A commonality amongst all humans is the art of language. Since the beginning of time, humans have evolved and so has their mode of communication. Languages have changed to keep up with relevant time and culture from which comes Slang. Slang is a type of language that uses informal words and phrases and is most common in the speech of younger generations. Like other languages, slang has evolved through each generation and today in the twenty-first century, it is almost a world of its own. Developing cultural and social norms influence speech of younger generations and with the use of twenty-first century technology, it is quick to drown out English as a spoken, formal language. Through Morphology, the study of the formation of words, and Syntax, the arrangement of words in a sentence, we can understand how the English language has changed over the years and compare it to the ever-changing language of slang. In order to fully understand slang, it is important to understand the scope of English in our world today, how Americanisms are taking over as well as the inevitable change in language. English originated from early Anglo-Saxon settlers in Britain and as the British empire grew to take over the world, English spread with it. Its arrival in America marked the start of a new dialect of English and the “Americanisms” of language were what differentiated American English from British English.
However according to Hephzibah Anderson, author of an article titled “How Americanisms Are Killing The English Language”, many Americanisms, words such as “movie” or “elevator”, were British English to begin with, but we exported them and then imported them back. An interesting example is the term, “I guess” which is seen in the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, an english poet and author in the 1400s. However, when Samuel Johnson “compiled his 1755 dictionary, ‘gotten’ was still in use as a past participle of ‘get’” but as Matthew Engel, British writer and journalist, points out, “good old english is not good new english”. He argues that it’s about the insidiousness of it all and that we have reached a point in time where we can no longer tell if a word is an Americanism or not. According to Engel, American English will have absorbed the British version entirely by 2120 (Anderson). This ties into the fact that language is always changing, evolving and adapting to the needs of its users. While change in a language is slow and subtle, it explains why reading and comprehending Shakespeare is increasingly difficult. There are many reasons for the change of language, one of which is because the needs of the speakers change. “New technologies, new products, and new experiences require new words to refer to them clearly and efficiently” (Birner). An example is the word “texting” which was originally called “text messaging” because it allowed people to send messages of text to rather than voice messages by phone. As this became more common, people began to refer to it as “texting” to refer to the message and the process. Another reason that language is always changing is because no one has the same language experience as someone else. “We all know a slightly different set of words and constructions, depending on our age, job, education level, [geographic region] and so on” (Birner).
We learn new words and phrases from the different people that we talk with which plays a role in a person’s particular way of speaking. Language changes often begin with younger generations because when young people interact with other people their age, their vocabulary differs from those of the older generation (Birner). New words in a language also plays a part in its change over time. They can come from other languages, like ‘wanderlust’ which is German and ‘anonymous’ which is Greek. The study of the formation of words, Morphology, explains how we also create new words by shortening longer words. This is called clipping and is seen in the word ‘gym’ which was originally ‘gymnasium’ and ‘flu’ comes from ‘influenza’. Blending is when we combine two words to make a new one, an example being ‘brunch’ which is a combination of ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’. Sometimes, we even create new words by being wrong about the analysis of an existing word. An example is how the word ‘pea’ was created. “Four hundred years ago, the word ‘pease’ was used to refer to either a single pea or a bunch of them, but over time, people assumed ‘pease’ was a plural form, for which ‘pea’ must be the singular” (Birner). Change in language is natural. It is a result of time, culture, and changing social norms. Language also changes through word order although this process is usually a lot slower than the change of words. Syntax is the study of the arrangement of words and phrases to create a well formed sentence in a language and similar to morphology, it takes time to change in a language. A classic example is how English no longer places the word ‘not’ after words whereas old english word order did so.
For example, the King James Bible translates Matthew 6:28 as “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not”, which is more recently translated as “they do not toil” (Birner). The Great Vowel Shift occurred only in the English language and occurred about 500 years ago when English began to change the way its vowels were pronounced. The fact that language is constantly changing is not necessarily a bad thing, instead it simply means that it is becoming different. It has become so different that English now has many dialects. Standard English is just one dialect of English and every dialect of every language has rules. Slang is not a dialect. It is words and phrases of a language whereas a dialect is a variety of a language. Words in slang are often considered informal and inappropriate to use in formal occasions. While slang tends to change with each generation of youth, formal American English is often always used in formal settings. Phrases such as “I am having a great day. Thank you for asking” and “Please turn your attention this way” are examples of things to be said or written in public places so it is easily understood by people of all ages. However in social settings, people tend to code switch, which is alternating between two or languages in conversation, and slang is used in more casual settings. Code switching to slang is more common in speech than writing. There is often a lot of clipping in slang to make things easier and faster to say. Examples are words like “wanna” which is a combination of ‘want’ and ‘to’ as well as ‘gimme’ (give + me) and ‘gonna’ (going + to). Words in slang also tend to have alternative meanings. Words like ‘Bet’ and ‘Lit’ usually mean ‘Ok’ whereas ‘Fire’, originally a noun becomes an adjective to describe something as really cool. In slang, ‘down’ also goes from being an adverb to an adjective as its meaning changes to become of agreement or interest. It would be used in a conversation where two people are making plans and they say “I’m down” to show their interest in the plan. A really common word that slang has changed completely is the word ‘Like’.
Where it initially meant having the same characteristics or qualities as, it is now an informal conjunction word or a filler word used in speech. This word is a great example to show the change in language over time and how slang is influencing standard, spoken English because it is becoming more and more common for everyone to use this word unconsciously as a filler word. As mentioned above, language changes with new technologies and the biggest change of the twenty-first century is the digital age. With the rise of technology, there is a whole new world online and with it comes a new language. Code, for example, is a language used to create algorithms in order to make websites, apps and social media platforms. While there is a part of the internet that is used professionally, like LinkedIn, there is another entire part where slang is completely different than what is spoken. In internet slang, everything is shortened more than is shortened in spoken slang. Clipping occurs when the first letters of a phrase are put together to shorten and suggest the same meaning as the entire phrase itself. Examples are ‘OMG’ which stands for “Oh my god’ and ‘LOL’, usually used to express humor, and stands for ‘Laugh out loud’. Other examples are ‘WTF’, ‘LMAO’ and more. This is another side of morphology on the internet and the main reasoning behind these new clippings is simply because it saves time to type. Emojis are more than simple digital images because they often express indirect ideas. An example would be the peach emoji which means an ass. Other emojis have hidden meanings that are used primarily on social media with the younger crowd. There are an innumerable number of languages that connect humans around the world.
Languages are always changing and evolving over time. In standard American english, which is a dialect of English, we observed the how words have changed in their morphology and syntax slower than slang changes with each generation of youth. The main difference between slang and English is that slang tends to shorten words and phrases whereas standard English uses words and phrases in their full form. While English and slang may be different in the way they are written and spoken, they are similar in their morphological and syntactic breakdowns. Both English and slang use clipping to make new words and both have somewhat similar syntactic structures. Additionally, both are constantly changing and conforming to cultural and social norms of their times, which goes to show how language will never stop changing.
- Anderson, Hephzibah. “Culture – How Americanisms Are Killing the English Language.” BBC, ‘ BBC, 6 Sept. 2017,www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170904-how-americanisms-are-killing -the-english-language.
- Birner, Betty. “Is English Changing.” Linguistic Society of America, 2012, www.linguisticsociety.org/content/english-changing.