Investigation into the Judgements of Slang


Whenever we open our mouths, judgements are made on our social class, intelligence and even personalities. These judgements are based on various speech elements, such as our accent, dialect, vocabulary and use of slang. It is the latter that this study is based on.
The particular type of slang I intend to focus on has recently emerged alongside a new speech pattern known as Multi Ethnic Youth Dialect. (MEYD)
My aim is to investigate whether there is a correlation between slang use and negative judgements made on the user. Secondly, as slang is frequently compared to Halliday’s Anti-Language hypothesis, I intend to see if it can rationally be seen as such. I also wish to investigate whether specific lexical items a slang user deploys will affect the judgements.

Much of the slang used takes origins from gang and drug culture and as a result my hypothesis is that if speakers use slang that holds its origins in these backgrounds, people are likely to extend the negative attributes that are assigned to gang members and drug users and thus label the speakers as violent drug users. I also hypothesise that users of slang will be judged more negatively than non-users of slang.
In my study I will research the slang itself and the opinions people have on slang speakers. I will use recordings of slang speakers which I will analyse, and I shall conduct a survey to collect data on people’s opinions. I have gathered four different recordings of youths speaking slang to varying degrees. I am aware that controlling extraneous variables will be difficult but I have attempted to do so by ensuring all speakers use non-standard English (evidenced by their universal use of glottal stops) and that all use either MEYD or Estuary English (EE). Though it would be preferable to have all speakers using MEYD I found that as slang is so deeply entwined with usage of this dialect I was not able to find speakers who used lesser amounts of slang in this dialect.
I intend to give four questionnaires (one for each recording) to each participant. The questionnaire will list attributes and after the participant has heard each recording they will be asked to rate the speaker out of four for each attribute (for example, one attribute may be how aggressive the participant is, one would be not at all aggressive, whilst four would be very aggressive)
Once I have collected my data, I shall analyse the speakers’ language usage and the questionnaire results. I will look for a correlation between language and attributes assigned to speakers, in particular how negatively they are viewed in relation to their slang use. I am aware I cannot practically use as large a sample size as would be desirable, however, I shall take this into account when assessing my results.
Multi Ethnic Youth Dialect (MEYD)
In recent years, a dialect known as Multi Ethnic Youth Dialect has emerged. A wealth of research has already been conducted on this accent by such linguists as Sue Fox and David Britain. Though research has mostly been conducted into Multi-cultural London English (MLE) this is just one example of MEYD that is spread across different areas in the country.
MEYD derives from multicultural diversity in inner city areas. Increased immigration in cities has lead to various forms of English merging. For the most part the predominant form of English is that spoken in Britain, but it is not uncommon to hear vocabulary that has derived from alternate forms such as the Jamaican Creole.
The slang of MEYD derives from a variety of different dialects and creoles. Though I intend to focus on slang, there are several other notable features: An extremely rhythmic speech pattern deriving from West Indes’ speech is typical. This rhythmic style of speaking is noticeable in speakers’ use of plosives: For example the unvoiced dental fricative in “thing” being substituted with the voiceless dental plosive so that it is pronounced “ting”.
Use of the glottal stop is also common, resulting from the influence of Estuary English of which the glottal stop is a defining element.
These features are all used by speaker one when he says:-
“you have a li*le (.) play area ting inni* where you can just go cotch”
The “cotch” derives from the Jamaican Creole, the use of glottal stops are denoted by asterisks and “Thing” has been pronounced with the voiceless dental plosive reflecting the rhythmic features of MEYD.
MEYD as Anti-Language
In many ways, the use of MEYD by youths fits into the idea of anti-language developed by Halliday. In an anti-language words are used in an attempt to exclude people who are not members of the anti-language’s discourse community. The dialect of some of my speakers fits well into the idea of anti-language.
As Halliday’s fourth requirement of an anti-language states the grammar of MEYD is virtually identical to the norm. Though there are some exceptions to the rule such as the second speaker’s use of “you revved” instead of “you’re revved” which derives from the Jamaican Creoles distinct pronoun use. However, the general rules of English grammar are for the most part entirely kept.
Halliday’s third rule dictates the main linguistic deviation in an anti-language is the lexis. This rule is followed by MEYD speakers and a great variety of lexis which does not adhere to common usage is displayed; for example the first speaker uses the term “cake” in place of “being looked for by police” though the word “cake” could be found in the dictionary, its definition would be entirely different from what the speaker uses it to mean.
Halliday’s suggestion is that an anti-language is born out of the speakers desire to distance themselves from accepted society. Though this would be difficult to prove of the speakers, it would be likely considering ideas of “youth rebellion” alongside the fact that most speakers of this form of slang are of the younger generation.
Were MEYD to be considered an anti-language this would be hugely relevant to my study. As anti-language demonstrates a desire to be distanced from the norm, it is frequently linked with criminality and rebellious behaviour; this is not helped by the air of secrecy that surrounds anti-language making it difficult for non-users to understand.
Lexis (Speaker 1/Very strong slang)
The first speaker uses more slang words than any of the other speakers, for this reason, he can be seen as an example of very strong slang. However, to gain a full understanding of the slang he uses, it is necessary to examine the lexis he uses.
The first non-standard word used is the concrete noun “crib”. The word originates from Northern America, initially meaning a “disreputable bar or brothel”. Since the mid nineteenth century amelioration has occurred and it is used simply to mean home. However, it is still mildly associated with criminality .
The next word “innit”, is an abbreviation of “isn’t it”. The word is not attached to a question but used as a filler or hedge that backs up as a rhetorical device. By using the term “innit” at the end of a sentence the speaker asks a rhetorical question. Though the question does not necessarily have to be answered it nonetheless seems to be intended to engage the receiver’s attention. Though using the word, the receiver has directly been addressed and therefore brought further into the conversation. Despite its rhetorical advantages it is possible that from a prescriptivist point of view, the shortening may be perceived as a result of the speaker’s laziness.
The first speaker also uses the term “mans” which though not strictly lexical slang is nonetheless noteworthy. It is highly probable that the term “mans” derives from an overextension of the standard rules of pluralisation by people to whom English isn’t 1st Language. The regular rules of pluralisation have been applied to the irregular plural “men”. Though the word “mans” would seem the most logical plural to apply it is grammatically incorrect as “men” is a plural group noun and thus it is highly likely judgements would be made on intelligence and education.
The attributive adjective “hot” is used to mean “wanted by police”. The term has British origins and was initially used by thieves to describe stolen goods around the time of 1925. Broadening of the term has since occurred and not only objects but also people can be described as hot, this is demonstrated by the use of the adjective in reference to a person. It is not hard to see how the origins of the term may increase people’s likelihood to assume criminality in the speaker. The word “cake” serves as a synonym to “hot”.
It is also notable that through the speaker’s use of slang he is unlikely to be viewed as well spoken and this may be judged to be of low intelligence. Alongside this, if we accept the suggestion of MEYD as a type of anti-language the speaker may be deemed as rebellious or associated with criminality.
Lexis (Speaker 2/Strong slang)
The second speaker does not use as much slang as the first; however it is still necessary to have a familiarity with the vocabulary he uses to gain a full understanding of his speech. He can for this reason be seen as an example of strong slang.
He uses the verbal phrase “tripping out” which originates from 1970’s slang. The initial term being “Acid Trip” which described a hallucinogenic experience caused by LSD. The verbal phrase originated from this and broadened to mean being under the influence of any type of drug and later to simply mean “acting crazy or funny”. Regardless of the effect of broadening many people still take the phrase to mean being under the influence of drugs and thus may associate the speaker with drug use.
As with the first speaker, the word “cake” is used and one would assume similar effects to arise. Though it is notable that the word simply appears in a list of slang words the speaker has heard and so the effects may not be as extreme.
The adjective “revved” has complex origins. Its original form was the abstract noun “revolutions”. The noun was used in reference to a car’s revolutions and abbreviated to “rev” for ease of use. From this use the verb “to rev” was created via conversion and “to rev a car” meant “to force the engine to produce revs”. From this the passive stative verb form “to be revved” was used in reference to being excited, in this sense the word is a metaphor comparing the excited state of a person with a car producing several “revolutions” allowing it to go faster. The adjective “revved” finally derived from this. The term however can also be used to mean “under the influence of drugs” and as a result it is possible that speakers may again associate the speaker with drug culture.
As with the first speaker, it is again possible that the second user of slang will be deemed as “not very well spoken” and possibly “unintelligent” or “uneducated” simply for his using slang. It is also noticeable that he says “you” in place of “you’re”, this deviation from the standard derives from the Jamaican Creole but its grammatical incorrectness is again likely to make listeners deem the speaker unintelligent regardless of his genuine attributes.
Lexis (Speaker 3/Weak slang)
Unlike the first two speakers, no knowledge of slang or MEYD is required to understand the third speaker. Though slang is used, it is applied within the context of discussing slang terms. The speaker also does not use several features that are common in MEYD such as rhythmic pronunciation or loan words from ethnic minorities. The language used by the speaker fits more into the category of Estuary English (EE) than it does MEYD. Due to these features I have chosen to use this speaker as an example of Weak Slang.
The speaker uses the term “busted” but in the sentence “I wouldn’t say busted” thus denying any links with the word.
Another word used is “bun” which was initially meant “tart” or “slag”. The adjective is English in origin and entered mainstream usage in the late nineteenth century.
The speaker also talks about the attributive adjective “butters” that means “ugly”. It is most likely of UK origin and probably derives from clipping the phrase “butt-ugly”. The adjective’s meaning has also broadened so that it can be used to refer to anything that causes aesthetic displeasure while previously it could only be used in reference to people.
The term “minging” is an converted adjective from the derogatory noun “minger” that derives from the Scottish phrase “ming” meaning “stink”.
The specific lexis of the speaker’s vocabulary does not hold negative connotations. It is, however, possible that due to the fact all slang used by the speaker is in some way derogatory, judgements may be made on her friendliness. It is also possible that through using slang the speaker may be deemed “poorly spoken” or “unintelligent”
Lexis (Speaker 4/No Slang)
The final speaker uses no slang and is simply in this study to act a control which should enable me to determine the extent the data gained from the questionnaires is due to slang.
With shocking regularity, the results followed a distinct pattern. On almost all categories the two speakers of strong slang are rated very poorly (the speaker of very strong slang coming lowest) followed by the speaker of weak slang, who tends to fair comparatively well in people’s judgements. With no exception at all, the speaker who does not use slang is seen by people as the least aggressive, most educated, most friendly, hardest working, most intelligent and best spoken. 60% of people said the non-slang user was highly likely to develop a successful career compared to the very strong-slang speaker, who was deemed highly likely to fail a job interview by 70%.
If we take an average score of each participant, inversing the characteristics seen as negative (so a score of 4 on aggression would be calculated as a 1) we can see how well each speaker is perceived to conform to the idea of a good and productive member of society. Looking at this “good citizen” rating, we see the same pattern emerge:
Again, a direct correlation is visible between how favourably the speaker is looked upon and the degree of slang they use.
We can confidently assert that in this study there is an evident relationship between slang usage and the judgements made of individuals. However, an interesting question is whether the specific lexical items used have a direct relationship with the judgments made. If we look back to the previous analysis of the speakers’ vocabulary, and assume that specific lexical items do have a relationship with the judgements made, we would be led to believe the very strong slang speaker would come out worst in all categories, with the exception of “likelihood to take drugs” which would be dominated by the strong slang speaker.
Interestingly this is exactly the case. The “likelihood to take drugs” category is the only exception to the general principle that the very strong slang user is judged least favourable.
The data collected would lead us to believe that:
Slang is in fact an anti-language, or at least perceived as one.
This is reflected by the fact that the stronger speakers of slang were judged to not conform to the notion of good citizenship.
Users of slang are judged more negatively than non-users of slang. The more slang is used, the more negative the judgements.
This is demonstrated in the consistent pattern of the results; with the strongest slang user being judged worst, and the non-slang user being judged best.
Judgements made on slang speakers have a direct relationship with the specific lexical items used.
This is suggested in the strong slang speaker (who used slang derived from drug culture) being judged more likely to take drugs than the very strong slang speaker.
In any investigation, an inquiring mind is necessary, and for this reason there are several issues of validity that we must discuss.
Our only evidence for suggesting that specific lexical items impact the judgements made is that the strong slang speaker was judged higher than the very strong slang speaker in his likelihood to take drugs. However, the strong slang speaker is not judged particularly higher than the very strong slang speaker thus we cannot completely assert that it is indefinitely due to his specific vocabulary, although we can speculate. Were the suggestion correct, only a small difference would be expected, as judgement on specific lexical items requires participants to have knowledge of slang used and it is unlikely that they all would.
The results do not hold infinite validity, and there are undoubtedly extraneous variables however they are consistent, though we cannot completely label the results as coming from the suggested cause: One could potentially put the results down to people judging the two females higher or judging the two northerners lower. But this would still not answer the question as to why participants rated the individual females or northerners in the order they did with such consistently.
One alternative explanation is that there was an apparent correlation between the class speakers were judged to be, and the participants perception of these speakers (the lower the speaker’s class, the worse they were judged) The class measurement was, however, simply a judgement made of the speakers, not an actual measurement, and so one would have to explain why the speakers were judged to be the class they were, which seems to take us full circle, and back to their usage of slang as an explanation.
While the results do not prove the hypothesis, they undoubtedly suggest it. To know the hypothesis’ results for sure, further study would be needed.

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