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I used to wonder why parents and teachers and snobby kids a year ahead of me in school insisted against “ain’t.”  We used to chant to an offender, “Ain’t ain’t a word, ‘cause it ain’t in the dictionary.”  We lived in Texas, where they have their own brand of contractions and substitutions and pronunciations.  This probably resulted from the cultural blend of Mexican Spanish, rogue English, and a bit of patriotism to boot.  Some slang words were enshrined in Country Western Music, a segment of the arts arguably as qualified as Shakespeare to introduce expressions (and evidence says that Shakespeare did a lot of word-inventing).  For the most part, I imagine parents and teachers were doing a more mature version of our parroting chant: they just repeated what they’d been told was good and right.

 

As I’ve grown up, and denouncing slang has become less and less popular, I’ve formed some ideas about why it’s so bad.  What I have identified is: association, exclusion, comprehension, and preservation.

 

If you go to slang dictionaries like “Urban Dictionary” online, you will find some unsavory histories of words we use.  Prisoners and gangs will start to use a word differently than everyone in the outside world.  Maybe they’ll use it as a vivid metaphorical reference to some coarse or irreverent thing.  Or they can use it with a sort of morbid sarcasm where what is dreadful to decent people is celebrated by them.  As the usage of the word spreads (and why it may spread I’ll discuss in a following section), the original vulgarity is dulled because the new speakers don’t realize the origin.  This happens with respectable poetic quotes as well, so we shouldn’t be surprised.  It is sloppy to make the mistake whether the origin is noble or base.  However, parents don’t usually want their children to have a lot in common with criminals and gangs, so they discourage language associated with them and derived from their lifestyles.

 

Most of us have had experience with inside jokes.  A few people in the room know a story no one else does, and someone mentions it, and they all laugh while you feel left out and clueless.  Slang, especially when it starts, is like that.  People begin to use a word in a way that most people won’t recognize or understand.  They can’t go look it up in the dictionary.  There’s no history of literature by which to decipher the code in which the other individual is talking.  This could be intentionally deceptive on their part, like parents spelling words in front of their young children – or the individual using slang may be so unfamiliar with cultures outside his own that he doesn’t realize how specialized his speech is.  Slang uses words that already belong to English – words that have a meaning to most people.  It may not even be immediately apparent to either of you that misunderstanding is taking place.

 

Unlike learning a second language, where there are grammars and translation dictionaries and classes to take, picking up this exclusive language involves a sort of immersion.  You have to find out what that speaker is feeling and thinking, what experiences have built his past, to determine what he means when he uses a word that you and the rest of the world know means something he does not mean.  While I am an advocate for relationship and community, I value the ability to skip these elementary steps of familiarization to move on to benefiting each other by what you know, by being able to express feelings of approval or displeasure, the ability to share an experience side by side and know there is commonality because you can communicate it.  Language is a wonderful tool for these things, a tool being undercut by the prevalent use of slang.

 

Finally there is preservation.  This point may not carry as much weight with most people, but I believe it is important.  A conservative language is one that has access not only to the ideas in one’s own society, but also to far-distant and different cultures: geographically, socio-economically, and even over time.  Imagine if you didn’t have to learn Old English or endure the mediation of a translator to enjoy Beowulf.  What if the Bible read by the Puritans still made sense to us today?  As our language evolves, isn’t it possible that we are gradually losing the wisdom and values of the past, constantly innovating and evolving our identities and beliefs?  Aren’t our people crying out for peace, for stability, for the ability to commit to something and have it mean something?  Do we want to feel so isolated and lonely?

 

I’m not advocating that we all learn Old English now, or go back to the King’s English spoken by the colonists of the United States hundreds of years ago – though I support members of our present population studying the expressions of the past so that we can keep hold of what those ancestors have to offer us today.  I am not going to militate against poetry, or to fight new words for new inventions and discoveries.  If you use the word “nice” to mean “friendly,” I probably won’t think too much about whether you actually meant “precise” and “orderly” as a man used to mean when he used that word.  I will keep in mind that “might” has to do with strength and ability at least as much as “can” when mothers ridiculously correct their children from saying “Can I?” to “May I?”  My fascination for words and their meanings and histories will continue to hone my vocabulary, my ability to communicate with strength and economy.  And I suspect that when my children are tempted to adopt the street language of their days, I’ll join the ranks of parents past by discouraging the use of slang.

 

What will you do?

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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