‘What’s up?’ or how not to ‘lose the plot’ in conversation

Did you invent you own language when you were a child? Did you use to speak a secret code with your friends that your Mum couldn’t understand? Probably everyone played games like that. But some of us still do it, even if they aren’t aware of it…

It’s not a secret that language constructs identity and lets us feel as a member of a particular group. We’re used to think about it in terms of nations, but on the other hand, we know there exist plenty of variations of standard languages. When the accent is put on the geographical aspect, we mean dialects; when the social conditions play first fiddle- slang words are in question.

For a long time their status in linguistics was underestimated, as they were associated with a lower social class or subcultures. At the beginning, slang was a bailiwick of criminals, mainly thieves. So it was with Thieves’ cant or rogues’ cant in English-speaking countries, šatrovački in Croatia, Swiss Rotwelsch, Spanish germanía or Russian fenya (феня) better known as blatnoy language (Russian: блатной язык). Some sordid ‘businessmen’ in old England also created their own way of communication- the blackslang which consists generally in speaking backwards. Maybe it was their profession that inspired Carl Sandburg to say that:
“Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.”

He hasn’t specified what kind of job he’s thinking about, has he?


But what is the slang exactly? How to define it?

The table below may help us characterize it, particularly distinguish it from the dialect:

slang dialect
background (formation rule) social geographic
leading idea exclusiveness in social frame uniqueness in the terms of ethnicity
main function expressive function informative function
relation with a standard (national) language total dependence (a lower place in the hierarchy) partial autonomy (legal status near to a national language)
linguistic features lexical, phraseological and semantic variations of a standard language when the grammar rules stay intact limited degree of similitude to a national language, the origins included
comprehensibility for a dilettante (native user of a standard language) more or less disturbed disturbed or impossible, depending on particular features


To put it briefly, slang is a social variation of a standard language whose objective is to reinforce the social identity of its users by limiting the probability of comprehension by a third person. There exist plenty of its types, starting from the student’s slang, finishing at the professional’s (like the soldiers) one.


Slang todaycartoon-1300894_1920

Now its status is changing and different forms of slang slang are quite fashionable and omnipresent in the media. It doesn’t mean they weren’t there in the past, as some of them owe their fame to artists. Suffice it to say they were used by Jewizsh-klezmers*, ‘alligators’*(jive talk), Argentinian tango dancers (lunfardo) or British street puppet performers (polari). The last one has been even used in an app by two Brits, Jez Dolan and Joe Richardson.

Nowadays we can hear slang speaking actors for ex. in Peaky Blinders (cockney), Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and What Not to Wear (polari), Green-streets hooligans (stadium hooligans language), La Haine (verlan) or even The Simpsons (American slang). There are also some books written in slang, like A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Zwał by Sławomir Shuty, some passages of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Riffifi chez les hommes by Auguste le Breton or Sergiusz Piasecki’s novels, among others. From pieces of art containing some slang expressions we can list: songs of Morrisey, Dawid Bowie, Vladimir Vysotsky, Aleksander Galich, Jacques Dutronc, Ella FitzgeraldNat King ColeBillie HolidayLouis Armstrong… Not to mention about all gangsta bits. Does it not convince you about the power of slang? And what if Princess Anne also speaks it from time to time?*

No matter how we find this phenomenon, it’s worth to know some slang expressions, especially in a foreign language; firstly, it enables us to avoid some blunders, secondly, we can really impress the native speakers. And the advantages for our self-esteem are priceless (:


A short case study

Let’s take a look at some funny examples of Irish slang:

The wheel’s turning, but the hamster’s dead– about a not so brilliant person

She’d a face only an uncle could love– about somebody ugly to an extent

It’s pissing = it’s raining

I’m not as green as I am cabbage = I’m not as stupid as I look

As you’ve seen they’re mostly figurative, based on some more or less abstract associations. Anyway, it makes them easier to understand for foreigners than for example a famous Cockney rhyming slang from East London, dating from the 19th century… A million dollars for whoever understand this Londoners’ ‘weep and wail’ ‘tale’:


By the way, the French aren’t less creative. Their verlan, ‘ c’est balèze’! (‘it’s difficult’). Honestly, if you’re looking for some aspects of dada poems in the nature of language, you’ve just found them. Choose a word, cut them in the middle, change the order of its parts and you’ll speak as a full-blooded ‘céfran (‘French’):


At this point, we should mention again the lunfardo, as its vocabulary is formed in the same way. Thereby, you can easily decipher the name of the Gotan Project band.

Now let’s think how to translate this kind of speech…

If you’ve already got the slang bug, show it in your comments.

Slater alligator’!


By Karolina Dabek



*black-jazz musicians in Harlem

*Source: The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English Dalzell and Victor (eds.) Routledge, 2006, Vol. II p. 1349

*What’s curious is that in the past Yiddish was also considered a slang. Now it’s classified as a dialect.


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