What is slang? And do we need to learn it?

“Slang is the underworld of language”

Alex Rawlings is joined by broadcaster and writer Susie Dent, Dr Tania Fahey Palma, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of Aberdeen, and the UK’s favourite German comedian Henning Wehn, to help us understand how language learners can navigate the secretive world of slang.

Henning Wehn
Henning Wehn

What is slang?

Slang is a way of belonging. It emanates from “the different communities we have membership of”, and that it illuminates and defines the “innate values and strategies for belonging” within those communities.

It’s also “the language that likes to say no” and is often used as a way of keeping strangers out. Susie Dent talks about teenagers’ use of slang to keep parents out of the loop; how cockney rhyming slang was developed as a way for traders to talk in secret code, and even how highwaymen used slang terms to identify themselves to one another. “The first dictionaries to ever be created were dictionaries of criminal slang.”

Is it important to try and learn slang?

Slang is a challenge for language learners. “Trying to understand what slang means in a foreign language can be very tricky…” But it’s worth persevering. Slang can allow us to communicate better, and tell or understand jokes in another language. It also gives us a deep insight into the character and culture of the language we’re learning.

What is the difference between slang and taboo language?

Taboo is aligned with slang, but taboo language takes us a little bit closer to the edge; it’s “what we are prohibited to talk about and prohibited to do in society.” Different languages have different ideas about what’s prohibited. For example, in Spain many swear words and phrases are based around religion, and came about at a time when taking God’s name in vain was a form of blasphemy. Taboo language also taps into our deepest emotions and allows us to release pain or pent up feelings. Tania and Susie discuss the concept of lalochezia, which is a term meaning to swear or use foul language to reduce stress or pain… well, we’ve all been there.

Why does taboo language make us laugh?

If we feel a word shouldn’t be used, that it ‘goes beyond the pale’*, it gives us a thrill and a jolt and can often make us laugh… hence why a lot of comedians use swearing as part of their routines. Again, it’s emotive. But language learners beware: there are very different models of what is inappropriate in different countries, and it’s crucial to know the context of taboo words before using them.

How to swear in different languages.

There are lots of variations in how different nations’ swear, and the subject of such words can tell us a lot about what is important to that particular culture, as well as what is taboo. The Dutch base their ‘disses’* around illness, the Brits around copulation and body parts, and Spaniards around religious elements. And the Germans? Well as Henning notes, even if someone only knows five German words, “I bet you a fiver that scheisse will be one of them!”

Do you need to be careful using slang in another language?

Slang can be difficult to get right in a second language – though, according to Alex, this is impossible in Spanish: “because even the most basic expression you would use is a swear word.” At Rosetta Stone we always advise learners to have a go and not be afraid of speaking out in their new language. But you don’t want to offend people and it’s always best to check with a native speaker to make sure you are using it correctly….

The best way to learn slang in a foreign language.

Dr Tania Fahey Palma suggests following a hobby or interest, and finding these groups online in your non-native language: “look at reddit posts, look at forums, look at the natural interactive language […] really trying to immerse yourself where possible,” she advises. Whilst Henning recommends reading tabloids for “the words they use and the number of quotes in them.” It’s difficult to learn slang without being immersed in a culture, i.e. living in the country or community where it is spoken, especially as slang is the fastest evolving part of any language. But this is also what makes it so exciting for language learners. Good luck!

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*All quotes from the transcript of the full podcast which you can view above

*Some slang terms used in this post:
– ‘To go beyond the pale’ means to go beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour. As well as meaning not very colourful, a pale is also part of a fence, so this literally means to go beyond the boundary.
– ‘disses’ – A diss is a cuss or put-down.

About the Author Simon Goodall

Language learner, teacher and contributing author to the Rosetta Stone magazine

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