The Power of Slang
• In 1892, Walt Whitman described slang as
“the start of fancy, imagination and humor,
breathing into its nostrils the breath of life.”
• In the century-plus since Whitman’s lyrical
characterization, the America that Whitman
knew has been radically transformed by
immigration, industrialization, urbanization
and mass communication.
Slang of American youth
• Because of these changes and for the
reasons suggested by Whitman, slang —
with its breath of life — has permeated
• Slang is to a large extent ephemeral, and
so to survive it must constantly regenerate;
both the ephemeral and regenerative traits
are nowhere more apparent than in the
slang of American youth.
• Slang pervades American speech to a
startling degree. Its popularity can be
gauged by the rush of journalists,
politicians and purveyors of popular
culture to embrace the latest word or
phrase to spice up a newspaper headline,
stump speech, advertisement or television
Sense of Commonality
• Slang’s primary reason for being, to
establish a sense of commonality among
its speakers, further ensures its
widespread use. When slang is used,
there is a subtext to the primary message.
That subtext speaks to the speaker’s and
listeners’ membership in the same “tribe.”
• Because “tribe” identity is so important,
slang as a powerful and graphic
manifestation of that identity’s benefits. At
times the primary message is not in the
meaning of what is said, but in the very
use of slang — a compelling example of
how the medium can be the message.
• The four factors that are the most likely to produce
slang are youth, oppression, sports and vice, which
provide an impetus to coin and use slang for
different sociolinguistic reasons.
• Of these four factors, youth is the most powerful
stimulus for the creation and distribution of slang.
For, although we are not all members of a group
that is oppressed by a dominant culture, or sports
fanatics immersed in the language and lore of the
game, and we do not all dip our toes into the pool
of vice with its attendant argot, we are all young
• When we are young, we are subject to the
generational imperative to invent a slang
vocabulary that we perceive as our own,
rejecting the slang of our older brothers
and sisters (let alone our parents) in favor
of a new lexicon.
Born in the USA
• The Global Spread of American Slang
Slang lets young people around the world
share a common culture.
• American slang has become a global
code, with colorful examples from the
German music scene.
Cool, wicked, chill, dope, nerd.
• Young people around the world use this
kind of slang to show they’re connected to
American pop culture.
• Slang’s main social function is to signal
belonging: American slang marks the
speaker or writer as an active and
informed member of global youth culture.
Exclusive and global
• Vernacular English is powerfully expressive
because — paradoxically — it is both exclusive
and global. In any host society, American slang
lives in a world of linguistic and cultural
knowledge not available at school or in
• American slang lives in the specialized media of
the young, such as CD booklets, songs and
video clips, magazines and Web sites.
Global code for youth
• Through the media, young people enter
fan communities where they learn to
incorporate certain forms of English into
both their speech and writing to show that
they’re a part of youth culture.
• As a result, American slang and related
resources have become a global code for
youth worldwide embedded in a local code
— the national language.
Flipped out = ausgeflippt, flippato,
• When host languages incorporate slang
and jargon, speakers inflect loan nouns
and verbs just like native items and build
compounds of English and native nouns.
• For instance, flipped out comes as
ausgeflippt in German, flippato in Italian,
flippé in French, and fliparisménos in
• In German, English verb phrases are partially
translated, yielding abchecken (check out),
ausflippen (flip out), abhängen (hang out),
abrippen (rip off), among others. Interestingly,
American loanwords are easier to integrate into
• This is probably because German is more
closely related to English than say, French or
Hungarian. And since American culture is
considered highly prestigious among many
Germans, American loanwords are absorbed into
German culture at a high rate.
Signals social identity
• How American slang is used abroad quickly
signals social identity. For example, while items
such as hi, cool and cu ( as in ‘see you’ ) are
spreading into general German slang, openers
such as aight heads have a specific social
meaning among hip-hop enthusiasts. They
identify writer (and addressee) not only as trendy
young people, but as members of the same fan
community, (in this case, Hip Hop).
Slang, and English as a Foreign
• While the global spread of American slang items is
pervasive, the categories of words the items represent
are restricted to a handful of semantic fields. These
• Terms for social groups and stereotypes — girlie,
• Parts of the body and or states of mind — German
flashen ( to flash, 'to impress to have a strong effect on')
or chillen (to chill out)
• Evaluating adjectives — wicked, wack, cool, dope, fresh
• Taboo words or expletives
Equally interestingly, what is perceived as slang in a new
context need not always be slang in the donor language.
• English routines are innovation-friendly
patterns, which make it easy for speakers
to “freshen up” their language through
individual word fillings, modifications and
• A case in point is cu (‘see you’), one of the
most popular farewell expressions on the
German-speaking Web. Besides the base
form (cu, cya, see ya), it comes in
variations such as CYA Peace / See ya,
aloha / cu bis denne (‘till then’) / CU & Bye
bye / cu l8er / cYa soon / cu soon and
there / CU@NIGHT, etc.
• In print and on the Internet, English
often comes with non-standard
spellings that may indicate colloquial
or non-standard pronunciation (e.g.
gimme) or may serve as purely visual
distinction (eye dialect).
Vernacular spelling patterns
The following vernacular spelling patterns are
common in various countries:
• participial suffix -in' (e.g. livin', movin', rockin')
• reductions, assimilations (e.g. wanna, ya, mo')
• noun plural ending -a/-ah instead of -er (e.g.
• noun plural ending -z for -s (e.g. newz, boyz,
• spelling variants ph and k (e.g. phat, phunky,
• lexical substitutions (e.g. u, 2, 4, cu la8tr)
Slang, Globalization and English
as a Foreign Language
• American slang has a global currency in
youth-cultural contexts. It is not
transmitted through the institutional
teaching of English as a Foreign
Language (EFL). Rather, it is the outcome
of rapid linguistic transfer via noncurricular sources, reaching German
teenagers before entering Englishlanguage dictionaries.
• Vernacular English has very different
pragmatic and sociolinguistic values from
institutional EFL. Its attractiveness rests
on emotional and peer-group related
values rather than purely instrumental
ones, such as English as a job-related
• However, American slang does not
threaten institutional EFL. The relationship
is best viewed as complementary, both
linguistically and in terms of language
• Knowledge of slang extends the
knowledge of English with respect to
particular semantic fields and speech
• Although slang could never substitute for
EFL in its instrumental value, it clearly
connects foreign-language learning with
adolescent cultural experience.