Mihály Péter

“Twenty years later”

Former and recent thoughts about slang

The title of the paper refers to the author’s 1980 article “Slang and poetic language”, which made the first attempt to recommend ‘slang’ as a linguistic term in Hungarian scholarly usage. The present paper addresses theoretical issues in connection with slang.

The difficulty of defining slang is due partly to its dynamic and ephemeral nature and partly to the fact that it occupies different positions in the systems of language use of different national speech communities, and this affects the function and content of slang as well.

It is necessary to clearly separate the notions of ‘jargon’, ‘argot’, and ‘slang’. The essence of jargons is that they are sociolects and can be of two different kinds: 1. the specialized language use (especially vocabulary) of occupational groups or other groups united by a common activity, which serves as a nonofficial form of communication within the given group and expresses in-group membership (of being an accepted or “initiated” member of the group); and 2. the informal language use of various social groups and classes which expresses a unified outlook and judgment. The most important characteristic of argot is its attempt to make speech secret (cryptolalia), which is a feature of the language use of the underworld and other socially marginal groups. Slang is different from jargon and argot primarily in its widespread use in the given speech community. Its most important characteristics are its expressiveness and high level of synonymity, that is, a consciously different use of linguistic means, motivated usually by a certain social and cultural nonconformity. Slang is not a sociolect and not a style but a way of speaking defined by the attitude of its user. Slang is to the point, but it isn’t obscene. Slang receives elements from jargons and argot as well, and, in turn, provides new elements to colloquial usage and informal style.

At present there is not enough evidence available to decide whether slang is a linguistic universal or not. But in any case, such opposing language preserving tendencies as preservation of linguistic traditions and innovation, the automatization and actualization of language use point to the general and potential tendency of the development of slang.

A general characteristic of a period of social and political changes is that slang overcomes its boundaries and sweeps over into spheres of language use other than everyday colloquial conversational language. This is not necessarily a negative phenomenon, especially that slang “retreats” to inside its boundaries as soon as the new social and cultural order of values is strengthened.