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Why do we talk the way we do? CWRU professors weigh in on the significance of slang

Beyond offering collections of words and their meanings, dictionaries act as windows into the evolution of language, revealing the history, culture and constant flux of human expression. 

In their pages, countless terms can be found that once were “slang”—words and phrases regarded as informal yet representative of cultural shifts, generational identities and social dynamics. 

Whether browsing social media channels, walking around campus or holding everyday conversations, it’s likely you hear—or possibly use—some forms of slang each day. But you may not realize how much it affects the English language. 

In honor of Dictionary Day today (Oct. 16)—which observes the birth of textbook pioneer Noah Webster, creator of the American dictionary—The Daily spoke with Martha Wilson Schaffer, director of first-year writing in the Department of English, and Fey Parrill, chair of the Department of Cognitive Science, to understand how slang shapes society. 

Read on to hear Schaffer and Parrill’s thoughts on how slang influences the way we communicate in our ever-evolving world. 

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Martha Wilson Schaffer

1. Slang serves a variety of purposes and falls under the category of human connection-making.

Everyday slang is a kind of language variation that occurs over time with stylistic word changes. For example, we may shorten words—such as refrigerator (“fridge”), television (“TV”) and application (“app”)—for informal conversation and efficiency. 

–Martha Wilson Schaffer

2. Slang connects us to groups we belong to (or want to belong to) and separates us from groups we want to be different from.

All factors related to our social identity play a role in slang—from race, ethnicity and age to gender, political ideology and geography. All of these dimensions create the groups we want to be part of and help us feel connected by signaling in-group membership. When my students laugh at me for using “lowkey” because I am way too old for that, they are reminding me that we don’t share that part of our identity.

–Fey Parrill

Photo of Fey Parrill
Fey Parrill

3. Slang can connect to cultural power. 

In the U.S., slang often originates in marginalized communities and are then adopted by groups who have more privilege, which can result in cultural appropriation (when members of a majority group adopt cultural practices or customs of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful or stereotypical way).


4. Some language labeled as slang is a fully functional dialect of a marginalized group. 

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is often derogatorily referred to as slang, when it is in fact a dialect of English that has rules and structure just as other dialects of English, such as Standard American English. The misapplication of the term and denigration of AAVE is a good reminder of how language is intertwined with cultural and societal prejudices. 

At the same time, we see misappropriation of slang terms from AAVE speakers—most recently noted on the internet where language travels fast and far from its original users and can be misused or misunderstood, erasing its attachments to its originators. Terms like “spill the tea,” “shade,” and “woke” have circulated in ways that their attributions are lost and their creators are uncredited, and, even worse, mocked.