class English Love English

The poetic virtue of slang: from Shakespeare to council estates

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© THSCOur latest guest post is by Anthony Anaxagorou of The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company, a music theatre production company that explores the social, cultural and linguistic parallels between the works of William Shakespeare and that of modern day hip-hop artists.

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A number of times I’ve heard secondary school teachers criticize students for using a vernacular that is seemingly thought of as lesser to that which we regard as being standard English. It’s done in a way that almost implies language has a currency of its own, and those who set the gold standard reserve the right to devalue words they perceive as being worthless.

Language is not a fixed entity nor has it ever been. It borrows from older meanings, it’s shaped by literature, history, migration and war and it’s largely comprised of sounds that have very little to do with the actual thing they are denoting – indeed some linguists argue that all language is essentially metaphor and it’s our human ability to translate and interpret meaning that gives language its true and indomitable virtue.

I once asked a teacher what her gripe was with a year 9 boy using the word creps to refer to his trainers. With a wry smile she suggested that firstly the word wasn’t English and secondly she failed to see the link between creps and shoes, remarking how the only crepe she was familiar with was the one you eat.  In class, however, the same teacher would ardently work through the coarse terrain of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. She would explain how 90% of his language is still in use today, how he gave English many of its celebrated metaphors, and remark on his linguistic playfulness, yet she failed to see how this young man and the culture he embraced were employing the same linguistic dexterity full of innovation that helped consecrate Shakespeare as the most famous poet and playwright in the English language.

Shakespeare invented figures of speech such as by the skin of his teeth, or to harm a hair on his head; he also manipulated existing words to create new ones, one of the best known examples being the word assassination which derives from the Arabic word assassin – a presumed corruption of hashish, the preferred method of sedating a victim before the stealthy execution. This process of altering connotation through a creative fluidity parallels the way much slang is invented.

My contention is that slang should be something to study and to celebrate. Context should also be given as a way of helping young people understand the political implications of language and dialect. If English is presented as being a malleable structure that does adhere to certain rules but is not constrained by its nature and tradition then people will begin to enjoy the bending and manipulating of words and form – which in short is what defines poetry.

In an ideal world the way we speak and the extent of our lexicon shouldn’t damage our chances of being successful, popular, intelligent or respected but unfortunately they all still do. Shakespeare gave his characters distinct things to say and an even more distinct way of saying them. Some expressed themselves more elegantly than others, however that doesn’t mean that we should shun slang or any given vernacular that is deemed to be ‘uncivilised’ or ‘unintelligent’; rather we should highlight the importance of having a tongue that contains multitudes and is ultimately capable of liberating itself from classist and regional bias.

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Anthony Anaxagorou

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