Word Up: Social Meanings of Slang in California Youth Culture1

Mary Bucholtz
Texas A&M University
Department of English

Table of Contents

Theorizing identity within linguistic anthropology
Social worlds at Bay City High School
Slang as social practice
Lexical definition and social differentiation
Discursive practices of slang and identity
Slang as an interactional resource


During ethnographic fieldwork in 1995-96 at Bay City High School, a large, urban high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was a regular participant-observer in a specially funded anti-drug class in which students were trained as peer educators and then visited other classes and schools to perform skits about the dangers of drugs and tobacco.2 The elective class, which students variously took out of interest or to fill a gap in their schedule, brought together an unusually diverse group of students, even in this extremely diverse high school: all class ranks, from freshman to senior; both genders; many racial and ethnic backgrounds; and a number of subcultural orientations were represented in the classroom. The following interaction took place as the students prepared to perform their skits before an audience for the first time; they asked the teacher, Priscilla, what they should say if audience members asked whether they themselves smoked marijuana. Priscilla recommended that they say they did not:


     Priscilla:     Remember, you're role models.
     Al Capone:     You want us to lie?
     Priscilla:     Since you're not coming to school stoned---

     (students laugh)

     Calvin:        (mockingly) Stoned?
     Priscilla:     What do you say?
     Calvin:        I say high. Bombed. Blitzed.
     Brand One:     Weeded.
     Kerry:         Justified.
     Brand One:     That's kinda tight.

As members of the class continued to discuss the dilemma they faced, Brand One commented that he did not want to lie about his use of marijuana:

     Priscilla:     You won't be doing it during the performance 
                    so say, "I don't do it now," because
                    you're not doing it now.
     Brand One:     I'm not gonna go out of my way to say I get
                    schwamped or something.

(Fieldnotes, February 22, 1996)3

It was not unusual for slang to become a topic of metapragmatic discussion at Bay City High, as it does here. Priscilla's use of the outmoded slang term stoned initiates a side interaction in which students jokingly vie with one another to supply current words for marijuana intoxication. Such words do not function solely at a referential level, as indicated both by the proliferation of terms available to denote the same referent and by the students' evaluations of the various alternatives, both positive and negative; the issue is not one of metasemantics but of metapragmatics (Silverstein 1993). As metapragmatic discourse, this exchange invokes familiar characteristics of slang as a generation-specific lexicon associated with taboo topics that is creative and rapidly changing. But the interaction is also an exercise in the construction of various kinds of identity, and the characteristics of slang invoked within the discourse, regardless of their accuracy, operate here as a set of language ideologies. In addition to this ideological dimension, slang is put to use in practice in Example (1). When Brand One says, "I'm not gonna go out of my way to say I get schwamped or something," he is using the innovative slang term schwamped, not simply mentioning it; mention, on the other hand, occurs when he and other students list contemporary words for being high. Such use constitutes an additional layer of identity construction. By drawing on these ideologies and practices, the students were able to position themselves as teenagers in contrast to their adult teacher, and particularly as teenagers who were familiar with the lexicon of drug use, and hence cool, in contrast to their fellow students who were not able to participate knowledgeably in this exchange. Although the students in this interaction were of different genders, races, ages, and subcultural affiliations, here they cooperate in a joint construction of youthful trendiness.

This function of slang---to signal a youth identity---has received a disproportionate amount of attention from both scholars and the general public. But slang can be used to construct other levels of identity as well. This paper considers the multiple uses to which slang, as a resource for the discursive production of identity, can be put. Current approaches to identity within linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics illuminate slang as a semiotic system that variously creates, reinforces, and undermines social differentiation. Drawing on these theories and using multiple methods of data collection, I investigate slang at a single high school as a site where the interrelated processes of ideology and practice come together to produce local identities based on age, race, subculture, and interactional role.

Theorizing identity within linguistic anthropology

Linguistic anthropology has always been concerned with identity, whether manifested at the level of the speech community; at ethnic, racial, national, or other culturally established group boundaries; or more locally at the level of social organization through activity-based roles and culturally possible subject positions. In such work, identity itself is not necessarily the focus of analysis but is instead a pervasive and taken-for- granted cultural process that underlies and enables sociolinguistic practice. The question of precisely how this process works has become more central as linguistic anthropologists increasingly examine situations in which identity is foregrounded or problematized, such as cultural contact; globalization, transnationalism, and immigration; and social differentiation within post-industrial and late-capitalist societies. This broadening of scholarly inquiry has had the additional benefit of highlighting the equally complex identities of members of smaller, more homogeneous, or less industrialized societies.

As the investigation of identity within linguistic anthropology has expanded, so too have the theoretical tools for this investigation. Among them are the insights of practice theory and recent discussions of language ideology within linguistic anthropology, especially as these have been adapted for the study of identity (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992; 1995 Irvine forthcoming; Irvine & Gal 2000). Eckert and McConnell-Ginet advance the concept of the community of practice as a useful alternative to the speech community, the traditional unit of sociolinguistic and linguistic-anthropological analysis. Where the speech community proposes language, in one aspect or another, as the basis of community definition, the community-of-practice model instead considers language as one among many social practices in which community members engage; such practices, in which different community members participate to different degrees, are the foundation both of community and of identity.4 One advantage of the community of practice is that it reverses the usual direction of causality between language and identity: Rather than understanding linguistic practice as the reflection of a previously formed and relatively fixed identity, Eckert and McConnell-Ginet argue that identity emerges through linguistic practice. It is the regular iteration of such practices by specific community members that creates the illusion of a fixed identity tied to particular forms of practice. This process of indexicality (Ochs 1992; Silverstein 1976) reproduces identities through linguistic and other social practices.

Such links between identity and practice are created and reinforced at the ideological level through the elaboration and shaping of culturally meaningful social categories. Ideologies of language figure centrally in this process, first by selecting specific linguistic forms to be designated as socially distinctive, and then by working these forms into an ideological system through strategies of semiotic simplification and complexification. Judith Irvine and Susan Gal (2000) identify several types of such strategies whereby certain semiotic associations between linguistic form and the social world are forged and replicated and others are sundered. In the first type, iconicity, linguistic forms are associated to social meanings not merely through regular co-occurrence (indexicality) but through perceived isomorphism or resemblance. The second type, fractal recursivity, exploits this isomorphism in a process of iteration that replicates the same semiotic meaning at different levels of social organization. The third type, erasure, delinks those semiotic associations that contradict the ideology established through the other two strategies. One outcome of this process of the ideologizing of language is style: a set of ideologically distinctive linguistic practices that demarcate identity (Irvine forthcoming).5

But although identity involves both practice and ideology, these phenomena are not entirely separable from each other, nor can either be reduced to the other. Ideology regiments practice, but practice exceeds ideology, forcing its constant reconfiguration, for the boundaries that delineate social categories, while ideologically rigid, are often more flexible in practice. This dialectic between ideology and practice is evident in the use of slang, a richly semiotic component of the lexicon in which linguistic practices and ideologies collaborate to produce distinctive youth identities based on distinctive styles.

Social worlds at Bay City High School

The interaction of practice and ideology in slang was central to the identities of students at Bay City High. Language ideologies are not primarily about language; rather, they are in the service of other, more basic, ideological systems---concerning race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and other aspects of the social world---which they cloak in linguistic terms (cf. Woolard 1998). At Bay City High, the ideology of linguistic differentiation that undergirded style rested largely on an ideology of racial differentiation. For both European American and African American students, who constituted Bay City High School's two largest racialized groups, the racial ideology was cast mainly as a black-white dichotomy, despite sizable numbers of Latino and Asian American students at the school. Though less absolute than the ideology would suggest, this divide was visibly enacted on the school grounds through the establishment of predominantly black and predominantly white hangout areas. Around these largely polarized zones were smaller areas associated with other racial and ethnic groups as well as a few racially diverse groups with shared interests and orientations to particular forms of youth culture.

The ideology that reinforced this geographic practice emerges in graphic representations of Bay City High. As part of ethnographic sociolinguistic interviews I conducted with students, I asked them to draw a map of the high school indicating where they hung out and anything else they considered important. This method elicited rich information about the ideologies that shaped and were shaped by students' identities. In particular, I did not mention race explicitly, but it often served as the organizing principle for the maps students drew. For purposes of comparison, it is useful first to examine the official map of Bay City High School, distributed by the school administration (Figure 1). The main student hangout on the school grounds was around the courtyard: African American students generally congregated in the area called the Hill, near the principal's office, and a large number of European American students sat on the steps of the arts building, facing the courtyard, an area often referred to simply as the Steps. While other groups were more dispersed, some Asian American students assembled near a low wall north of the science building, called the Wall. None of these areas is labeled on this map, although as part of the school campus the space they occupy appears as undifferentiated physical space surrounding the official institutional domain, the school buildings. Entirely absent from the official representation of Bay City High is the Park, a grassy lot across the street from the school, which was an overwhelmingly white hangout. Both spatially and socially, the predominantly white Park, at the southwest end of campus, represented the farthest point from the predominantly black Hill at the northeast end.6

Figure 1: Official map of Bay City High School
Official map of Bay City High

The importance of these local spaces is signaled by maps of the school drawn by students. The school map shows all the official spaces of the campus, including athletic areas where few students hung out, but the student maps often omit entire buildings or represent only those portions that students occupied during unofficial activities at lunch and before and after school, when social identities could be more fully displayed.

Figure 2a: Mark's map of the high school
Mark's map of the high school

For example, in his map of the Bay City High School courtyard (Figure 2a), Mark, a relatively popular European American boy who had only European American friends, excludes all campus buildings, which constitute the space of official school activities; he deictically indicates, with an arrow, the single building that has social meaning for him in addition to its social function, the science building, which he associates with nerds. By contrast, in his representation of the Steps of the arts building, where many of his friends (and sometimes he himself) hung out, Mark exhaustively labels the nuanced social distinctions of particular areas of the Steps (97 party clique, Baseball, 96 fools). Once again, however, he does not draw the building itself. He provides a similarly detailed map of the Park (Figure 2b), where he usually ate lunch: STONERS, POPULAR '97 GIRLS, WIERD PEOPLE. In fact, the Park is given more space than the school itself in Mark's representation.

Figure 2b: Mark's map of the park
Mark's map of the park

In both of Mark's maps, race is highly salient, although this fact is partly obscured by the tendency for white social groups to remain unmarked in his labeling. The racially unmarked status of European American teenagers contrasts sharply with the racial marking of students of color in Mark's maps: "ASIAN GASTAS [gangstas or gangsters]" populate "THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA" (a strikingly racist term I never heard from anyone else; the students in this area were in fact mainly Southeast Asian American), and "Af[rican] Am[erican]" on the Hill, with "1 or 2 white people." It is only in such contexts of racial integration or juxtaposition that white students become marked as such in this map of the campus: the "ASST [assorted] WHITE PEOPLE" on the Blocks (cement benches in the courtyard) are presumably racially marked because they are near the "Af[rican] Am[erican]" hangout under the trees. Such racial explicitness is unnecessary in Mark's map of the Park, because this space was ideologically construed as white, both by Mark and by most other students (although many students of color participated in predominantly European American social groups in the Park, and a few groups with no European American members also occasionally hung out there). It is clear from Mark's map that he was intimately familiar with many of the white social groups at Bay City High but entirely lacking in equivalent knowledge of other groups.7

Figure 3: John Doe's map of the high school.
John Doe's map of the
		   high School

Unlike Mark, John Doe, an African American boy who hung out in a multiracial group of hip-hop fans, does not include the Park in his map at all (Figure 3). And where Mark's map carefully documents the fine social distinctions among those who ate lunch on the Steps, John Doe merely indicates that the area was a hangout for (white) seniors. But like Mark, he includes only those areas of the official campus grounds that have social significance for him: hence the classroom building appears on his map because his own group hung out there. Moreover, John Doe shares with Mark an ideology of the school's social space as organized primarily around race. He labels the Hill African American, the Wall Asian, and the steps white. The only nonracialized labels are scrubs (i.e., losers) and the designation of the group on the Steps by class rank (seniors). In addition, John Doe notes the "XIV hangout," a meeting place for members of the Latino gang the Norteños, whose gang number is 14, usually rendered as Spanish catorce (see also Mendoza-Denton 1994).8 Finally, while Mark leaves his own social group racially unlabeled, John Doe designates his as "diverse," for their multiracial membership was a point of pride for him and his friends. Thus although both black and white students shared a generalized ideology that mapped racialized groups onto particular geographic locations at the school, students with different subject positions drew different levels of distinction within these broad groupings.9

But if the student maps construe social space in racialized terms, they also draw on ideologies of subcultural affiliation. Racialization established and enforced racial boundaries; stylistic differentiation created youth subcultures that were themselves racialized. The "XIV hangout" is the only activity- or style-based identity labeled in John Doe's map, but Mark's map enumerates a vast array of subcultures, all of them (ideologically) classifiable as white. The maps therefore reveal how these multiple levels of identity were produced in local ideologies of spatial organization. Ideological processes exaggerated the racial polarization of Bay City High School's social geography and diminished the extent to which both the racial constitution of groups and their distribution on the school grounds were constantly shifting. This tension between ideology and practice in the display of identity was not limited to the organization of social space at Bay City High. It was equally evident in the ideologically mediated distribution and use of particular forms of language invested with social significance. One such important resource for constructing various aspects of teenagers' identities was slang.

Slang as social practice

Recent sociolinguistic and lexicographic research on teenage and young adult slang (e.g., de Klerk 1997; Eble 1996; Munro 1989; Sutton 1995) has documented the wealth of lexical resources available to speakers in the creation and display of youth identity. Yet these studies, which rely on written self-reports of usage, do not always make clear to what degree their data derive from language ideologies and to what degree they represent actual patterns of slang use; respondents' stereotypes, attitudes, and ideologies of how slang is used are often presented unproblematically as reflective of linguistic practice. It is therefore advisable to read these research reports not as straightforward documentations of slang use but mainly for the valuable information they yield about language ideology.

Such studies, given their methods and goals, also offer up ideologies of their own. Primary among these is the representation of slang as a unifying practice that consolidates youth identity in opposition to adults. Like most ideologies, this one has a factual basis: it has been widely observed that slang, at least beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century, has served as one strategy among others for establishing and maintaining a teenage cohort separate from adults on the one hand and children on the other. From this perspective, slang is a kind of "anti-language," to use Halliday's (1976) term, or, in Morgan's (1998) revision of Halliday, a "counterlanguage," through which a shared youth identity is reproduced against a dominant norm. But in highlighting this function of slang, sociolinguists have downplayed the ways in which it divides as well as unifies its users. Some attention has been given to gender differences in reports of slang use (de Klerk 1997; Sutton 1995), but very little scholarly work has focused on slang's relationship to other dimensions of social identity. While the African American origins of many slang terms are acknowledged, for example, the process by which they are transmitted to European American speakers is rarely explored, nor the complex tensions and contradictions of racial separation and appropriation that underlie this process. Indeed, despite the dominant view of slang as a form of youthful rebellion against the older generation, the divisions between different groups of teenagers are often far more relevant in teenagers' daily lives than the division between adolescents and adults. Variation in slang use, like music fandom, clothing, and hairstyles, allows teenagers to identify themselves with some of their peers while differentiating themselves from others; in short, it enables teenagers to produce distinctive linguistic and cultural styles. In fact, slang is a crucial linguistic element for the creation and display of coolness, an orientation to youth-cultural trends.10 Such an orientation is a central value of all forms of youth culture, and hence slang fulfills a unifying function for all teenagers who strive for coolness, insofar as displaying knowledge of the rapidly changing lexicon of youth slang allows teenagers to bolster their credentials as individuals who are on top of current trends.11

Little is known, however, about how ideologies of slang use are put into play in practice, when slang is used as part of everyday spoken and written discourse. Survey-based studies tend to present their findings in the form of a mini-lexicon or glossary, in which terms are listed alphabetically and definitions are supplied by the researcher on the basis of survey responses. A more ethnographic and discourse-centered approach can redress some of the omissions of earlier scholarship. In discourse, slang is a resource that speakers use to lay claim to a variety of identities based on age, region, race and ethnicity, and subcultural participation, as well as to achieve particular local goals in interaction. And it is within discourse that the meaning of slang terms emerges---both at the semantic level of sense and reference and at the semiotic level of speakers' identities, ideologies, and practices.

In considering slang as a discursive phenomenon, this paper expands on traditional approaches to the lexicon within linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics, in which lexical items from a particular semantic field (e.g., color, kinship, metalinguistics) or linguistic variety (e.g., slang, regional English) are extracted from discourse and organized in the form of an inventory or taxonomy. As linguistic anthropologists are well aware, however, linguistic phenomena are not decontextualized structures but contextually embedded social practices (an insight to which this early lexical research contributed). Betsy Rymes's (1996a, 1996b) work on naming and lexical selection among current and reformed teenage gang members, for instance, indicates that referring terms, long studied by analytic philosophers, are best understood as achieving reference via discursive negotiation rather than as the result of a prior social contract arbitrarily linking a signifier to its signified. Although not primarily lexical in focus, Penelope Eckert's (e.g., 2000) research on linguistic variation as social practice considers the discursive positioning of another linguistic process often removed by analysts from its original context, phonological variation. Eckert demonstrates that phonological variables operate as resources for identity construction for teenagers at a suburban Detroit high school. Such variables are used to constitute two dichotomous social categories based on orientation or non-orientation to school activities---Jocks and Burnouts---as distinctive local identities. Eckert suggests that the use of particular variants is linked not only to identity but to speakers' discursive goals: thus an innovative raised pronunciation of the nucleus of (ay) in all- nighter and fight indexically ties a Burnout teenager's identity to the practices and ideologies associated with partying, toughness, and rebelliousness (Eckert 1996).

The present study builds on the insights of these researchers to argue that by its very nature, slang is a rich resource both for the negotiation of meaning and for the production of social and interactional identities linked to these meanings. Slang is particularly well suited to the construction of identity for several reasons. First, as part of the lexicon, it operates above the level of conscious awareness and thus is easily used and recognized. Second, as (at least ideologically) one of the most socially meaningful kinds of lexis, it can provide nuanced and detailed information about the speaker's identity. And third, because it is prone to rapid change, its progress across the social terrain can be tracked with relative ease.

However, when I began my research, I was not particularly interested in slang. It was only when I discovered, in describing my project to Bay City High School students, that most assumed that slang would be a central part of it that I developed a method for studying slang as part of my larger research goals concerning race, subculture, and language use. As part of the informal interviews I conducted, I asked students to discuss the slang terms they used or were familiar with. To facilitate this discussion, I presented them with a set of current words I had collected during my research and typed onto slips of paper. The discourse data that resulted from this activity, though not "naturally" occurring, were consistent with language ideologies of slang use expressed in everyday interaction, as exemplified by (1) above.

Talking about slang turned out to be more than a methodological entrypoint into issues I was more interested in; it became important in its own right. The elicitation of slang, like the mapmaking activity, was an invaluable source of ideologies relating to social identities, particularly language ideologies. In addition, I found evidence for slang use in practice in student vernacular writing such as the school yearbook, graffiti, and personal notes, as well as in the observation and recording of interaction. The combination of ideology-based and practice-based perspectives revealed the multifunctionality of slang in the discursive construction of various kinds of identity among students at Bay City High School.

Lexical definition and social differentiation

At Bay City High, slang, like race and other categories of social differentiation that it helped to produce, could be mapped onto the physical space of the school grounds. The racialized and other social divisions at the school were thereby reinforced by the assertion of linguistic divisions.12 This mapping reflected ideology rather than practice, and in any case, any social separation during lunch and before and after school was mitigated by the fact that students intermingled with and encountered diverse social groups and ways of speaking in classrooms, hallways, and extracurricular activities. Yet the teenagers I spoke to often produced very different definitions for the same terms. Students were rarely willing to admit that they did not know the meaning of a particular word, presumably because it might call into question their claims to coolness. Two common processes involved in definition, homophony and folk etymology, allowed teenagers to claim a wider base of knowledge of slang than they in fact had.

Thus when I asked students to define particular slang terms I got dramatically divergent answers depending on individuals' racial and subcultural affiliation. For example, punk, which a number of African American students used to refer to a weak or cowardly person, or (rarely) as a derogatory term for a gay man, was understood by many European Americans as referring to the (overwhelmingly white) subculture of punk rock; and folk(s), a collective term for one's friends among African Americans, was defined as a type of music by European Americans or, in the plural, as an outdated term for one's parents. Similarly, crew, another African American term for friendship group, was taken by a number of European American students to refer to the preppy rowing sport;13 and jock, which numerous black speakers used as a verb meaning `hit on' or `flirt', was taken as a noun meaning `athlete' by most white students.

Like homophony, folk etymologies enabled those who did not recognize a given word to offer a plausible (if incorrect) definition. For example, notch, a term used by many African American students to refer to an attractive person, deriving from top-notch, was thought by a number of European American girls to be a demeaning term of sexual conquest, based on a folk etymology from a notch on one's belt. A similar phenomenon occurred when I asked a number of different teenagers about the meaning of the expression break yourself, which was at issue in a legal case for which I was a pro bono consultant. The public defender with whom I was working hoped to find possible meanings for the term other than as the initiating speech act in a mugging, the crime of which her client was accused. I therefore surveyed a number of students for their definitions of the term. Three European American boys who participated in hip-hop culture recognized the phrase and defined it variously as "Give me all your money" (Al Capone), "Give me all your valuables" (Billy), and "Give me your wallet. Or anything valuable" (Brand One). The phrase was similarly defined by George, an African American boy, and by Brandy, an African American girl. But Erin, a European American girl who did not participate in hip hop and was part of the white "mainstream" of the school, offered the definition "Don't stress," perhaps on the model of phrases like Pace yourself and Take a break. While knowledge of the term was differentially distributed by racial and subcultural identity, Erin's use of folk etymology sought to obscure (but actually underscored) her unfamiliarity with the expression.14 Such variation in the assignment of semantico-referential meaning to particular slang terms, as manifested in homophony and folk etymology, contributed, sometimes unintentionally, to the ideology of social differentiation at Bay City High School.

Discursive practices of slang and identity

While definitions of slang terms provide important metadiscursive evidence of ideologies of linguistic and social division, the use of slang in practice demonstrates how such ideologies and their attendant identities are negotiated in specific discursive contexts. Just as ideologies of slang may operate at different levels of identity---to unify youth around the ideal of coolness and to differentiate teenagers on the basis of race and subculture---so too does slang in discourse. Additionally, within discourse slang may be used to structure interaction and to produce emergent and temporary interactional identities.


As discussed above, the entire system of youth slang unites those who use it around an identity that is based not simply on age but more crucially on coolness. Individual slang terms that are widely used across youth-cultural categories may also serve this purpose. In the Bay Area, one such word is hella, an adverbial quantifier and intensifier that has been grammaticalized from hell of, with which it occasionally alternates (Example 2). Hella, together with its G-rated counterpart hecka (Example 2b), is used among Bay Area youth of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and both genders, much as teenagers in other parts of the United States use the intensifiers wicked and mad.


(a)  If we're gonna get back hell of late, then I'm just going
     home. (Al Capone, European American boy, Fieldnotes, February 22,

(b)  It's hecka kids though. (Kendra, African American girl,
     Fieldnotes, February 20, 1996)

Examples of hella abound in students' informal spoken and written discourse. The data in (3) are taken from the 1995-96 Bay City High School yearbook. Along with the school newspaper, the yearbook provides an excellent corpus of slang data, for both were produced by students with very little adult oversight. The only restriction on lexical choice in these publications was that profanity not be used; hella did not count in this category. All the sentences in (3) were written by graduating seniors as part of personal messages to friends, family, and (occasionally) enemies; each student paid for her or his message, which was printed at the back of the yearbook. The messages often address particular individuals by name, and they contain in-group linguistic features such as initials and nicknames used as address terms; deliberate nonstandard spelling and writing conventions reminiscent of graffiti, album liner notes, and other vernacular and popular forms of literacy (cf. Androutsopoulos 2000); expletives (slightly bowdlerized due to the prohibition against them); and slang.


(a)  Yeah webn through hella sht 2getha. (Asian American girl)
(b)  Keep on drawing cause you can do it hella good. (Asian American
     American/European American boy)
(d)  I love ya'll hella tite. (African American girl)
(e)  I wont to say I had a hella fun time Playing with every one from
     the football team. (African American boy)
(f)  this year was hella fun! (Latina girl)
(g)  my big sista, known you for hella years, you were alwaysthere for
     me. (European American girl)
(h)  haven't seen ya for hella long (European American boy)

It is evident from these examples that teenagers of all backgrounds use hella.15 But the term is a marker of more than age or generation; it also signals an orientation to coolness, as indicated by its co-occurrence with other linguistic markers of youth culture, such as innovative spellings (2getha [together], 3a) and slang (keyed, 3c; tite [tight], 3d). Hella is a very stable regional marker, apparently having been in use in the Bay Area as an age-graded term for at least the past twenty years, although to my knowledge it has not been documented in the scholarly literature. Despite its longtime use, until very recently the term had not moved far from its locus of origin in the Bay Area, with only isolated use outside of this region. At the time of the study, hella was largely restricted to Northern California, especially the Bay Area; it currently enjoys a much wider circulation, thanks to its occasional use in popular music, television shows, and films aimed at a youth audience. It has been anecdotally reported to be in circulation around the country, but outside California it appears to be a marked, trendy term, in contrast to its enduring use as an unmarked feature of Northern California youth speech.16 Within the region it has spread dramatically across social groups: from its probable origins among African American speakers, it has come to be used by young people with different identities who share the youth-cultural value of coolness.


Other slang items, however, serve to differentiate rather than unify youth at Bay City High, especially on the basis of race and ethnicity, and most particularly along the ideological black-white social dichotomy. One such term is patna, the non-rhotic pronunciation of partner, which in this pronunciation is an affiliative term stemming from African American Vernacular English (Example 4).


(a)  PEACE to my patnas from the South. (African American boy)
(b)  I only had a few true patnas through the High and they know who
     they are (African American girl)
(c)  I just wanted to tell my pantna' MEL R.I.P. and we will always
     love you (African American boy)
(d)  & thanx 2 my patnas that just never went janky on me (African
     American girl)
(e)  all my patnas in 97...I'll miss ya. (African American girl)
(f)  neva 4get my patna RIP Mel (African American girl)

Although students of all backgrounds may use this term in some contexts to refer to their friends, it is primarily used by African Americans. Of the 25 tokens of patna (and its variants) that I was able to identify in the Bay City High yearbook, 17 or 68% were produced by African American students. This figure partly indicates the greater representation of African American students in the school population compared to Asian American and Latino students. But European American students---who by senior year constituted a slightly larger percentage than African Americans---produced only 5 of the 25 tokens.

As the example of patna suggests, nonrhotic pronunciation is often a formal indicator of slang. The examples in (4) above demonstrate that this pronunciation (as reflected by the spelling of the final nucleus as a rather than er) is mandatory. By comparison, the spelling of less semiotically potent lexical items, such as never, alternates between standard and nonstandard spellings (never in 4d, neva in 4f), where the latter reflects both youth identity and African American phonology. Similarly, the r-less pronunciation of whore as [ho], spelled ho or hoe, in teenagers' discourse functions as a synonymous but weaker insult for a sexually promiscuous woman. And the nonrhotic pronunciation of nigger (spelled nigga), when used by African Americans, entirely divests it of its force as a racist slur, rendering it instead a term for a (usually male) person, with no necessary racial association (see Spears 1998). Hence one African American girl could ask another in outraged incredulity, "She called you nigger?" using the rhotic pronunciation to indicate the seriousness of the offense as a racist insult.

While few students of any race used nigga in their yearbook messages, two European American students did so (Example 5):


(a)  Let's not stop puffin fat chronic tgthr nigas. (European American
(b)  9th was high season 10th was cut class & f**ked with that dope
     feen azz nigga Santo! (European American girl)

This cross-racial appropriation of a lexical item that, in its non-AAVE pronunciation, is the most racially charged word in the English language indicates the power of pronunciation to transform non-slang into slang. Yet seemingly nonracialized terms, when they crossed racial boundaries, could take on racialized associations: the use of a term of African American origin in the context of drug use (fat chronic; dope feen azz nigga) thus potentially forges an indexical link between blackness and the consumption of controlled substances.

Such appropriation suggests that slang, especially for European American students, is not located entirely in the lexical realm but can also extend to phonology and grammar. Indeed, it is precisely this collapsing of enduring elements of linguistic structure with more transient lexical innovations that results in the European American language ideology of AAVE as no more than "slang." Similarly, African American grammar could be reinterpreted as slang in the context of European American use. Invariant be was the main resource for this practice, as shown in Example (6):

(6)  Look yall, school maybe wac&tedious but there be ways 2 us it 2
     your Advantage! (European American boy)

This boy, who had ties to some African American students at Bay City High, does not seem to be using AAVE mockingly (cf. Hill 1995, 1998; Ronkin & Karn 1999); his use of yall (a pronominal form that is highly marked for white speakers in the Bay Area) may be designed to address an audience that is at least in part black. But his use of be in a nonhabitual context, especially in conjunction with his innovative orthography, as seen in the use of the numeral 2 for to, suggests the verb form was selected out of stylistic rather than syntactic considerations; that is, it is used as slang rather than grammar.

Even European American students who had little affiliation with African American youth culture and relatively little interaction with their African American peers could acquire some aspects of AAVE that they reinterpreted as slang. When Vince, a popular European American boy who was the editor of the school newspaper, asked Brenda, a European American girl whose primary friendship group was with African Americans, where her assigned newspaper article was, she replied (in her usual AAVE-influenced speech style), "I'll get it out the car." Vince mocked her in response: "Out the car? Out of the car." Yet a month later, he used the same form to clear a space in a crowd of students: "Get out the way." The transmission of linguistic forms in this fashion testifies to the fluidity both of ideologically established racialized boundaries and of the linguistic boundary between slang and nonslang, at least at the level of white students' local language ideologies and practices.


One of the primary factors mediating transmission of slang across racialized boundaries was subcultural affiliation. While some white teenagers, like Vince, encountered African American linguistic forms mainly indirectly, through interaction with European American students who had African American social groups, others, especially those who had a strong affiliation with hip-hop culture, constructed their subcultural identities by acquiring black youth slang from African American friends and acquaintances and from popular culture, and then incorporating it into their everyday speech. To examine this practice it was particularly useful to look at the definitions of slang terms that students provided, not as a guide to the meaning of the word being defined but for the use of other slang terms in the definition itself. In this way semiotic meanings and semantic meanings became linked as speakers laid claim to particular words as part of their ordinary vocabulary.

For example, European American hip-hop fans drew heavily on the racialized term patna as part of their production of a cool urban youth identity. The data in (7) are taken from one such speaker named Jay, and his friend Charlie. Charlie was more a stoner than a hip-hopper and hence did not draw on African American slang terms to the same extent that Jay did.

The recognition that patna has racial connotations is suggested in (7a), where Jay, seeing the word written in Standard English spelling, uses marked phonology and prosody to emphasize the oddity of the orthography.17

Sound file (7a) Jay: {Partner %lt;non-rhotic%gt; What's up, %lt;non-rhotic%gt;? h (1.5) Hello!}

The exaggerated lengthening of the final rhotic calls attention to the nonslang spelling, which Jay went on to correct with a pen on the slip of paper on which the word was printed. That the spelling and pronunciation are not simply wrong but uncool is indicated by the nasal, "nerd"-like quality of his voice. Both the lengthened final /r/ and this nasality additionally perform nerdiness as hyperwhiteness, in contrast to the AAVE-inflected cool pronunciation (cf. Bucholtz forthcoming). In (7b) and (7c), Jay uses patna to define other slang terms of African American origin; in both cases he uses the de rigueur nonrhotic pronunciation and other discursive strategies that signal his subcultural affiliation with African American youth culture.

(7b) Jay: Kick it, that just means to chill with your patna,
          you know, do nothing, watch some TV.
Sound file
1    Jay: Blood,
2         I don't know,
3         sometimes it slips out.
4         For me,
5         I say it [a lot.              ]
6    Charlie:      [Yeah,
7                                me too.]
8    Jay:  {Just like,
9         Shut the fuck up blood.}
10   Charlie: [Yeah Blood,
11                        what        ] the fuck have you x?
12   Mary:    [How d--- what's it mean?]
13   Jay:     Well just---
14   Mary:    Like,
15            person?
16   Charlie: Man,
17            dude.
18            All that shit.
19   Jay:  {Yea:h.
20        Just like, patna.} h

In (7c) Jay makes clear that although some terms, such as blood, off limits to white speakers they may "slip out" (line 3), a remark with which Charlie concurs. But in defining this racialized term, Charlie, who did not like rap music and did not dress in black-pioneered styles, uses the racially neutral terms man and dude, while Jay proposes the synonym patna, which is associated with African American speakers. Thus Jay makes an identity claim through his choice of synonym that Charlie does not. This implicit claim to use at least some racialized affiliative terms in ordinary speech, not just when they "slip out," constructs Jay's identity as a hip-hop fan. Yet the fact that both boys provide illustrative sentences that collocate blood with the intensifier fuck also suggests something about their ideologies of typical use---and users---of the term.

As Example (7c) suggests, European American students who engaged in the linguistic and cultural practices of African Americans at Bay City High could be subject to sanction. And those who expressed their disapproval could in turn use the resources of slang to do so. In (8), Norman, an African American boy, comments critically to another African American student about Al Capone, a European American boy who participated heavily in hip-hop culture.


Norman: That patna over there. He got the hip hop stuff. He be geared

(Fieldnotes, January 21, 1996)

Where Jay's use of patna in (7) asserted his right to its semantic and semiotic meaning, and hence his own status as a patna, Norman's use of the same term functions in precisely the opposite way: in applying the term to Al, Norman implies that it is as illegitimate as Al's physical self-presentation as a participant in hip hop. Norman proliferates AAVE-based linguistic forms in a way that iconically mocks Al's careful adherence to hip-hop style: he refers to Al as a patna; he uses invariant be in a marked, nonhabitual context; and he uses the nonstandard verb form got for has got. Norman's performance of linguistic excess implies Al's stylistic excess; Norman thus makes clear that he does not consider Al a patna at all but only a wannabe. Hence while racialized terms like patna could be used by European American speakers to assert their inclusion in hip-hop culture, insofar as white adoption of this subcultural style violated ideologies of racially differentiated social practice, the same terms could also be used to critique this perceived racial transgression.

Slang as an interactional resource

While slang can be used to assert or challenge relatively enduring identities based on age, region, race, or subculture, it can also be used strategically to achieve particular interactional goals. In the series of narratives in Example (9), both Jay and Charlie use slang to produce assessments (C. Goodwin & M. H. Goodwin 1992). Assessments are not simply devices for reporting events but resources for structuring interaction. Often these assessments are designed to invite the participation of others, especially through the seeking of additional information, and slang seems to help in the achievement of this goal. Like assessments, slang is a highly value-laden component of language; it is often used in contexts that involve strong positive and negative evaluation or heavy emphasis. Through the use of hella and other slang terms, Jay and Charlie negotiate their identities in this interaction. In particular, slang's emphatic, evaluative function is used to elicit questions that allows the narrative to unfold.

The example begins with Jay describing a party that he and Charlie recently attended:


1    Jay:       It was supposed to be--- it wasn't supposed to be hella big,
2               it was just supposed to be a couple of fools that were-
3               just about to kick it at this girl's hou[se.  ]

4    Charlie:                                           [There] were like (.) forty fools there.
5    Jay:       T(h)here was more than forty foo:ls, bud.
6  -->          Hella fools ro(hh)lled up.
7    Charlie:   I thought there was like thirty to forty there.
8    Jay:       No there was supposed to be thirty to forty come,
9               and then about (.) a hundred and twenty fools came.
10 -->          There was hella people.
11   Mary:      Wow!
12              So- And they were all from Bay City High?

In (9a), Jay uses the quantifier hella in lines 6 and 10 to emphasize that his estimate of the number of partygoers is the correct one; this emphasis is supported by the use of paralinguistic indicators like laughter and word stress. After each of these lines, Charlie and I both produce utterances that are designed to elicit more information from Jay (lines 9, 11-12). Hella likewise functions emphatically in line 21 of Example (9b), and again I respond to Jay's turn with an information-seeking question (lines 22-24).


11      Mary:    Wow!
12               So- And they were all from Bay City High?
13      Charlie:    Yeah.
14      Jay:     No there was a couple girls from Los Flores (xx)
15      Charlie:    From where?
16      Jay:     From Los Flores. Didn't you see <falsetto> {those girls}?
17               <inhalation through pursed lips>
18      Mary:    What d---
19               They were good?
20               or [bad?]
21  -->          [They] were hella fine. hhh
22      Mary:    hhhhh
23               Did you get to know them,
24               or.
25      Jay:     Oh no I was too drunk to really---
26      Mary:    Mm.
27  --> Jay:     <low pitch> {and (.) Max was ruining fools' game. <nasal deleted>}
28      Charlie:       {Max was?}
29  --> Jay:     Max was ruining game. %lt;nasal deleted%gt;
30               [Yeah.]
31      Charlie: [Why, ]
32                       what'd he do?
33      Jay:     You know just being Max. hh
34      Mary:    S- he was what?

In line 27 and again in line 29, Jay produces additional assessments to provide an account for why he was unable to hook up with the girls from Los Flores, a neighboring city: Max was ruining his game by moving in on the girls himself. Jay signals in line 27 that these assessments are directed at Charlie rather than me by dramatically altering his pitch to a confidential murmur, and I subsequently cease my questioning for several turns. Jay's redirecting of the narrative exclusively to Charlie allows him the satisfaction of eliciting powerful reactions from an appreciative audience familiar with the people and setting of the narrative; Charlie responds with incredulity (line 28) and curiosity (31-32). My ill-timed question in line 34 indicates a certain obliviousness to the reconfiguration of the interactional dynamic that has occurred; however, the boys ignore this interruption and continue with their conversation.

Up to this point Jay has been the primary narrator. In the last segment of the excerpt, however, Charlie proposes a new subtopic that he wants to narrate: Lamar's behavior at the party.


35      Charlie: Lamar, dude. hh
36      Jay:     Me- me and Lamar are having a battle next time.
37 -->        We're about to have a phat batt[le.]
38      Charlie:                                [For] real?
39      Jay:     Yeah.
40               It's gonna be tight.
41      Charlie: Do that. hh
42      Jay:     hhh
43 -->  Charlie: <quietly> {Fools dream,
44                                         fools dream.}
45      Jay:     Who,
46               Lamar?
47      Charlie: He wanted to get with Teresa dude,
48               and then I did,
49      Jay:     hhhh!
50      Charlie: I was like,
51                          "All right,
52                                       I'll go talk to her,"
53 -->  Jay:     Oh, that fool fell.

Like Jay in (9a), in line 35 Charlie uses slang and paralinguistic cues to signal that there is more to be said, but he does not offer an assessment. Nor does he manage to elicit an information-seeking question from Jay, who goes on to take up the topic as his own: Lamar, like Max, has competed with Jay for girls and Jay intends to beat him out (lines 36-37). Indeed, Jay's reclaiming of the role of narrator is so successful that when he provides an assessment of this projected battle in line 37, Charlie asks a question in response. In lines 43-44, Charlie then offers his own assessment of Lamar as someone who is deluded about his skills in winning girls. It is only at this point that Charlie succeeds in eliciting from Jay the question that allows him to tell his story about his triumph over Lamar (lines 45-46). The final assessment by Jay in line 53, an appreciative response to Charlie's story, closes off the narrative, as described by Goodwin and Goodwin.

In this transcript, slang functions less to assert a particular social position than to assert a particular interactional position: that of an authoritative storyteller. But other layers of identity are also operative here. In Jay's assessments in lines 27 and 29 he turns to the resources of African American youth slang, phonology, and prosody: not only is the expression itself associated with African American speakers but so too are the nasal deletion and nasalization of the vowel of game, and the emphatic stress pattern in line 29, which places primary stress on the verb complement and secondary stress on the verb itself, in contrast with Standard English placement of emphatic stress on the verb. As with Eckert's Burnout speakers, Jay's use of socially meaningful phonological variants in particular lexical items creates an indexical tie. His language choices allow him indirectly to reassert his coolness at a moment when I have threatened it by asking an awkward question about his success with the girls from Los Flores. In this way he borrows the coolness and suaveness ideologically associated with African American boys at Bay City High to make clear that his romantic failure was not his fault.

While Jay's linguistic strategies underscore his subcultural identity as distinct from Charlie's, at the same time they provide Charlie with access to African American linguistic forms. Charlie and Jay generally hung out together on the Steps; occasionally, Charlie also went to the Park, but Jay had nothing but contempt for the white students who regularly congregated there. For his part, Jay also had contacts with African American speakers in his daily life, and these contacts allowed him to act as a cultural and linguistic broker, introducing slang terms from the African American groups into the European American group he hung out with. These teenagers in turn---like Charlie---could take such terms into their other friendship groups elsewhere at the school. As such terms became disassociated from their African American origins, or deracialized, more white students took them up, and African American students began to abandon them. But more than lexical items circulated in this economy of slang: slang transmission was a by-product of cultural contact and social interaction and negotiation. Thus the transmission of slang was by definition a transformation, for both social and semantic meanings were reshaped each time a term was used.


At Bay City High School, practices and ideologies of slang established identity categories of various kinds: slang could be used to signal coolness and engagement in youth culture, to mark off racial boundaries, or to construct subcultural participation. It could also be used to create interactional identities such as narrator and audience member. In addition to these social meanings, slang could be assigned different linguistic meanings by different social groups. The variability and negotiability of slang as a semiotic and lexical system is unanticipated by scholarship that extracts this system from its context, for such a method cannot capture the fundamentally social character of slang. Thus decontextualized definitions are less useful than ethnographic and discourse-based perspectives that take into account both the ideologies and the practices associated with slang in local contexts. This approach requires multiple methods of elicitation and observation of a range of spoken and written discourse forms in which slang is used and discussed.

Without an analytic balance between ideology and practice, the investigation of slang patterns at Bay City High could become in effect a study in microdialectology, with the geographic boundaries separating different groups from one another on the school grounds aligning with isoglosses dividing distinctive slang practices, forms, and meanings. While there is both an ideological and a practical basis for this perspective, it is also important to bear in mind the fluidity of the situation: student groups do not remain rooted in one place, but move through the space of the school, and individuals move from one group to another. Likewise, neither the social nor the linguistic meaning of slang is fixed and determinate, and what counts as slang, or even as lexis, is itself negotiated in discourse.

As linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists continue to refine our theories and methods for the study of identity, the complexity of language in use as a resource for the production of social subjectivities becomes ever more evident. It is precisely because of the intricacy of this process, and the vital importance of understanding it, that the thorny question of identity has endured as a central concern of scholars concerned about language in its social context. Answers to this question must come both from new kinds of data and from new kinds of analysis of areas of language once thought to have been exhausted of their potential to yield social and cultural insights. Although the lexicon is often treated as the poor stepchild within current linguistic and sociolinguistic theory, the ethnographic study of lexical systems, including slang, in interaction with other linguistic levels, is proving to be one such place where researchers may gain purchase on the multidimensionality both of identity and of language.