Monday, November 01, 2010

Gang slang: not peak, just moist

Today's Evening Standard features an article by Lindsay Johns which sports the terrible headline "The secret world of gang slang". It's a terrible headline for two reasons. Firstly, the article isn't really about "gang slang"  (whatever that is supposed to mean): it's more to do with youth slang in general. Secondly, the headline gives the impression that slang is linked to gangs and violence: it can be - as anyone who has studied slang should know, some forms of it have their origins in the secret language of criminals - but more often than not has nothing to do with criminal behaviour.

The article itself is a bit of a let-down. Instead of talking to linguists (you know, the people who actually spend their lives studying language and looking at its usage), instead of talking to slang lexicographers (the people who put together and research dictionaries about slang, people like Jonathon Green and Tony Thorne), the writer talks to people who have opinions about slang but don't really have much to say about it: people like Simon Heffer, a man who knows virtually nothing about slang but has lots of views about how awful teaching is these days and how slang is a bad thing.

What really bugs me about the article is that it casts young people as some kind of alien species, whose language is so different from that of mainstream society that they are unintelligible. That may be the case for one or two unfortunate individuals who can barely pass a bus without saying "Dat's peak, bruv" but for most young people this really isn't the case at all. Code-switching - moving between languages or registers of languages - is something that people do all the time. Young people are especially adept at it.

So, to cast youth slang as simply gang-related and sinister just adds another dimension to the alienation already felt by a lot of teenagers. But I'm 41 years old and a "trendy leftist", that breed of linguist that Simon Heffer blames for the collapse of standards in teaching, so what do I know?

To be fair, there are some interesting bits in the article, but I'm just a bit jaded after reading so many articles about slang that say the same thing. So have a read and see what you make of it yourselves, I suppose.

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