Until this point, we have essentially been considering language as a formal system that can be profitably studied independently from the people who use it. This type of approach is often referred to in the field as the are of "formal" linguistics. People use the term "formal" because such investigation revolves around constructing formal models that allow us to understand how various subparts or modules of the linguistic grammar function. These subparts or modules consist of the areas that we have been studying all semester, such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics.
There is, however, a lot more to understanding language than focusing on these core theoretical areas. If we can gain insight into how language works by studying its formal grammatical properties, we must also realize that language as a "thing" to be studied is necessarily a kind of simplification, because language isn't a "thing" external to human beings, but rather, something that makes up a part of who we are.
What I want to stress here is that language must also be profitably studied in its social context. In so doing, we learn both about language and about ourselves, the people who use it, live with it, and live in it. Sociolinguistics, then, as the name implies, is the study of language in human society. We'll focus here on a major aspect of sociolinguistic research in the past decades, an area generally referred to as language variation. As its own name implies, language variation focuses on how language varies in different contexts, where context refers to things like ethnicity, social class, sex, geography, age, and a number of other factors.
Before we review various aspects of language variation in more detail, I want to make sure we've got some basic terms and concepts down. So, here goes...
SOME IMPORTANT TERMINOLOGY
Internal Variation: the property of languages having different ways of expressing the same meaning. Importantly, this refers to within language, not across language, differences. An example of internal variation in English is "ask" vs. "aks".
Language variety: This is a general term that may be used at a number of levels. So, we can use the term to distinguish between English and French, but we can also use the term to distinguish between two varieties of English, such as New York City English vs. Appalachian English.
Dialect: This is a complex and often misunderstood concept. For linguists, a dialect is the collection of attributes (phonetic, phonological, syntactic, morphological, semantic) that make one group of speakers noticeably different from another group of speakers of the same language.
COMMON SOURCES OF MISUNDERSTANDINGIdiolect: Another term that we must be familiar with is idiolect. "What's an idiolect?" you ask, on the edge of your seat. An idiolect is simply the technical term we use to refer to the variety of language spoken by each individual speaker of the language. Just as there is variation among groups of speakers of a language, there is variation from speaker to speaker. No two speakers of a language speak identically. Each speaks her or his own particular variety of that language. Each thus speaks her or his own idiolect.
1) DIALECT is NOT a negative term for linguists. . Often times, for example, we hear people refer to non-standard varieties of English as "dialects", usually to say something bad about the non-standard variety (and thus about the people who speak it). This happened quite a bit during last year's ebonics controversy. But, the term dialect refers to ANY variety of a language. Thus, by definition, we all speak a dialect of our native language.
2) DIALECT is NOT synonymous with accent. Accent is only a part of dialectal variation. Non-linguists often think accents define a dialect (or that accents alone identify people as non-native or foreign language speakers). Also, non-linguists tend to think that it's always the "other" people that have "an accent". So, what is "accent"?
3) ACCENT: This term refers to phonological variation, i.e. variation in pronunciation Thus, if we talk about a Southern Accent, we're talking about a generalized property of English pronunciation in the Southern part of the US. But, Southern dialects have more than particular phonological properties. Accent is thus about pronunciation, while dialect is a broader term encompassing syntactic, morphological, and semantic properties as well.
A final note on accent. WE ALL HAVE ONE! There is no such thing as a person who speaks without an accent. This is not an exercise in political correctness, by the way. It is a fact.
In sum, a dialect is a particular variety of a language, and we all have a dialect. Accent refers to the phonology of a given dialect. Since we all have a dialect, we all have an accent.
A Snapshot of "The Big Picture":
While the big picture is relatively simple, the world is a fuzzy and complex place. How do we know where one dialect begins and another ends? How do we even know if two language varieties are dialects of the same language or are dialects of different languages altogether? Let's set aside the first question for a moment, and address the second.
Linguists use a particular criterion to address the issue of how to determine whether two dialects are varieties of the same language or not. What we use is the criterion of mutual intelligibility. That is, if speakers of the two dialects can converse fluently with one another, although they recognize themselves to be speaking different varieties of the language, then we are looking at two dialects of the same language.
Many of you are speakers of "Southern" English (I use quotes because it is actually a BIG oversimplification to treat "Southern English" as a monolithic dialect), while I speak something akin to so-called standard English. (Though I grew up in the New York City metropolitan area, I do not have many of the linguistic properties in my dialect that are usually associated with that region.) Anyway, you can understand me in lecture, and I can understand you when you ask questions or come to talk to me in office hour. The point, to belabor the obvious, is that such communication is possible because although we may speak different dialects of English, the differences are not so great as to prevent us from understanding one another.
Regarding the issue of different languages, clearly there are cases where no one is going to wonder whether two speakers are speaking dialects of one language or whether they are speakers of different languages. So, if I come in and lecture to you in Spanish, I doubt that you'll scratch your heads and say, "Gee, is this a variety of English or is it something else?" But, there are many situations where the dividing line is far less clear.
There are a number of reasons why things get tricky, both linguistic and non-linguistic. A major linguistic complication comes in the form of what we call a dialect continuum. This is a situation in which there are a number of contiguous dialects that are closely related but that are not all mutually intelligible.
What's a dialect continuum?
To simplify somewhat, think of it this way. Imagine we've got ten dialects (1-10) in a row:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Now, imagine that each dialect is highly similar to its immediately adjacent neighbors, but that as we move farther away the similarities become fewer and fewer. So, 1 is very similar to 2, less similar to 3, even less similar to 4, and by the time we get to 8, 9 or 10, 1 is no longer mutually intelligible with these. By the criterion of mutual intelligibility, we'd want to thus say that 1 and 10 belong to different languages. That's fine. But what do we do about 5, which may be mutually intelligible with both 1 and 10? Which language does 5 belong to? How many different languages are we talking about here?
An example of the dialect continuum problem
An interesting example that I have first hand experience with is the case of the Mixtec languages in Mexico. There are roughly 300,000 Mixtec speakers in Mexico, primarily spread out in the state of Oaxaca. Mixtec is an indigenous language that is a member of a larger family called the Otomanguean language family. But, Mixtec itself is actually composed of a number of mutually unintelligible dialects. Estimates of how many such dialects there are vary, but a fairly trustworthy study puts the number at 22. Perhaps more meaningful than the number 22, however, is the observation that mutual intelligibility among Mixtecs is best measured in terms of walking distance. Specifically, it has been reported that the geographical extension of mutual intelligibility is roughly the equivalent of two days walking from any given Mixtec village. (Mixtecs, as I've told you, are incredibly hearty walkers in general!) This is a clear case of a dialect continuum similar to our case of 1-10 above, except that all the Mixtecs obviously aren't all lined up in a row.
In fact, what more sophisticated studies of mutual intelligibility try to do is quantify in some fashion over the issue of intelligibility. That is, rather than take mutual intelligibility to be an all or nothing issue, they try to break the issue down into percentages so that we might be able to distinguish between degrees of intelligibility. As a case in point, the particular variety of Mixtec that I have worked on is among the most isolated, and has been reported to only have a 25% intelligibility level with the closest dialect to it.
What you should take away from this discussion is that while the criterion of mutual intelligibility is a good and useful criterion for determining whether two varieties of a language are dialects of the same language or not, dialects often form a continuum which makes finding an exact dividing point between languages quite difficult, if not downright impossible.
Nonlinguistic Factors and the dialect vs. language issue
Non-linguistic factors also often complicate matters further. A famous linguists once said, "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy." What he was calling attention to were the political factors involved in how people determine just what a language is. A good, though very depressing, example of this can be found in the former Yugoslavia. The majority language in the former Yugoslavia was called Serbo-Croatian. This language was spoken throughout the country (Albanian and Macedonian, for example, were also spoken in parts of Yugoslavia, so Serbo-Croatian wasn't the only language.) Anyway, now that Croatia has broken off into its own independent state, the language of Croatia is officially Croatian, and the language now spoken in what is still called Yugoslavia is officially called Serbian. These are now officially two completely different languages, due to the fact that there is a political border between Croatia and Serbia.
From the point of view of the linguist, of course, they are still a single language, and the differences between them are examples of dialectal variation on a par with, say, New York vs. Boston English. But, the animosity between Serbs and Croats makes them refuse to admit that they are speaking the same language (even though they know they are and can, of course, understand one another!).
An example of politics working in the other direction is the case of
China. There are quite a few languages spoken in China, but the Chinese
government refers to them all as dialects of Chinese. Two of these so-called
dialects are Cantonese and Mandarin. Cantonese is spoken in part of Southern
China (it's spoken in Shanghai), while Mandarin is spoken in the north
(it's the language spoken in Beijing). Though these two languages are both
historically related, they are NOT mutually intelligible. Yet the Chinese
refer to them as dialects of a single language as a means of enforcing
a vision of cultural and political unity. Imagine if the Europeans decided
that they were all going to call Spanish, French, Catalan, Italian, Portuguese,
Romanian, and Provencal dialects of a single language, Romance, and you
start to get the picture. Or imagine that we decide that English, Dutch,
and German are all dialects of a single German language. Yes, these languages
ARE historically related, but from the point of view of the linguist, their
non-mutual intelligibility makes them different languages, not dialects
of a single present day language.
Okay, if we've got a pretty clear idea of what a dialect is, then the idea of a speech community is fairly straightforward.
For example, your book Language Files gives you an example of speech from an older man with many well known characteristics of Appalachian English:
To cite another simple example, linguists study African American English (most recently called ebonics), but there is no assumption here that ALL African Americans speak this dialect. Nor is there an assumption that this dialect is limited to African Americans only. It does happen to be true, however, that most speakers of this dialect are African Americans.
So, big picture again. A dialect is a variety of a language. A speech community is the group of people who speak the dialect. What makes a particular group of people speak a particular dialect has to do with a number of factors which may play a more or less significant role in any particular case. These include socio-economic status, ethnicity, sex, and geographical location.
Kinds of Variation
Now we're ready to get down to particular aspects of language variation. Returning to our grammatical modules, we can see that carefully examining language variation requires both attention to grammar and attention to society. What do I mean by this? Simply, that if we identify a particular dialect, our understanding of how that dialect works requires an understanding of the phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics of that dialect, as well as an understanding of who speaks it. So, here we'll cover grammatical aspects of language variation.
Your textbook, Language Files, is actually a bit unclear regarding the difference between phonological and phonetic variation.
Though it doesn't come out and say so specifically, your book treats phonetic variation as variation in pronunciation that don't affect the phonemic level of the grammar. Two examples are provided. Here's the case of New York alveolar consonants.
In some New York City dialects, alveolar consonants are systematically produced with contact between the tongue tip and the upper teeth (i.e. they are dento-alveolar), while in so-called standard dialects, the alveolars are not dental. So, in New York English, the [t] word "two" is produced with contact between the tongue tip and the teeth. In so-called standard English, this isn't the case. Alveolar consonants are not always realized as dentals.
So, why is this a case of phonetic variation? The answer is basically this. At the phonemic level, there is really no difference between NY English and standard English. Both have the exact same set of alveolar consonant PHONEMES. What's different is that the place of articulation differs ever so slightly between the two dialects. NY English speakers always produce their alveolar consonants with contact between the tongue tip and the upper front teeth. Standard English speakers only do this sometimes, as in words like [tenth].
In short, the difference is not found at the phoneme level but rather at the allophone level. This is what your book is referring to by this example of phonetic variation between NY English and standard American English.
Now let's turn to the case of phonological variation. This situation is a little different. Here, the variation in pronunciation represents variation at the level of the phoneme or at the level of phonotactic constraints on things like syllable shape. How so? The book gives a few useful examples. Here's one:
So, the big picture is that the variation means that the phoneme system is different in the two varieties. In the case of NY alveolars above, the allophones of the alveolar consonant phonemes are different, but both dialects still have the same alveolar phonemes in the same words. Here's another interesting example:
Examples of morphological variation should be fairly easy for you to identify. Your book notes the case of northern England and Southern Wales, where the -s suffix is used as a general present tense marker. In many other dialects of English, -s is reserved for marking the present tense in third person singular forms only.
As the name suggests, syntactic variation involves syntactic differences among dialects. Keeping close to home, it is common in many Southern dialects to find the word "done" used as an auxiliary, as in "she done already told you" or "I done finished a while ago." In SAE, this isn't the case. And, in fact, many times people who want to imitate Southern American English speech often pick up on this rather salient property.
Double modals (combinations of auxiliaries) are also common across parts of the South. Examples are: "I might could do it" or "They useta could do it" or "He might would if you asked him nice enough."
These are examples of syntactic variation. Another famous example is the use of so-called double negatives, as in "I didn't see nobody."
Often times, what people studying variation talk about when they discuss semantic variation is the different meanings that particular words have from dialect to dialect, or the different words that are used for the same thing in different dialects. We might more accurately refer to this as the study of lexical semantic variation. That's a fancy way of saying that we are studying variation in the meanings of words.
So, an example of a single word meaning different things is the compound "knocked up". In England it means 'rouse from sleep'. Here in the States it means "to make pregnant".
Examples of different words being used for the same thing also abound. I remember when I first went to college that someone asked me if I liked frappes. I literally had no idea what he was talking about. It turns out that frappe is a common term for "milk shake" in New England. Obviously, it wasn't a common term in the New York area that I was from.
Other examples are words like "soda". For me, this is a general term for soft drink. For speakers of other dialects, "soda" may mean seltzer water or club soda only. In some of these dialects, the general term for soft drink is "pop". In yet other dialects, the general term is "coke", while for me, "coke" refers to only a specific brand of cola.
By the way, when you go to the store, what do you get your groceries
in? A bag or a sack? In my dialect, it's a bag. But when I lived in Montana,
I quickly learned that you get your groceries there in a sack.
Language and Socioeconomic Status
One of the most persistent and pernicious misunderstandings of the concept dialect revolves around the problem of standard vs. nonstandard varieties of a language. Before I discuss this problem in a bit more detail, let's make sure the big picture is clear. Specifically, let's break the problem down into two categories: the WRONG view, and the RIGHT view. (I know, I know, I'm being absolutist here. But the point is important to make, and this issue is important to address, so why not be direct about it.)
THE WRONG VIEW
Evidence for the RIGHT VIEW
What kinds of evidence might we look for to support these claims? Here are some ideas:
In fact, some particularly pedantic types argue that two negatives actually cancel each other out logically. As a consequence, they suggest that anyone who says "I don't want no help" is actually requesting aid. Clearly, there is often an attempt to demean speakers who use double or other multiple negative constructions.
Well, let's be pedantic ourselves, just for fun, by pointing out that
in Chaucer's time, multiple negation WAS the norm. Language Files quotes
a passage from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
In all his life to no kind of creature
So, in our time, multiple negation is non-standard. Big deal. In Chaucer's time, it was standard. In fact, multiple negation is highly common across languages the world over. All that stuff about multiple negations canceling each other out is basically bunk. Sure, we can use multiple negation to this effect, but intonation plays a big role when we do so. So, I can say, "I didn't say I saw nobody" to suggest that I did see somebody. But note that if you do this, your intonation is not that of a normal declarative. In fact, you put extra emphasis on the word "nobody" so as to call the listener's attention to the fact that you are playing with the double negative. Essentially, you are being coy.
Anyway, the bottom line here is that there is nothing inherently more or less correct about multiple negation. Thus, whether it is standard or not in contemporary English has nothing to do with correctness or logical purity. It has to do with factors that are non-linguistic. Specifically, our objections to multiple negation tell us more about our attitudes towards the people who use it than about the adequacy or inadequacy of multiple negation itself.
What other kinds of things should be true if the views above are correct?
Does one of these seem somehow "worse" to you. My intuition, at least, is that the first one sounds worse than the second one. In fact, according to old time grammar rules, both are equally wrong. Each involves a misuse of a pronoun. "Me", as an object pronoun, is should not be used as a subject. In the second case, "I", as a subject pronoun, should not be used as the object of the verb "gave". If both are equally wrong, why does the second one not sound as wrong as the first (if this is the case for you)? One explanation is that highly educated people say the second one all the time, but tend not to say the first one as often. It's not the case that either one is actually better (or worse). They both reflect ongoing changes in how we use pronouns in English. As an aside, it is perhaps not surprising that such changes should happen. The pronoun system is a relic of a case system that has been lost in the rest of the language, so losing the old case driven uses of the pronouns isn't shocking. But, what is important here, is that our judgments about which of the two sentences sounds better or more standard may have more to do with the speakers than what's actually said.
- John and me went bowling last Friday night.
- Mary gave the books to John and I.
Here's another example of the arbitrariness of what constitutes the standard.
An even more glaring example can be found in the Spanish spoken in Spain. In so-called standard peninsular Spanish, there's a phonemic difference between the voiceless interdental ("th") sound and [s], so we find pairs of words like: casa (pronounced kasa) and caza (pronounced katha). All over the Americas, this difference has been lost, and both words are pronounced the same, with an [s] and not a [th]. Both varieties are considered "standard" or "acceptable" by the Spanish Royal Academy. In parts of Spain, however, there is another dialect spoken in the southern part of the country in which both words are also pronounced the same. In this case, however, both are pronounced as [katha]. In this dialect, rather than all cases of [th] in the standard being realized as [s], all interdental fricatives and [s] are realized as [th]. I hope you can see that essentially the same process has occurred from a phonological point of view. In one dialect (or set of dialects), there is no /th/ phoneme, only /s/. In another, there is no /s/ phoneme, only the interdental /th/. BUT, only one of the dialects is accepted as falling into the standard. The southern dialect is considered "unacceptable" by the royal academy and is frequently ridiculed. Why? Well, the people who speak the "unacceptable" dialect are largely poor and uneducated. Again, the message, it's not what is said, it's who says it! There is NOTHING inherently better about either dialect. In fact, it is only attitudes towards speakers that result in one falling into the sphere of acceptable varieties while the other remains outside.
Let's provide another argument along these lines.
One more point here:
Big Picture Time Again
Once we recognize the arbitrary nature of what constitutes a standard variety of a language, it is simply impossible to maintain that any dialect is "superior" to any other. Different? Yes. Better? Worse? Never.
If what makes a language standard or non-standard is not a linguistic issue, what is the difference? Of course, the reality of the situation is that the situation is VERY complex. There are many factors that come into play. But, it is important to note that dialects are intimately related to the notion of prestige within a society. Basically, the standard dialect is the dialect that is associated with prestige in the society at large. Does this mean that all prestigious people MUST speak the standard? No. But an overwhelming number do. That's why we have no trouble associating the standard with prestige. (Just what constitutes prestige is bundled up in a number of issues that are beyond the scope of this review sheet!)
This raises an apparently simple question. If the standard confers prestige on its speakers, why doesn't everyone just learn the standard? Well, what looks simple isn't always so simple. One thing is this. The question assumes that everyone is WELCOME to speak the standard. As the case of NY "r" dropping might suggest, when lots of people in NY starting dropping their r's, the prestige group put their "r's" back in. And, if we know anything about dialects at this point, we should know that people's attitudes towards dialects tells us more about their attitudes towards the speakers of those dialects.
Also, think about how you feel about your own dialect. Even if you speak a non-standard variety, do you want to be told by someone else that the way you speak is "wrong" or inadequate and that YOU should change? Dialects are intimately wound up with identity and with a sense of community. It is not realistic to pretend that this is not the case and that people can simply shrug off one dialect and adopt another with no cost. In fact, once you are an adult, learning the speech patterns of another dialect may even require a lot of training. It is important to realize that there are prestige factors, within group prestige factors, involved in non-standard dialects. Even though a speaker may speak a non-standard variety of a language, she or he may gain prestige within her or his dialect community by using the non-standard variety.
This thus brings us to two concepts:
A final note on the prestige question. Many speakers of non-standard dialects are bidialectal. What does this mean? Basically, that they control both their own non-standard dialect and are fluent (to a greater or lesser extent) in a standard variety. This isn't surprising and is an obvious and logical strategy for pursuing the rewards of adopting the standard without losing the sense of group identity that is intimately related to the non-standard dialect.
Ways of classifying dialects
Okay, so we've seen that there are standard and non-standard dialects. I've tried to argue that this distinction isn't about the linguistic properties of the dialects in question, but rather, about sociological factors. In a society, standard dialects can also be called prestige dialects. By prestige, we mean that these dialects are not stigmatized in the society in which they are spoken.
When attempting to characterize more precisely particular dialects, linguists conduct their research along a number of lines. I'll review here the three major sources of language variation that we mentioned in class. These are: geography, ethnicity, and social class.
A major factor in dialect diversity is geography. The study of regional dialects is called dialectology. In File 10.4 of Language Files there is a nice discussion of regional dialect variation in the US, so I won't regurgitate this here. It is important to note that classifying regional variation proceeds similarly to work in historical linguistics. Your book mentions things called isoglosses. What are these? They are geographical areas that exhibit shared dialectal features. In the review notes for historical linguistics, I cited you the examples of isoglosses for Balto-Slavic, Germanic, and Indo-Iranian. People use isoglosses in dialect research, for example, to mark the regions where people say bucket instead of pail, or soda instead of pop, or drop their r's, or monopthonize their diphthongs. This results in general shared dialect properties that run along certain geographical lines. Of course, the lines are never perfectly clear, but in broad strokes, we can get a nice sense of how dialect varies with geography.
Another factor driving language variation is ethnicity. Often, ethnicity is also closely tied to a particular geographical area, as is the case with the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch that we saw on the video in class. Other times, ethnicity is a factor despite geographical dispersion, as is the case of African American Vernacular English (AAVE or Ebonics). Linguists have long noted that there are many shared characteristics in African American English, regardless of whether speakers live in the South, the Northeast, or the far West. This is most likely due to the recent migration of many African Americans from the South in the early part of the 20th Century, which in historical terms is only yesterday.
Your book provides a nice general sketch of AAVE in File 10.5. One controversy surrounding AAVE is its origins, which are in broad strokes broken down into the dialectologist view and the Creolist view. The former maintains that AAVE is essentially originally a regional variety of English spoken by a particular ethnic group that for obvious historical reasons was originally concentrated in the South and which underwent a great migration from the South. The Creolist view maintains that AAVE emerged as a Creole from pidgins used by slaves who spoke different African languages and that this Creole underwent a process of decreolization after increased contact with English.
Here's my two cents. Let me start by saying that I am not an expert in this area. So, I can't really judge which is the better account. Many people have argued (loudly) on both sides of the debate. From my point of view, though, I'm not convinced that either answer much matters at this point. I'm much more interested in making sure that we recognize that no matter what its historical origins, AAVE is a dialect of English that is every bit as "complete" as any other dialect of the language. This may seem obvious given what I've said above, but it certainly didn't seem obvious to the people screaming in the newspapers, on the radio, and on tv last year during the ebonics controversy. What your book does a nice job of is presenting a sketch of the structural features of AAVE (pp. 322-324), simply to highlight its highly regular, rule governed nature. Review these. (HINT)
A third major factor in language variation is social class (the term class almost feels quaint in these post-Marxist times! But, heck, it's useful enough to get the job done here). Often times, it is important to bear in mind that class plays a role in dialects. Remember the case from the video of the Boston Brahmin dialect, or the reference by an upper class Southern woman to the "poor white trash" dialect also spoken in the South.
Regarding class, you should all review File 10.7, especially William Labov's study of R-lessness in New York City. What did Labov's experiment show? Well, he showed that people, especially middle class people, exhibit a large difference between whether they drop r's or produce them, depending on how unguarded their speech is. The more unguarded, the more they drop r's. The more guarded, the more r's they produced. Why? Labov concluded that class consciousness played a big role. In guarded moments, their class aspirations were visible. That is, they produce r's as a way of seeking the prestige of the r-ful dialect spoken by the upper class in NY. In unguarded moments, they don't produce as many r's because they are not trying to put on more prestigious airs. By contrast, the upper class group produced its r's regularly, in both careful and casual speech. Labov concluded that they were more comfortable with their class status as reflected in this aspect, at least, of their speech.
An Important Point
It's important to bear in mind that these factors are intermingled.
The video we saw in class did a very nice job of illustrating this by filling
the screen with a range of speakers from Boston. All spoke dialects identifiable
as Boston English (a regional classification); they represented different
ethnic sub-groups with distinct speech patterns within Boston English,
and they clearly were differentiated along class (economic, education,
etc.) lines. So, when we are looking at variation, we have to constantly
bear all of these factors in mind as potential extra-linguistic factors.
In fact, we also need to factor in such things as age and sex, which also
play important roles in understanding language variation.
One more aspect of language variation that merits discussion is the notion of speech style. Frequently, speech style is confused with dialect. This happens for example with people who erroneously think "rap" is synonymous with African American English.
All people, regardless of what dialect they speak, control a range of speech styles. Depending on who we are talking to, and where we are, and so forth, we use different styles of speech. This is called style shifting. Think about how you talk to a) your friends, b) your parents, c) your professors. Do you use the same style with all three. I suspect not. If you are like me, maybe you are casual with your friends, more formal but still familiar with your parents, and most formal (sometimes you even feel stiff) with your professors (by the way, you don't need to be so formal...).
There are a number of dimensions along which we exhibit variation in speech style. These involve pronunciation, syntax, and vocabulary.
One obvious area where speaking style shifts is how "carefully" we pronounce things. Specifically, we see that in "casual" speech, we often "drop" endings in words such as "hunting" which we might pronounce as something like "huntin". We see that we contract things, such as "watcha" for "what do you" and so forth.
Again, prescriptivists argue that this is evidence of laziness and so forth. At this point in the semester, I hope we are not fooled by such things. It's actually often evidence of efficiency and economy of speech gestures--like building a more fuel efficient car!!! Seriously, there's nothing wrong with such contractions. In fact, many contractions are necessary even in careful speech if we don't want our speech to sound ridiculously stupid. Imagine saying to your partner, "you love me, do you not?". Not real effective, I suspect.
My point: there is nothing inherently sloppy about fast speech pronunciation features. There are simply more and less appropriate times to use them.
Style shifting also occurs in syntax. Here's a case in point. In the prescriptive standard, we are supposed to use "there are + plural noun" and "there is + singular noun". But, in more casual speech registers, people often say "there's three problems with your analysis". This is a case of syntactic style shifting. Another interesting example of syntactic style shifting is this. People often use more passive constructions when they want to sound more formal. Note how the first of the following sentences sounds more formal because it is in the passive:
A major area of style shifting involves choice of vocabulary. We all know, for example, which words are "dirty" words in our language and when they are acceptable and when they are not acceptable to use. We also know which words are high-brow words that we use to impress people. In English, it is the case that we often use more Latinate words when we want to sound formal and impressive and intelligent. What sounds more impressive, for example, "divine" or "godly"? My intuition is that "divine" sounds more learned. Think about differences like "there are many factors" as opposed to "there are multiple factors". See how "multiple" makes the phrase sound fancier? We also have words that we know constitute the technical jargon of a particular field and we know how and when to use them (if we participate in that field). I read you a passage from a linguistics book that was filled with what most likely sounded like impenetrable jargon to you and which is pretty straightforward for a phonologist familiar with the technical language of the field.
Finally, we know that some words are SLANG. Slang is actually a tricky thing to define, but that doesn't stop us from having a clear sense that there are words that are clearly slang words. So, if someone comes up to you and says, "yo, dude, you see that tight car?" I bet you don't think that the speaker is talking about a car that doesn't have a lot of leg room. Instead, the word "tight" is being used to express the speaker's admiration of the way the car looks. "Tight" here (as well as the word "dude" is an example of slang).
From a linguistic point of view, there is nothing particularly unique about slang words as words. They are just words and are formed by the same morphological processes as other words and are subject to the phonotactic constraints and so forth of the language that they are a part of. What's special about them is what we might call their sociopsychological role--i.e. how and when we use them and how we feel about them as words. Here are a couple of properties that slang words have:
Informality. Slang words are almost inevitably used in very informal contexts. Think about when you'd use clueless as opposed to unaware.
Group identification. Many slang words are markers of membership in a particular group that is outside of the "mainstream" adult society. People who use the term "dude" to refer to a person are generally younger (though "dude" has been around for quite some time now). I didn't know the slang use of the word "tight" above, but one of you all (who will remain nameless) taught me. I'm older than the group that knows and uses that word. Many ethnic groups have specific slang terms that identify people who use them as clued in members. In fact, of course, membership works both ways. If you don't know the slang terms, you are also clearly identifying yourself as a non-member of a particular group.
Short life span. Slang terms often have a short life span, though not all do. There are examples like "cram" (particularly relevant here) that mean "study intensely over a short period of time" that have been around for a long time. Other slang terms appear and then disappear from the language fairly quickly. Maybe "groovy" is one such example. I don't think that "groovy" has really had much staying power. It feels dated, as if its productive use really didn't extend beyond the sixties.
Slang terms are scalar. Slang terms actually seem to fall along a continuum of slanginess. Think about the following three examples: unaware, dense, clueless. I'd say that "unaware" is not slangy at all, while "dense" feels marginally slangy, and finally "clueless" feels the slangiest of the three.
A final note. Often times, when slang terms hang around for a long enough
time in a language, they lose their slanginess and become more accepted
as a part of the standard use of the language. In most cases, they still
feel informal to some degree, but they don't feel like slang anymore. An
example might be the verb "rip off" meaning "steal". Basically, the idea
is that if slanginess is a scale, i.e. a continuum, there is a middle ground
where items feel like they somehow aren't clearly slang but they don't
feel very formal either. Such words are what linguists sometimes refer
to as COLLOQUIAL terms. They are informal, but they do not feel like slang.