Word Up: Social Meanings of Slang in California Youth Culture1

Mary Bucholtz
Texas A&M University
Department of English


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  1. Acknowledgments. This paper is an excerpt from my book manuscript in progress, Signifying Nothing: Language, Youth, and Whiteness. I gratefully acknowledge the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Center for Humanities Research at Texas A&M University, the Department of English at Texas A&M University, and the Department of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley for providing financial and other support for this project. A version of this paper was presented at the 2000 meeting of American Association for Applied Linguistics in Vancouver; my thanks to audience members there for comments and suggestions. Thanks are also due to Laura Carroll for technical assistance. Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to Doug Glick for inviting me to participate in this symposium and for his unflagging patience, encouragement, and enthusiasm.
  2. All names are pseudonyms, many of them selected by speakers themselves. Some identifying information in the data has been changed.
  3. Some data are taken from fieldnotes that were recorded at the time of the events they describe. Such data are presented according to conventions of dramatic dialogue rather than in transcript format, and the fact that they are taken from fieldnotes is stated at the end of each example. Although such examples cannot capture the range of linguistic and interactional detail possible in audio and video recordings, when used with caution they can serve as important sources of ethnographic and linguistic information. Indeed, many linguistic anthropologists have drawn on such data as well as or in addition to recorded data (e.g., Basso 1979; Heath 1983; and numerous authors in Bauman & Sherzer [1974] 1989). As Gaudio (forthcoming) points out, "Such data are clearly inadequate for analyzing certain aspects of linguistic structure, such as phonology and oral- interactional strategies. However, they can provide important insights into the social use and significance of lexical, grammatical and rhetorical forms that are more pragmatically salient and therefore amenable to human memory and reflexive commentary. …" Other researchers have shown that even details of phonology and interaction can be investigated with the aid of fieldnote data, provided that the utterances under analysis are brief enough to be accurately recorded on the basis of a single hearing.
  4. See Bucholtz (1999a) for a fuller comparison of the speech community and the community of practice.
  5. This definition may seem to run counter to the traditional sociolinguistic understanding of style as emergent from social situations rather than social groups (e.g., Labov 1972). More recently, however, a broader concept of style as social distinctiveness has been put forward (e.g., Eckert 2000; Mendoza-Denton 1994). And even if the more restricted definition of style is accepted, Allan Bell (1984) has argued that situational variation is a reflection of social variation, which is primary. In Irvine and Gal's terms, style in this sense is a locus of fractal recursivity, in which situational difference replicates social difference.
  6. This arrangement also replicated in microcosm the racialized arrangement of neighborhoods in Bay City itself, with primarily white, upper-middle-class families in the south and west parts of the city and primarily black, working-class families in the north and east. The iteration of the city's social geography within the school's social geography is a nonlinguistic example of fractal recursivity.
  7. One exception, which is not racially marked on the map of the courtyard, is the inclusion of "BCP" (Bay City Posse), an African American group which European American students considered to be a gang. This detail may have been included due to the salience of this group to Mark and his friends, given that it is adjacent to their social area at least in the morning (IN AM).
  8. John Doe does not label this area in racial/ethnic terms, and his lack of familiarity with the social group itself is evident in his interpretation of XIV as letters of the alphabet rather than as a numeral.
  9. The small amounts of data I collected from Asian American students, and the lack of data from Latino students, as well as the absence of a unifying spatial practice or ideology for these groups, prevent me from commenting on their social geographies here.
  10. Like much of slang itself, the concept of coolness originates in African American culture (Morgan 1998); at Bay City High, African American teenagers often had stronger ideological claims to coolness than other students, especially European Americans.
  11. The rejection of youth culture thus also entails a rejection of current slang; Bucholtz (1999a; forthcoming) documents a category of teenagers, nerds, who construct their identities and linguistic practices in opposition to coolness.
  12. Hence my own research may have contributed to the promotion of such ideologies. I was cognizant of this danger during my fieldwork and tried to avoid it by refraining from invoking social categories until the students themselves had introduced them into our conversation, as well as by focusing on the topic of friendship rather than social conflict. However, given the intense scrutiny of the high school's social divisions, and its resulting tensions, by parents, city residents, and the local media in the period preceding my study, it was almost inevitable that students would view any researcher at Bay City High School as primarily interested in social differentiation.
  13. In his map of the courtyard, Mark uses the term in this sense in labeling social groups on the Steps (Figure 2a).
  14. Although break yourself, like most American slang, seems to be an African American innovation, it is of course much more widely recognized than used, and as these data show, many speakers of other racial and ethnic backgrounds are familiar with it as well. However, it is worth noting the racialized associations of the phrase for at least some speakers. Thus after Brand One defined the term he added, "A big person like George would say it, not a little person like me" (Fieldnotes, January 21, 1996). Because George was not only big but African American, a degree of racialization---and perhaps racist stereotyping---is suggested by this remark. See also Bucholtz (1999b) on Brand One's negotiation of ideologies of race, gender, and language in a narrative of racialized conflict.
  15. Latino and Latina students used the term less often in their yearbook messages, which were often composed in Spanish.
  16. My own informal surveys of college students in Texas indicate that urban-oriented Texas youth recognize hella (but do not generally use it themselves, except for special stylistic effect), while more linguistically conservative suburban and rural youth remain unfamiliar with the term.
  17. Transcription conventions are as follows:
    Line breaks mark intonation units.
    .         end of intonation unit; falling intonation
    ,         end of intonation unit; fall-rise intonation
    ?         end of intonation unit; rising intonation
    !         end of intonation unit; high rise-fall intonation
    --        self-interruption; break in the intonational unit
    -         self-interruption; break in the word, sound abruptly cut off
    :         length 
    italics   emphatic stress or increased amplitude
    (.)       pause of 0.5 seconds or less
    (n.n)     pause of greater than 0.5 seconds
    h         exhalation (e.g., laughter, sigh); each token represents one pulse
    x         unintelligible speech; each token represents one syllable
    (  )      uncertain transcription
    < >       transcriber comment; nonvocal noise
    {  }      stretch of talk over which a transcriber comment applies
    [   ]     overlap beginning and end
              Phonetic transcription has been omitted for technical reasons
    -->       material under discussion