Jannis K. Androutsopoulos

Extending the concept of the (socio)linguistic variable to slang

Although slang is a socially rooted part of language, genuinely sociolinguistic concepts and methods are hardly ever used in slang research. This paper argues for a sociolinguistically oriented slang analysis. In particular, it aims at applying the concept of the sociolinguistic variable to slang, using data from German youth language. The theoretical part of this paper starts off with a review of the properties of a sociolinguistic variable (e.g. referential or functional equivalence of variants, social distribution of variants etc.), thereby pointing out that it is legitimate to use the sociolinguistic variable as a tool in slang description. On this basis, some concepts for carrying out slang analysis are discussed. It is argued that a realistic description of slang needs to extend beyond slang lexicon, and to consider certain word formation patterns, syntactic features, and discourse markers. As far as slang lexicon is concerned, the distinction between form variants and lexicosemantic variants is discussed. As regards the content of a variable (i.e. the number of its variants), the traditional concept of a standard-slang lexical pair is supplemented by the “set of variants”, i.e. a group of referentially or functionally equivalent slang items. In the empirical part of the paper, six types of slang variables are introduced: word forms, formatives, idiomatic constructions, lexicosemantic units, syntactic units, and discourse markers. The last section of the paper discusses the question of slang renewal. Whereas the standard practice of slang studies consists in listing processes of lexical renewal (e.g. word formation patterns or borrowing), it is argued that the relations between these processes and the variables they operate on need to be considered as well. Moreover, the composition of a set of variants is proposed as an effective means of capturing slang renewal. In sum, the aim of this paper is to introduce and discuss concepts and tools which can improve the modelling of variation and change in slang.