Slang Ban, Thank You Ma’am!

As if a truckload of horsehit about a 50p piece being bereft of an Oxford comma wasn’t enough, a linguistics expert from some august institution has broached the subject of whether schools should ban the use of street slang such as peng and bruv.

Apparently, teachers are correcting students’ use of street argot in classes and submitted work and are using visual aids like Grammar Police stickers to reinforce the point.

The chap in question notes that ‘There’s no incorrect or correct way of using language’, which must come as a welcome relief to any of the illiterate wackos taking his courses who will now doubtless be submitting any old shite and trousering their first-class honours degrees.

Now of course the learned lecturer is right to a degree – grammarians don’t swing into tower blocks on zip wires and pop a cap in yo azz the next time you embellish the written word with a dangling modifier. Kids absolutely do understand each other even if we no longer always understand them. And make no mistake, the purpose of language is to communicate. Even I remember when wicked meant really good, which baffled my parents in the same way that I was wrong-footed when my son told me that his school trip was sick.

But drop a dangler into your creative writing homework and expect to see a red line appearing under it post-haste. Unless of course you are using one for comedic effect like Groucho Marx who referred to shooting an elephant in his pyjamas. Then you might take a bow and collect a gold star under the auspices of poetic licence.

You see the key is in the context. It’s a school, where accuracy and excellence are principal objectives. Absolutely no issue with students learning about the evolution of language, but they need to first of all master the basics. Hey, after all, studying slang usage in Shakespeare is an academic field in itself. Yet, using street argot itself as a vehicle for an essay on Shakespeare would be no more than using slang and would amount to poor writing – unless of course it were some sort of creative project that achieved a specific linguistic objective. But seek out just about any scholastic nook or cranny to posit your question, and the riposte would be uniform: it would be a wholly inappropriate register for a formal scholastic exercise.

The educator in question does make the point that, ‘Young people are typically the innovators of language change…’ and with that I would concur. But he then goes on to rack up nil points when adding that, ‘… actually we should be celebrating that rather than banning it in the classroom. I would agree that it should be examined and understood – just within the context of formal study.

I mean, we teach children modern languages and encourage them to practice in the modern languages lessons. But if half the kids insisted on speaking only German in every other lesson too, there would be a problem.

So, celebrate some high-standard academic linguistic study that recognises slang. But celebrate the slang itself? Seems to be some misplaced whoop-whoop there, old boy.

The said master then went on to assert that, ‘language is just one part of your identity – just the same way you wear your hair and clothes‘.

Now hold your horses, Sir. aren’t you now taking the interpretation of identity just a tad too far? The definition of identity is who you are, the way you think about yourself, the way you are viewed by the world, and the characteristics that define you.

Firstly, hair and clothes might be one channel to express your identity at any given time, but fashions change. We are not talking about inherent characteristics here. In fact, we change them all the time and often at a moment’s notice in order to ‘fit in’ with cultural norms. For example, we might put on our Sunday best for tea with the vicar or wear a chicken suit to a fancy-dress party. Alternatively, we might deliberately dress out of kilter in order to deliver a snub or make a point.

Language is the same. Abandon politesse with the vicar in preference for a liberal flutter of c-bombs and expect an adverse reaction. It’s horses for courses and the same applies to school. Have a quick chinwag with your buddies in the street lingo, but for the core business of the day, the teaching staff will want to see standards and a higher register in use.

It’s called a school for a reason. And your education is the process that unfolds when you are getting to grips with it. Discipline is the practice of training people to obey rules or a code. Punishment is what is used to enforce non-compliance. None of this sounds alien to me, but perhaps that’s down to my pre-wacko education.

I mean, even the grammar police stickers – which are seen now as oppressive – would have been laughed off in the 1970s and 1980s. Much more liberal than the cane or a detention. But this is a different world now. Teaching was doubtless always tough, but now it must be mind-bendingly frustrating. If that is oppressive, then prepare for an avalanche of snowflakes.

Nobody is trying to erase anybody’s identity, but just as children wear a uniform to commit to oneness, there are school rules and expectations regarding personal conduct. Anyone who remembers school in any modicum of detail will remember the lessons where the tail wagged the dog. They were generally not conducive to the more productive learning experiences.

If imposing regulation on language standards impinges on identity, then so does a school uniform. As does lying on a desk rather than sitting at one. Or smoking behind the bike sheds.

Predictably, any attempt to enforce standards is rebuffed with a hint of potential discrimination. You can always rely on somebody to throw that one into the mix to get you onto the back foot.

You can still retain your identity without necessarily being able to freely express it at all times. It’s no affront to human rights nor a restriction on freedom. Just a question of rules that apply in a specific place. Remember that in most legal jurisdictions, you can only claim and assert rights that don’t infringe the rights of others. What is more, schools might argue that any regulation that controls appearance and conduct to a standard in fact promotes equality. There can be no high fashion or ostentatious flaunting of wealth. Everybody is equal.

The real problem with this kind of argument is pervasive throughout society at present. And it all stems from social media. Young people are awash with informal publication which now massively outnumbers the information composed with a more formal, dare I say it, correct structure. As a result, there has been a normalisation of the alternative forms.

The second issue that social media brings is a blurring of boundaries between acceptable/ not acceptable; private/public; formal/informal. The list is not exhaustive, and it amounts to a certain degree of social disintegration, or at least a dismantling of the existing order. Some people will see it though as a welcome and a more inclusive beginning.

Alas though, pandering to such informal patois isn’t going to do the students any good in the long run. Even the most seasoned devotees to street-speak in their own time realise that you have to play the game in office time. Apply for a job with an introduction of ‘Yo bruv’ instead of ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ and see how far it gets you. At best, you may have a screenshot shared on LinkedIn as an example of declining standards. As the seemingly miniscule rebuttal of the claims notes in quotations at the end of the article, people should perhaps do some research on the effects of linguistic impoverishment and illiteracy on employment and see what that tells you.

For me, the academic in question might more constructively focus on how the slang has evolved or how it is composed, but nobody would be thinking of incorporation into the mainstream.

Fucked up, innit bruv?

unsplash-logoBen White

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