In a recent round-up of language in the news, we linked to a story about slang being banned from certain parts of a London school – though as usual in such cases, some of the banned terms aren’t so much slang as simply disliked phrases. Regular readers won’t be surprised that I’m sceptical about the measure.
The banned terms are coz, aint [sic], like, bare, extra, innit, you/we woz, sentence-initial basically, and sentence-final yeah. Bare here means ‘lots of’ or ‘very’, as we’ve seen, while extra means ‘excessive’ or ‘over the top’. Coz is an informal, aphaeretic form of because; ain’t and you/we woz are dialectal. Starting a sentence with basically isn’t slang, but some people find it annoying; Steven Poole offers a sensible defence.
The ban is intended to give students ‘the skills they need to express themselves confidently and appropriately for a variety of audiences’, by alerting them to what formal society might consider bad linguistic habits. Fair enough: you wouldn’t want to use some of the expressions in a job interview. But young people already know this, or are learning it, as we all did, without bans.
That those responsible have implemented the ban only in certain ‘formal language zones’ – not the canteen, for instance – suggests they know how futile a whole-school ban would be. It also suggests they trust that their students know how to switch from formal to informal registers – so why introduce the ban at all? Couldn’t awareness be raised through classroom discussion?
Complaining about young people’s slang is a popular pastime among older generations. Even celebrities get stuck in. Actor Emma Thompson lambasted what she deemed improper language: ‘It makes you sound stupid, and you’re not stupid.’ Compare her criticism with linguist William Dwight Whitney’s remark that slang combines ‘exuberance of mental activity’ with the ‘natural delight of language-making’.
And what of the slang users? The Croydon Advertiser, reporting on the controversy, quotes one teenager who said, ‘When you are in different situations you know how [to] talk’, and added, ‘if you don’t speak slang you will get cussed’ – so avoiding slang could incur social penalties. Schools don’t just deliver formal education: they provide social education through peer groups, and students must learn to navigate these contexts too. As Will Coldwell noted, ‘banning certain words seems more likely to isolate the very pupils the school is hoping to assist’.
Another student pointed out that teachers also use like and basically. The ban presumably doesn’t cover teachers, so it could backfire by teaching children double standards. That young people take cues from each other instead of from authority figures is part of growing up and establishing their identities. Outlawing slang and non-standard words won’t change that, and surely there are better ways to educate young people on sociolinguistic customs.Email this Post