Is banning slang counterproductive?

Posted by on November 11, 2013

© Digital VisionIn 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.

Comments (8)
  • Short answer, yes: counter-productive and pointless. On occasions like this I’m torn between a reluctance to give such stunts the oxygen of publicity and a desire to demolish them. Perfect too that they have mis-punctuated one of the terms they excoriate.
    Personally I love the way teenagers play with word meanings, the little shock of surprise you get when encountering novel use of language. So I still remember hearing my son refer to the bus he took to school as a ‘safe’ bus (he didn’t mean it was unlikely to catch fire or roll over), and my daughter’s friend recounting that they had had bare jokes in chemistry. Neither of them was likely to use these meanings in a piece of formal writing or, heaven forbid, a job interview; and if they were, there are better ways of showing the inappropriacy of that than some impossible-to-enforce ban.

    Posted by Liz on 11th November, 2013
  • Liz: The apostrophe-less form of ain’t struck me as odd. I guess it’s a variant, but one without much currency compared to the usual spelling.
    Thanks for your examples. Can you clarify what your son meant by a ‘safe’ bus – is it something like OK, all right, good? I’ve seen the word used as a slangy greeting, too.
    You raise another valid point about the ban: it’s impossible to enforce strictly. So it could become just another exercise in unnecessary, and ineffectual, authoritarian control.

    Posted by Stan on 12th November, 2013
  • Hi Stan. As used by my (then roughly) 13 year old son, yes, it was just a general term of approval – it received his approbation simply for being the bus he took to school (as opposed to other less desirable buses taken by other people, perhaps). This was a long time ago, and the fact that it’s stuck in my memory is maybe an indication of how appealing slang can be.

    Posted by Liz on 12th November, 2013
  • relatedly and via Dan Clayton, here’s a recent piece in the Mirror (need I say more …) about a primary school banning Black Country slang:

    http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/black-country-slang-banned-halesowen-2791066

    It always astounds me that people can be naive enough to think they can ‘control’ use of language in such an arbitrary, meaningless way …

    Posted by Kerry on 15th November, 2013
  • Kerry: That’s appalling, if the report is accurate. Apparently the school wants children to learn “when it is and is not acceptable to use slang and colloquial language”, so why ban regional phrases from the playground? Calling them “damaging” is very prejudicial, too.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 15th November, 2013
  • Yes it’s a complete joke, isn’t it – and then connecting it with highly emotive directives like ‘zero tolerance’ …. :-(

    Posted by Kerry on 15th November, 2013
  • As might be imagined, this silly and futile ban has provoked quite a bit of comment, including this lovely piece by a journalist from the Black Country celebrating his lost native dialect: http://www.theguardian.com/science/shortcuts/2013/nov/17/black-country-dialect-halesowen-school

    Posted by Liz on 18th November, 2013
  • Liz: That’s an excellent and heartening response. Let’s hope the people behind these pointless bans are paying attention.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 18th November, 2013
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