Extra! London school cracks down on slang

Basically everyone’s bare vexed coz a London school like banned students from using slang, innit. Is the previous sentence an abomination – or just a snapshot of evolving English?

‘Banned words’, reads the heading on a laminated pink sign: ‘coz, aint, like, bare, extra, innit, woz’. And emblazoned in the top right of the notice, a clue to which authority has drawn up these lexical limitations: ‘Harris Academy, Upper Norwood’.

Now this London school is at the centre of a heated debate: is it right to prevent teenagers from using colloquialisms? And is it even possible?

David Lammy, a Labour MP from the capital, was quick to approve of the measure. ‘I think this is a very good idea,’ he said. ‘Speaking slang is fine in a social setting but a school should be a professional, educational environment and if part of that means banning slang then that’s fine by me.’

But many Twitter users offered a different perspective – often making use of some rather rude slang of their own. One tweet labelled Harris Academy ‘classist’ and ‘racist’ for discouraging ‘urban language’, since most of these words originated in poor multiethnic communities. Another accused the school of resembling ‘imperialist dictators’.


Such a damning verdict is likely to be seen as a little extreme. But other commentators had a more nuanced point: slang is not bad or lax English, they point out, but simply a version of the language that lies outside of the current mainstream.

William Shakespeare is known as a pioneer of slang. His plays introduced such now-commonplace terms as ‘swagger’, ‘scuffle’ and ‘new-fangled’ to written English. And colloquialisms have been liberally used by many other writers, from Geoffrey Chaucer to JD Salinger.

Plenty of the words which we use today began as slang – for instance ‘silly’ ‘barbarian’ or ‘tip’ (in the sense of tipping a waiter). These new words often sprang up when an idea could not be adequately expressed by existing language.

But there is a third perspective too. Each subculture has its own private language, linguists point out, and words that enrich conversation in one environment may be totally out of place in another. There is nothing inherently wrong with the phrase ‘bare safe’, but it’s not one you should use in a classroom or job interview – it is vital that teenagers understand that.

Improper English?

Perhaps instead of banning slang, then, schools ought to be celebrating it. Deploying words in inventive ways is what keeps a language vibrant and fresh: by 2100, everyone from poets to politicians could be peppering their sentences with ‘innit’ and ‘bare’.

Nonsense, say less permissive types. Urban street slang, as one commentator put it, ‘makes you sound like you’ve had a full frontal lobotomy’. It’s sloppy, inexpressive and inelegant: nobody comes across as a thoughtful person while using the phrase ‘we woz’.

You Decide

  1. Do you use slang? Does it bother you when other people do?
  2. ‘There’s no such thing as incorrect English.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Draw up a list of words or phrases that you’d like to ban and explain why you find them annoying.
  2. In pairs, stage a conversation between two teenagers in a playground. Then conduct a role play in which one of you is interviewing the other for a job. How did your use of language change?

Some People Say...

“The English language is going to the dogs.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m confused – is it okay to use slang or not?
It depends on the context. In an essay, a personal statement, a job interview or an office environment you should try to speak what is known as ‘standard English’.
What’s that?
The version of the language that is accepted as the universal norm. In some countries (like France), the government decides what vocabulary should be standard; but since English doesn’t have any such regulations it is simply a matter of convention.
Then how am I supposed to know what I can and can’t say?
Think of the language you hear from newsreaders on national television – that’s usually quite a good guide. Avoid using filler words such as ‘like’, ‘innit’ or ‘yeah’ and avoid any terms that your parents or grandparents would struggle to understand.

Word Watch

Bare
Very or a lot of. If you won the lottery, for instance, you would be ‘bare lucky’ and have ‘bare cash’.
Extra
Annoyingly over-the-top or inappropriate.
Silly
This word originally meant happy or joyful, but gradually became euphemistically associated with stupid or ridiculous behaviour.
Barbarian
A Greek word which comes from mockery of foreign speech, which sounded to the Ancient Greeks like meaningless noise: a barbarian is literally someone who goes ‘bar bar bar’!
Tip
This one may surprise you: the word tipping was originally part of the so-called thieves’ cant, a slang dialect used by London criminals in the 16th and 17th centuries. A ‘tip’ was the money you paid a thug to avoid getting beaten up!

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