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Slanguage: Unifying and Tectonic By: Sabrina Dong

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” ― Frantz Fanon

How does linguistic "slang" emphasize culture and create conceptual and cultural communities?

How can "slang" simultaneously act as a unifying and divisive cultural tool?

ABSTRACT

French West Indian political philosopher and an influential figure in the field of post-colonial studies, Ibrahim Frantz Fanon, believed that language is intertwined with culture. Language is inherently a building block of conceptual maps and culture, shaping the way communities interact with one another and how diverse perspectives connect. Slang, a specific type of language, takes this idea one step further – subdividing communities as well as creating stronger cultural bonds. I hope to further explore the complexities and the dichotomy of this phenomenon as slang can be used both to bring people together, and separate people from the “others.” By analyzing performances like Who Shot La Miguelito?, cultural displays, and language, I hope to delve into the complexities of how “slang” is used to emphasize culture. Simple shortened language phrases in greetings and nicknames for example can be integral in highlighting cultural cues and tendencies. In plays like Who Shot La Miguelito, slang emphasizes the strength of one community and makes it clear when “others” from outside enter the space. Analyzing plays and written work – especially the dialogue – can open up new worlds of understanding through which we can more securely define multiple cultures. In order to further explore this topic and propel my argument that slang can be used as both a unifying and divisive cultural tool, I will not only analyze the play and the dialogue within it, I will pull from my own personal cultural experiences and observations. Additionally, I will review several articles and essays surrounding the origins of slang and shortened language as well as how it relates to various geographic areas and communities.

Slang is defined by Merriam Webster as a language peculiar to a particular group. This language is often composed of “arbitrarily changed words” and figures of speech. While it is often verbal, language can come in many alternate forms and, therefore, so can slang. (Photo Credits to Miami High News)
Different aspects of culture such as body language are also encapsulated within the idea of slang. Different types of physical cues can be adjusted and shifted to create a particular culture in a particular group. Nicknames, small cultural sayings, and certain mannerisms can create a ritualistic system of “slang” that can add further definition to a community’s culture. (Photo Credits to the Public Domain)
Being knowledgeable about a certain group’s physical and verbal slang can mean the difference of being included or defined as an “other.” In this way, slang plays a very important role in every culture. (Photo Credits to the Public Domain)
Slang is highlighted in the play Who Shot Miguelito? in Miguelito's beginning monologue. The play's use of various cultures and their separate mannerisms shows both the unifying and divisive nature of slang. (Photo Credits to Berkeley News)
Slang is intertwined with naming, nicknames, and name-calling. This can be seen in everyday life and also in the play Who Shot La Miguelito?. Tagging is a physical representation of this type of slang. (Photo Credits to the Public Domain)
Half of my family is of Chinese origin. In my culture, certain physical mannerisms act as slang. For example: upon greeting it is customary to keep a fair distance from the person you are greeting. Instead of a very physical greeting like in other cultures, it is customary to respect the person by bowing and keeping a respectful distance. (Photo Credits to Modern Chinese Pop Culture)
The other half of my family is of Filipino origin. In that part of my culture, it is customary to pay respects to those older than you by placing the back of their hand against your forehead and sometimes kissing it. This is a sign of familial hierarchy, often shown to grandparents. This form of slang is extremely important in respecting hierarchy. (Photo Credits to Philippine Primer)
Modern day language has been deeply effected by uses of slang. Texting has become its own version of shortened language – connecting certain communities with specific "codes" and "symbols." Technological literacy can separate people on generational and socioeconomic levels. (Photo Credits to the Public Domain)
Slang can create divides among communities. One specific divide talked about in this paper is the generational divide created through the slang of text language. It is often hard for young people to understand older people and vice versa due to large differences in popular culture, which influence everyday language, phrases, and sayings. (Photo Credits to the Public Domain)
Though slang is different per geographic region, oftentimes communities have regions within them with their own slang as well. In this way, slang serves as a multi-level cultural defining tool. It can differentiate countries, states, communities and towns. as well as bring them together. (Photo Credits to the Public Domain)

ESSAY

It all starts at Hello … Language can encapsulate and immediately define the bounds of culture in an instant. Much more than words stringed together for meaning, language has developed within social and societal networks and has served as a common tool of expression and communication. In this way, language has and always will be eminently intertwined with culture. With the development of language and culture also came the development of subcultures. Just as cultures specialize and narrow into more specific niches, so did language. Slang was developed, highlighting specific cultural frameworks and their differences. While this phenomenon was a product of the creation of sub-communities, slang – physical, symbolic, and verbal – can be used to both unite and divide communities.

Before diving into the unifying and divisive characteristics of slang, it is important to be aware of its origins and development. Just as society divides itself naturally into groups, cultures separate themselves into subcultures. As cultures specialize, they create and perpetuate their own societal mannerisms. Words shorten and morph to create new meaning and build a common understanding. One such example of this is the military's early and often use of “slanguage.” Military code words and shortened terms became the norm for this subsect of people, separating those in the occupation and those out of it. Often slang was used in a derogatory manner, signaling an “us vs. them” mentality. Names for law enforcement were common early versions of slang – calling policemen “pigs” and “fuzz” became a way to separate that particular occupation from greater society. Slang in the span of this essay does not only encapsulate verbal language, it encapsulates language in the broadest sense. A “language” can be portrayed not only verbally, but physically as well through certain mannerisms, and through written symbols. Just as verbal language can be shortened and given new meaning, these other forms of language can as well.

Unifying:

One function of slang is articulated by labor lawyer Tom Dalzell, who has written two books on the subject of slang and its cultural implications. According to Dalzell in the PBS program “Do You Speak American?” slang’s primary function is to establish a sense of commonality among a community. Dalzell says that slang is entrenched in subtext which, “speaks to the speaker’s and listeners’ membership in the same 'tribe.' Because 'tribe' identity is so important, slang as a powerful and graphic manifestation of that identity’s benefits.” Slang as a unifying tool is pervasive in everyday life and through performances of everyday life.

One performance that encapsulates this idea is La Miguelito’s monologue at the beginning of Who Shot La Miguelito? In the play, La Miguelito is not only portrayed as the victim of a fatal shooting, La Miguelito serves as a symbol of community. This is articulated in the monologue’s first line when Miguelito says, “I am she. The She of “el nombre” He, the She of We. I be US” (pg 7). During this speech, Miguelito uses several forms of slang that are common in the community that they represent. Miguelito uses a mix of Spanish terminology, racial slang to identify the different groups they represent, and various slang words describing their killing. Words like “tranny,” “culera,” and “fronteriza” used in the speech are charged slang terms for groups of people Miguelito represents. The use of these words from Miguelito’s mouth show how the symbolic community sees and uses these terms. In a way, understanding these terms bring about a unique cultural commonality. Words used to describe Miguelito’s killing in various ways are also used such as: “colored,” “claimed,” and “flipped and other level’d” also give the audience a glimpse of these various terms all meaning the same thing. These words have meaning to the community that Miguelito represents – a common ground. Miguelito’s blanket use of slang is symbolic of a community that has a common understanding – despite other divisive factors.

Slang can also be unifying in everyday actions. For example, physical forms of “slang” can be used in various cultural greetings to symbolize common understanding. In the Philippines, it is common to offer respected figures like elders a “mano” greeting. Similar to kissing someone on the hand, a person would bow towards the elder and press their hand to the elder’s forehead. In my own experience with family members, this greeting is always a necessity when greeting elders – to forgo it would be a sign of disrespect. The knowledge of these specific cultural mannerisms is a form of slang and is important in understanding and being accepted into cultural social settings. Another greeting I am familiar with through the other side of the family is much different and can also highlight the importance of knowing these specific physical slang representations to pay respect. In Chinese culture, respect is shown in a different way. While it is common to greet family members with a hug, if you are meeting somebody new, especially in a formal setting, one must show respect by keeping distance between yourself and the other. The greeting is concluded with a succinct bow and sometimes a handshake. The difference in respectful gestures between these two cultures is great and the knowledge of these gestures can demonstrate a social understanding and lead to societal acceptance.

Divisive:

Just as slang can highlight the similarities and commonalities of those within a culture, it can also be a divisive tool that makes it clear who is an “other” and who is not.

This is exemplified through performance through the characters Yip and Yap – the developers from Who Shot La Miguelito. The pair’s combined lack of understanding for cultural cues separate them obviously from the rest of the cast, making them outsiders. This is especially apparent when the pair mock the art and La Miguelito’s memorial. “A grave of dollar store candles, circus posters, a hobo art installation. Who is gonna buy this?!” (pg 41). The memorial and art within itself is a kind of cultural “slang.” This custom is what the community does to cope with loss. It is a poignant and widely understood practice of community mourning. These objects are symbolic of a grieving “slang” that the community rallies behind throughout the play. The fact that Yip and Yap do not understand the meaning of such an act and belittle it shows their “outside” perspective. It is quite obvious that these two do not belong and fit within the community – a clear “other.”

In the same way that everyday physical representations of slang can be inclusive, they can also highlight “otherness.” When the greetings explained above are not executed due to lack of knowledge or unwillingness to assimilate to culture, disrespect can be portrayed to those within the community. By failing to present the “mano” to an elder in Filipinx culture or by failing to leave a respectful distance between yourself and the other person in Chinese culture, one highlights their cultural ignorance – which can create social ramifications.

Lastly, though the most prevalent and obvious, it is important to recognize the divisive nature of verbal slang. This can be seen in today’s culture between generations. Generational divides can take place when there is a lack of understanding. Youth often have a very different vocabulary than older generations, making communication difficult at times. Texting language is becoming used more widely and has become a global phenomenon. In the UK, a survey of parents and teachers found that 89 percent of participants felt that the prevalence of “text speak” contributes to language barriers between themselves and children. This goes the opposite way as well, as many adults feel that the younger generations do not understand certain phrases or expressions that were commonly used in their own time. In this way, verbal communication and the development of new slang has created divides.

Conclusion:

Because slang is an inevitable development, it is important to understand its implications as time progresses. Slang can emphasize cultures and unify communities and to divide groups of people, highlighting the “other.” Taking this analysis, one can look to the future and see if slang can be used more as a uniting factor. The deeper this phenomenon is understood, the more people may become cognizant of cultural divides and how to work around them or better them.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“ Words That Shouldn't Be? . Sez Who? . Slang.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/speak/words/sezwho/slang/#dalzell.

“Do You Speak American.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/speak/.

Inside Business. “A Generation Gap in Language.” Pilotonline.com/inside-Business, Inside Business, 11 Oct. 2019, https://www.pilotonline.com/inside-business/article_6d1b3e75-8a8c-5595-a635-c08ff342e5b9.html.

Maurer, D.W. “Slang.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 16 Aug. 2013, https://www.britannica.com/topic/slang.

Merritt, Anne. “Text-Speak: Language Evolution or Just Laziness?” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 3 Apr. 2013, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/9966117/Text-speak-language-evolution-or-just-laziness.html.

Pier. “Filipino Culture - Greetings.” Cultural Atlas, https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/filipino-culture/filipino-culture-greetings.

Pier. “Chinese Culture - Greetings.” Cultural Atlas, https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/chinese-culture/greetings.

Robins, Robert Henry, and David Crystal. “Language and Culture.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 10 Jan. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/language/Language-and-culture.

San José, Sean, director. Who Shot La Miguelito?Who Shot La Miguelito?

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