Reply to Morgan and Agha

Mary Bucholtz

Marcyliena Morgan and Asif Agha have provided a wealth of insights and have raised a number of valuable questions about slang as a semiotic system for the production of various kinds of identity. I thank them for their very helpful comments. Here I take up only a few of the many important issues they address in their remarks on my paper. These issues concern the definition of slang; the relationship between ideology and practice; and coolness as a cultural concept.

            Morgan quotes a definition of slang that appears in my paper: “a generation-specific lexicon associated with taboo topics that is creative and rapidly changing.” Morgan quite reasonably credits this definition to me, for due to an unfortunate typographical error (for which I am wholly responsible), my paper terms this collection of attributes “familiar characteristics of slang” rather than “familiar characterizations of slang.” My own definition of slang is in fact somewhat different, and while I do not offer an explicit definition in the paper—in a certain sense, the entire paper is an attempt to work toward such a definition—it may be useful to propose one here, both to clarify my original intent and to elaborate on some of the points made by Morgan and Agha.

            One question that arises in defining slang is how it is be classified linguistically. As Morgan observes, the term slang itself, due to its lay use as a synonym for nonstandard dialect, evokes a set of language ideologies that run counter to those espoused by linguists. Where for many linguists slang is a preeminently lexical phenomenon, akin to jargon or argot (to offer two other terms in circulation in linguistic discourse), for many nonlinguists slang also encompasses phonological, morphological, and syntactic phenomena. Thus in my research I found that European American teenagers classified as slang not only lexical innovations from African American speakers but also grammatical structures characteristic of African American Vernacular English generally. It is therefore perhaps more apt to characterize the constituents of the slang category as lexicalized rather than as lexical: for particular lexemes or phrases to count as slang among members of a culture, they may mandatorily undergo grammatical rules that otherwise apply at variable rates of probability, and these processes are not productive but are tied to specific lexical items.

In addition to these formal considerations, disparities between linguists and nonlinguists also arise concerning the social functions of slang: linguists highlight the ability of slang to construct and display in-group solidarity (which is treated as synonymous with intra-generational solidarity); nonlinguists emphasize instead the way that social groups are demarcated and differentiated from one another through varying levels and kinds of engagement with slang. Hence ideologies of what slang is are bound up with ideologies of who uses it and why, a complex process that Agha unpacks both in his comments and in his own work on honorific registers.

            This raises yet a third complication in the definition of slang. Agha proposes that slang be understood as a register, where he importantly shifts the traditional focus away from register as a “situational” variety (which has been opposed—falsely—to a “social” variety), highlighting it instead as a locus of culturally shared language ideologies that assign specific social values to recognizably marked linguistic forms. Agha makes clear the utility of such a perspective in analyzing slang, which despite its radical functional difference from honorific registers participates in similar processes of social signification.

            In my own work, I have found it useful to think about slang in terms of a related but rather different concept: style. Like register, style rests on an ideological foundation that associates linguistic forms with social positionings. But where register is restricted to language, and hence nonlinguistic dimensions of the phenomenon are necessarily ancillary to the analysis, style need not be limited to the linguistic realm. To be sure, sociolinguistic scholarship has traditionally taken a remarkably narrow view of style, but more recent research understands it more broadly as a collection of social practices (and ideologies, a point I return to below), to which language is a crucial but by no means exclusive contributor.

             Thus the concepts of register and style perform complementary kinds of analytic work: register is especially useful when we are attending to the distinctively linguistic dimension of social intersubjectivity; style is most helpful when we are interested in situating linguistic practices within the context of other semiotic practices, such as physical self-presentation, social geography, and cultural activities. Yet neither registers nor styles can operate without the collaboration of ideologies that invest these practices with social meaning. One response to Agha’s crucial question regarding the relationship between ideology and practice, then, is that ideology is a special kind of practice: a praxis of praxis. In other words, where practice operates at the pragmatic level, ideology operates at the metapragmatic level, and the two are inseparable components of language use. But the relationship between pragmatics and metapragmatics is neither predetermined nor fixed; and it is in the creative negotiation of the two that social agency comes to the fore.

            In her comments, Morgan discusses a crucial example of this flexible relationship. She notes that coolness, a central value of European American youth culture, originates in an African American concept of a cool, in-control social face that contrasts with “playing the fool.” Through ongoing processes of cultural appropriation, however, coolness as taken up by European American youth is associated only secondarily, if at all, with affective self-management and for these speakers now primarily denotes awareness of and orientation to current trends of youth culture (often associated with various kinds of consumption). One way that this latter kind of coolness is signaled its through the use of slang, including many lexical items borrowed wholesale from African American youth, for whom these terms are often connected with the former sense of coolness. In this situation the pragmatics of slang has not dramatically changed but its metapragmatic or ideological link to coolness has been radically redefined. While slang signifies coolness for both African American youth and their European American imitators, what constitutes coolness is quite different for each group (as well as for different groups within these racialized categories).

            In light of the foregoing discussion, I offer the following working definition:

Slang is a constantly negotiated set of lexicalized (and often re-semanticized) terms that are ideologically associated with the practices and identities of youth culture.

This definition is meant to improve upon the limitations of earlier characterizations of slang, in which concepts such as “generation” and “taboo” are usually untheorized. Additionally, it accommodates both register and style as perspectives on slang. While the definition may not be of sufficiently broad scope to capture all the phenomena researchers may want to include under the rubric of slang, it may serve as a useful guide to the centrality of ideology and practice in the use of lexical resources for the production of social identities.

            In closing, I want to respond to a brief comment by Morgan in hopes of shedding additional light on the interrelationship between ideology and practice. Morgan wonders whether the pseudonym of John Doe, an African American boy in a multiracial friendship group of hip-hop fans, may “signify some sort of erasure.” John Doe’s selection of this pseudonym—a metapragmatic act of identity production that was witnessed not only by me (the one who requested he perform this act) but also by several of his friends—is perhaps more complex and multilayered than it may first appear. As I describe in the paper, and as Morgan reiterates in her comments, for John Doe there is no unmarked subject position at Bay City High School. Constant processes of racialization, both locally and more broadly, ensure that African American students cannot assume their own racial unmarkedness as European American students are often able to do. Moreover, as a participant in a friendship group that takes pride in its racial diversity—a characteristic that its members explicitly contrast with most other groups at the school—John Doe simultaneously acknowledges and critiques racial positioning through his friendship patterns and social practices. In his crew’s own racial ideology, race must be recognized in order to be transcended. Thus the pseudonym John Doe may perhaps be understood both to parody and to problematize the possibility of unmarked subjectivity—whether this unmarkedness is the result of racial privilege or the anonymized subjecthood of social-scientific research. Clearly, there is a danger of overreading this small text, but I hope at least to have suggested additional contextual factors that make it possible to understand John Doe’s name not as an effort to place the self under erasure but an act of self-construction in which racial ideologies, social practices, and humor collaborate to challenge scholarly as well as local ideologies of subjectivity.