Mona Forsskåhl

On the definition of slang

In this paper I have attempted to formulate a definition of slang, taking into account both language system and discourse practices, which are fundamentally social in character. This, a “dialogistic” perspective on language, is thoroughly presented in the Swedish linguist Per Linell’s book Approaching Dialogue (1998). Through this perspective the language system and discursive practices are seen as interdependent, with none of them having any absolute priority over the other. I find this starting point very natural: slang is, after all, mainly a form of language that lives in and through discourse. What I have attempted to do is to establish a basis — an operational definition — for distinguishing slang from nonslang in authentic talk-in-interaction, the primary material for language research within the dialogistic paradigm. I believe that such a dialogistic approach can contribute to the further knowledge and understanding of slang as a universal language phenomenon.

I have developed my definition on the basis of four criteria formulated by the American linguists Bethany Dumas and Jonathan Lighter in the 1970s. They found that any one-sentence definition on slang would be far too vague and did indeed question the whole concept of slang as useful within linguistics (1978: 14ff). In spite of this they formed four criteria for identifying (American) slang.

I have discussed the four criteria and the conclusions drawn by Dumas and Lighter in relation to authentic conversation. As a conclusion I have reformulated them so that only three criteria are needed:

1. An element can be considered as slang when it is responded to as violating norms that the participants in a conversation perceived as established and conventional within a more formal context.

2. An element can be considered as slang if other participants in a conversation respond to it as a means of identifying the speaker as a member or a potential member of a group or as an expression of the speaker’s wish to identificate with the group or subculture where the element is commonly used.

3. An element can be considered as slang if there is evidence of some intentionality of a social character on the speaker’s side when uttering it and it consequently achieves a certain goal, dependent on the specific context.

What purpose can this definition serve? The choice of a dialogistic framework does not permit me to use these criteria in an abstract way, out of a specific context, and apply them to the system of slang in general. I cannot use these criteria to say anything about a word taken out of its context, a word in abstracto, in a historical study of slang and its development. But then again, this is not my goal in this paper.

Within a synchronic study of slang in actual use and production, this operational definition can serve to point out a group of elements consistent with characteristics that distinguish what speakers generally would call slang. A close study of these may, and, hopefully, will show that even if there are no formal characteristics of slang that can be applied universally (or even crosslinguistically), there are functional and situational characteristics of slang usage that are not strictly culture- or language-specific.