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Slang, innit

Here's a copy of a piece I wrote for The Guardian's CiF, responding to Emma Thompson's attack on slang:

That epitome of Hampstead luvviness, Emma Thompson, has apparently started a campaign against the use of "sloppy slang" and "street talk". It follows a visit to her old school, Camden High for Girls. What's to be expected from a Cambridge graduate? It is still an institution of received pronunciation. She is not alone in this call to arms against slang. Fellow north Londoner Tom Conti agrees, as does Kathy Lette, that writer of such timeless classics as Puberty Blues, which is about "top chicks" and "surfie spunks", and Alter Ego, about a "knight in shining Armani". Lette attempts to show off her punnilingus by calling slang a "vowel cancer" and urging teens to study "tongue fu".

This kind of talk has got me well vexed. Listen up, yeah, there's nowt wrong with slang, so you need to stop mitherin', d'ya get me? Those who are from the north will recognise nowt as nothing and mitherin' as bothering. And "d'ya get me?" is, well, comprende? Slang has been around for a long time. Far from showing the user as "stupid", as Thompson contends, it demonstrates inventiveness and quickness of thought; a language plasticity, if you like; a language on the go, evolving not just from one generation to the next, but one year to the next. Its use shows that students are able to learn and speak a wide range of vernacular. The British Library certainly seem to think so, with its upcoming exhibition on evolving English.

Types of slang can be seen as distinct dialects in their own right. Yet there are those who would complain that it excludes many more than it will let in. The same argument has been made regarding novels such as Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting – the use of the Leithian dialect a clear statement that, to get "them", requires work; the same work it would take for them to learn RP. British literature is served well by slang – it can energise prose – and there is also Will Self's "Mokni", from The Book of Dave.

I remember reading Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, with its "nasdat" and being so blown away that I rewrote a contemporary female-centric version called A Clockwork Apple. I used archaic and old Celtic words in order to get away from the language so favoured by the Blytons (think Thompson). This use was then mocked when a middle-aged male reviewer attempted to write a nonsensical review on it.

What Thompson et al may be put out at is feeling out of touch with the reality of this younger generation. Slang can be seen as a sophisticated attempt to communicate in a semi-private language, only a step removed from Wittgenstein's "private language". Also a Cambridge graduate, Wittgenstein came to believe that the idea that language can perfectly capture reality is a kind of bewitchment. Yet teenagers in each generation seem intent on trying, which is to their credit. They may not consciously know this is what they are doing, but they are seeking a language that represents their reality, and a way of creating a private space for those with whom they identify.

The issue is, perhaps, what makes people feel in the right to say that anyone who does not speak like them, or in the way they were taught, is wrong and "stupid"? What is stupid is the ignorance of such highly educated public figures who seem not to have realised that Britain's greatest writers used slang and those words became part of our language. Shakespeare helped popularise words such as nervy, rancorous, puke, assassination and sanctimonious. Allow me to illustrate the use of these words: Sanctimonious Oxbridge grads are rancorous at the use of teenspeak and slang, which makes them so nervy that they want to puke, which could be avoided if they stopped the slang assassination.

I am not saying that slang is a substitute for "standard" English, but should be recognised and capitalised upon for what it is – a love of communication and an inventiveness of speech that continues to make English one of the most interesting languages.

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