What effect does slang have on society?

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Slang in itself is neither positive nor negative. Instead, it reflects nuances of language usage that can link speakers to a sense of culture and ancestry. In some cases, it links members of similar ages in generational bonds. And slang constantly evolves as speakers of the language bend language rules...

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Slang in itself is neither positive nor negative. Instead, it reflects nuances of language usage that can link speakers to a sense of culture and ancestry. In some cases, it links members of similar ages in generational bonds. And slang constantly evolves as speakers of the language bend language rules to make it fit their needs. Consider the following generational words or phrases used describe something that is really good:

  • The cat's pajamas
  • Far out
  • Groovy
  • Gnarly
  • Wicked
  • Rad
  • Sweet
  • Fire

For just this one idea, it's easy to see how slang can identify people. And that's not an innately bad thing for language to do.

The issue arises when people cannot adapt slang to fit varying contextual situations. As an English teacher, I know that one of the requirements on almost all standardized testing rubrics is the ability to utilize Standard American English effectively. Thus, this reflects an expectation in society that all speakers will be able to adapt their language usage to fit a standard usage. Because slang varies so widely, there are terms which are completely unrecognizable to people who do not belong in particular groups. And since the main goal of language is to connect people, slang can be counterproductive to understanding and can therefore be disruptive to the overall goals of society if people cannot modify their usage. While it is therefore acceptable to use slang in casual conversations and communications, it is generally not acceptable to use it in business, educational, or formal situations.

Learning to avoid slang and to use Standard American English as a primary source for such situations is necessary to give oneself the best possible opportunities.

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Use of slang creates linguistic sub-groups that are only accessible to people in the know. For example, teens tend to develop their own slang expressions, and these expressions are constantly changing. A person can show that he or she keeps up with the latest trends by being aware of slang expressions. In other words, slang is an expression of belonging and of being in an in-group. As people outside the group do not understand slang, it keeps others out of this group.

Slang also makes people at times unable or unwilling to use standard expressions. For better or worse, the use of standard English is a sign of being educated in the United States and other English-speaking nations. People must know this language to succeed in business and education, so if people learn slang, they must also use the standard language when communicating in school or work. In other words, since slang is absent in the standard language, relying on slang too much can keep people out of privileged arenas if those people do not know the standard use of language.

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Slang has had both positive and negative effects on society.

One positive effect is that the use of slang helps to informally develop the language. Languages are constantly changing and growing. English itself is a complex mixture of Greek, Latin, German, and French. As society changed through war and other politics, the English language grew and developed. Slang expressions work in the same way; as society changes and develops, new slang expressions are born, like "hang out," and old slang expressions are dropped, like "hep cat."

However, one negative effect of the use of slang is that sometimes members of society become unable to differentiate between when slang should be used and when formal language should be used, allowing slang to infiltrate what should be scholarly, formal language. Recent news reports reveal that students these days are becoming so familiar with using slang, such as "IDK (I don't know), SMH (shaking my head), and BTW (by the way)," in their everyday communications through social media and texting, that slang terms are now making their way into students' papers. U.S. News reporter Ryan Lytle relates foreign language teacher Terry Wood, at St. Mary's Ryken High School in Leonardtown, Maryland, as stating that there has been a "dramatic decline" in students' writing abilities, and Wood attributes the decline to "Tweeting, Facebook, and texting" ("How Slang Affects Students in the Classroom"). There is such a dramatic decline that, as Wood reports, students do not even "capitalize words or use punctuation anymore" ("How Slang").

The reason why such a dramatic decline in communication abilities due to the influence of slang is such a problem is because formal language must be preserved within a society. Society, especially multiple societies, cannot share knowledge without having a shared, formal language. Historically, the language shared between scholars was Latin. All scholars of science, mathematics, philosophy, and theology wrote in Latin, whether they were of German descent, French descent or any other descent, so that their knowledge could be passed down and understood by others. Today, the language most shared by those in the academic world is English; English is the preferred learned language of nearly every country in the world. So, formal English must be preserved in order to further preserve the ability to share knowledge.

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