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Multicultural Man: On slangish

WILL SELF on slang as a form of communication and its standing in the education system

According to Universities UK, thousands of students could lose out on funding to study abroad if the UK opts for a no-deal Brexit. Photograph: Chris Ison/PA Wire - Credit: PA

One person’s slang is another’s most treasured means of communication, but it’s only in recent years that it’s come to be properly understood why such usages, far from sullying the sanctity of a language conceived of as pristine and eternal, are in fact the very evidence of its seemingly infinite capacity for innovation. Whether we conceive of informal terms as new words for old things, or, as heralding genuine novelty, makes no difference: the work of Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker et al., established both the innate character of human language – it isn’t something we ‘learn’, it just happens – but also that this is a very supple syntax indeed, allowing for almost any series of phonemes to make sense.

Tell that to the powers-that-be at Ark All Saints Academy in Camberwell, London, who have now issued a style guide for its pupils with the avowed aim of policing their academic – rather than their informal – use of language. Banned from beginning essays’ sentences are: “Ermmm”, “because”, “no”, “like”, “say” and “basically”; while such culturally-specific (in this case, African-Caribbean) expressions as “He cut his eyes at me” and “Oh my days”, are also deemed superfluous to the requirement for pupils to express themselves “clearly and accurately”.

As a pedagogue myself, I have a great deal of sympathy for this view – and the authorities charged with policing written English also concur: A 2019 survey of over 2,100 tutors established that ‘slangish’ was the most common reason for English GCSE failures. (Incidentally, I just added ‘slangish’ to my computer’s dictionary, thereby doing my own little bit for neologism.) Meanwhile, language policing is also perturbing the academy in a metonymic sense: both the universities minister and the Office for Students (OfS), the body concerned with overseeing how university assessment operates, have spoken out against those institutions whose policy it is not to mark down students’ work on the basis of improper English.

My own university is in this group: as markers, we’re told not to demerit any infelicities, so long as we can understand the general sense of a piece of writing. But of course: this is a spurious distinction – following Susan Sontag’s masterful analysis in her On Style, the distinction between style and content in writing – or any other medium for that moment – is wholly spurious, because without style there simply is no content – style being at root as much as superficially, what a piece of writing is always about. So, if we make the analogy here with painting – it’s not whether you deviate from accurate representation when it comes to an image (or a verbal expression), it’s whether you understand what that deviation is.

I’ve absolutely no objection to the most obscure or wayward practices, as long as the path they deviate from remains clear. There’s this, and of course there’s an underlying cultural objection to forms that are considered infra dig because they originate from class or ethnic groups that are themselves discriminated against. Of course, it isn’t – for the reason outlined above – altogether a false equivalence between beginning a sentence with “basically” and deploying an idiomatic expression originating with a given culture, so we need to be ruthless in excavating our own prejudices in order to draw the fine distinction between being discriminating and discriminatory.

Despite my own Anglo-American heritage, I find the deployment of Americanisms in English English always raises my hackles. This is a generational prejudice – and quite unreasonable: why shouldn’t the young, who’ve via media effectively absorbed it as their mother tongue, deploy such quintessentially American expressions as “kind of ” in lieu of “sort of ”, or refer to themselves as having been “raised” rather than “brought up”, or indeed employ “Hi” as an epistolary salutation.

For me, the African-Caribbean idioms the Ark academy object to seem poetic and resonant: ‘cutting their eyes at me’ being something people do habitually; while as for “Oh my days”, the Ark censors seem unaware that it entered African-Caribbean – and by extension, Black British – discourse, precisely as a non-blasphemous substitute for “Oh my God”, which is also on their list of proscribed phrases.

But as I’ve long and often conceded (see Multicultural Man passim), my valorisation of African-Caribbean culture may well obscure my own capacity for prejudice and resentment. When I think of the slang that really annoys me it’s almost uniformly expressions I hear in the mouths of a sort of the English petit-bourgeois: “Cheers”(whether expressing thanks or valediction), “bonkers”(for any sort of non-standard behaviour), and most especially “chuffed”, an expression which makes me feel as if I might chunder – as Australian students are no doubt strongly discouraged from writing in exams.

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