary") language and non-normative ("non-standard") one is traditional for Russian linguistics, the former being normally associated with high culture and the latter with various subcultures. All these phenomena are described separately although their relation is obvious.

Introduction. The analysis of slang is based on naturally occurring language data presented by the author in his Dictionary of Moscow slang (published in Moscow in 1994, and containing approximately 8000 words and 3000 idioms). This material dates from the 1980s and early 1990s. The introduction offers a brief overview of works on Russian slang (by Larine, Polivanov, Likhatchev, Zirmunskij, Straten, Baudouin de Courtenay, and Bondaletov etc.). These authors used different terms, 'argot', 'jargon', 'slang', and 'social dialect', to refer to slang. Finding the optimal term is still problematic: the term 'slang' is used in this book as a working solution. The terminological problem is connected to the question of the essence and philosophy of slang. The majority of linguistic works about this phenomenon touches only upon some of its aspects like word formation, lexical metaphors, and the borrowing of slang words from other languages etc. Instead, a complex analysis of slang is necessary which presents it as a part of language and of culture at the same time.

I. Slang as a cultural phenomenon. Slang as a part of culture. This chapter treats the dynamics of the development of slang. Slang is a universal fact of culture. We can find the equivalents of modern slang in the Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and in the modern era. All slang passes through the same developmental cycles.

Phase one is when slang is a closed formation, that is, it constitutes a closed, secret language of a social group. The range of social groups and of their languages (stylistic systems) is very wide, ranging from priests, theosophists through revolutionaries to thieves and businessmen. The characteristics of their slang are different, just like the social functions of the groups are different. But the inner structures of their languages are similar: they are naturally enclosed, or hermetic. This stage of ontological genesis of slang exists in compliance with the laws of hermetic nature where the "we-they" opposition dominates. One can distinguish three types of hermetic slang: (i) "logosic" (from the Greek logos "word, thought"), (ii) professional, and (iii) playful.

In the first type of slang, the hermetic nature is especially strong. The members of a hermetical community typically believe that they are "chosen by God" and they know the Supreme Truth (The Secret). Their ontological aim is to keep this secret from others who are not initiated. Hermetic slang is intimately related to prehistoric, magical culture. But we see the reflexes of these old hermetical structures in many modern phenomena as well, e.g. in franc-macon semiotics, in aristocratic, elitist poetry, the criminal world, and even the rites of Soviet young communist movement, the pioneers.

Hermetical pathos is noticeably weaker in professional slang. Professionals keep their secrets from others, but their motivations are more pragmatic than spiritual. The main structural difference between logosic and professional slang consists in the following: logosic hermetics does not reflect the real world through its symbolic, conventional language (cf. for example, alchemists' language), while professional languages reflect some details of everyday life. Through the latter we can study the age and its everyday life, and in this sense they are "historical". A professional argot is almost always an expression of its time. The chapter offers detailed information about professional languages: a description of ofenias', i.e. Russian vagrant merchants' language, that of early 20th century barbers, of modern merchants, and of the military, among other things. In modern Russia we can see a flourishing of professional slang.

The third type of hermetics is a playful hermetics. It is often cultivated in families or in youth groups. There is always a play element in any hermetical slang, but here we have playing for playing's sake, where the secret becomes playful. Playful slang has a very important function in cultural history. A playful stage often creates the particularities of entire generations or of remarkable persons. A case in point is, for example, Bulgakov.

The hermetical stage of slang has a tendency to gradually open, to weaken. A closed system becomes claustrophobic, and sooner or later the hermetical argot goes out into the streets, where it is parodied and ridiculed. This stage of an ontological cycle is figuratively called cynical.

Cynics represent a very typical phenomenon as far as slang is concerned. The stylistic (poetic or rhetoric) system of their slang is based upon a displacement between the "high" (hermetical, sacral) and the "low" ("plebeian"). Cynics are "wise fools", they ridicule themselves and others. The cynical stage of slang is very dynamic. The cynical stage becomes especially strong during unstable periods. For example, in 20th century Russia cynicism becomes one of leading directions of verbal art. The cynical type constitutes many texts of Russian prose and poetry (cf. Mayakovsky, Brodsky, Erofeev, and others). A cynical orientation presupposes a cynical system of behaviour, too (cf. hippies etc.).

The third stage of opening of the slang system can be conventionally characterised as the "Rabelais" stage. The "Rabelais stage" as a cultural and philosophical phenomenon has been described by Bakhtin with the medieval European carnival as an application. The carnival (or "Rabelais stage") is clearly reflected in modern Russian slang and in the argot in general. The wealth of modern Russian swearing (the famous mat) is typologically close to the verbal carnival culture of medieval European peoples, although structurally "the Russian carnival" is very different from its European counterpart. The "Rabelais stage" slang is the most open and democratic slang.

The connection between the hermetic, cynical and "Rabelais" stages is dialectical. The elements of practically any slang pass through typologically similar stages from hermetism (with maximal closure) to cynicism (the opening of the system) and finally to the "Rabelais" stage (the maximal opening). Then in the depth of "Rabelais" stage the seeds of a new hermetical system appears.

II. The composition of slang; Its reflection of cultural phenomena. The first part of the chapter deals with slang loan-words and cultural and national subject matter in slang. The second treats social and cultural referents in slang.

1. Russian slang incorporates borrowings from dozens of different peoples. They are loan-words from other languages in Russian slang, and reflections of "cultural" subjects of different peoples in idioms, funny stories etc.

Finno-Ugric loan-words and reference to these peoples are the oldest. There is a rich material of loan-words from Finnish, Mordvinian, and Hungarian etc. The "laughing", "parody" subject of these peoples is not well represented: this fact is a consequence of a rich history of relations, of the adaptation of the peoples to each other, and of relatively few cultural conflicts between these peoples.

Hebraisms and Jewish subjects have a special place in Russian slang. Their origins (in late 19th and early 20th century) are in a thieves' language from which many Hebraisms passed into the common city language. Furthermore, a Jewish accent in pronunciation and some Hebrew grammatical features became compulsory elements of modern Russian slang. Hebraisms are an important part of the modern Russian culture of laughter.

The majority of Gypsyisms in Russian slang also originate in the thieves' language. A particular feature of Gypsy loans and of the Gypsy subject matter is their wide range of realisations, from purely pragmatical thieves' terms to the romantic idealisation of Gypsy people (reflected, for instance, in Blok's poetry etc.).

Turkic elements, like Finno-Ugric loans, belong to the oldest layers of Russian culture and slang. Besides an enormous quantity of loans from Turkic languages in various forms of Russian slang (especially artisans' slang), Turkic elements can be considered an ontological base of the Asian subject matter in Russian culture, which is in a complete opposition with the European subject matter.

Anglicisms, Germanisms and Gallicisms are widely presented in Russian culture and slang. If German and French loans were especially intensive in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the modern language Anglicisms and Americanisms are the most widespread. Each of these has its own place in Russian culture (for instance, the German subject matter in Gogol's works, the French in Miatlev's, and the Anglo-American in Russian hippies' language etc.).

2. The criminal subject matter has played a special role in Russia. It has greatly influenced all others (e.g. student and professional slang). The archetype of "the good robber" is very popular in Russian verbal culture (see the poems of Visotskii).

The army as a subject matter is present in a large quantity of army argot due to universal military service in the former Soviet Union and in modern Russia. It also often occurs in the poetically absurd language, which is still very widely used in the mass media.

Professional argot and corporative argot have different tendencies. Some of it is expressly aesthetical (visual artists' language etc.); other branches are more primitive (drivers' or sportsmen's languages).

Youth and children slang and the corresponding subcultures have attracted most attention from linguists and culturologists in the second half of the 20th century. This type of slang is the most mobile. It has a tendency to loan from very different fields of language and culture. Observations show that the cynical stage is very strong in youth language.

III. The poetics of slang. Slang follows the rules of the rest of the language. It does not have its specific grammar (except for some purely parodying grammatical means). The specificity of slang is expressed in pronunciation and in intonation, the lexicon, word formation, and in some specially employed rhetorical devices used to construct discourse.

1. Slang word formation and its poetic and aesthetic function. Slang word formation has been studied comprehensively in Russian linguistics (see Zemskaia, Bondaletov etc.). The most productive elements in slang are suffixes. The present work discusses several dozen of the most productive suffixes.

Word formation creates a typical rhythmical design of a word, especially in compliance with the iambic, trochaic and amphibrach models. The aesthetics of word formation in slang has a tendency for simplification (cases of truncation are good examples) and for a supercomplicated organisation (for instance, in cases of exotic word formation). The range of word formation means is very wide, including parodical abbreviation, pseudo cryptoformations, adverbs formed from names etc.

2. A verbal image in slang. It is necessary to stress that images are created in the slang culture only on a verbal level. An important role is also played by gestures and graphics. The verbal image itself is very specific in slang. One can distinguish expressive images with an "onomaciological" tendency (from an onomatopoeic word to an image), and images with a "semaciological" tendency (from an image meaning to a word). These tendencies are intimately interconnected. In slang, images are built in the sphere of some semantic fields. Associations and analogies serving as a base for different metaphors or metonyms are usually peripheral. The deciphering of a verbal image requires a deep cultural background knowledge. Slang shows a clear tendency to the creation of oxymorons and euphemisms. The dominant tone of modern Russian slang humour is characterised by both "superprimitivism" and "superaesthetism" of the parody type, bordering on the absurd.

3. Slang in speech. Slang rhetorics. Modern speech as a whole keeps a traditional ramified system of city folklore genres, especially of youth and scholarly speech. It includes parody mini dialogues, proverbs, comical riddles, invectives (i.e. teasing phrases), parody slogans, comical threats, and ritual dialogues. Many elements of speech are borrowed from literature (texts by Bulgakov, Ilf and Petrov, Kharms, Erofeev), films, and cartoons ("White sun of the desert", "Diamond arm", "Just you wait" etc.). Traditional idioms are also actively parodied. It also contains important changes (in youth speech) of the structure of Russian phonetics with its reduction system (e.g. the widening of an "a-accent").

Aesthetical slang characteristics are superaesthetism, the absurd, and simplification. These characteristics are distinguished as a result of a detailed analysis of modern slang data (Chapters 2 and 3), and are found to correspond to the ontological slang status described in Chapter 1. Generally, slang as a cultural and linguistic system moves in its development from a closed superaesthetism (hermetism) to an open, parodying absurd system (cynicism), and finally to a completely open and primitive "Rabelais" stage where a formation of a new hermetical system begins.

The conclusion underlines once more the importance of a cultural and philosophical analysis of slang with both universal and specifically national features of this culture.

The bibliography lists 300 works on Russian slang as well as theoretical works on slang genres in different cultures.