Psycholinguistics/Language and Society
- 1 Introduction: Language and Society
- 2 Slang
- 3 Sexual Lexicon
- 4 Taboo Words
- 5 Conclusion
- 6 Learning Exercise Part 1
- 7 Learning Exercise Part 2- Essay Question
- 8 Learning Exercise Part 3
- 9 Answers
- 10 References
Introduction: Language and Society 
In our everyday lives, we are engage in spontaneous social acts that are interconnected with the activities of those around us without taking notice. These well-established practices are considered aspects of the social norm derived from the culture in which one habituates. The subtleness and intricacy of these spontaneous joint activities is strongly reflected not only in our social acts but also in the way language is used within social groups. Compared to cognitive research, which largely sees language as an individual process, and to social science research, which sees language as a social process, it has been argued that language use embodies both individual and social processes (Clark, 1996, p. 1) When considering what people are talking about in a conversation and what they are tying to achieve by conversing, language can be seen as being used as a form of joint action (Clark, 1996, p.1) Language is more than the sum of the speaker and the listener, but the joint action that emerges when they perform their individual actions in coordination (Clark, 1996, p. 1). It can be said that everything we do and say as humans is rooted in the information we have about our perceptions, emotions, interests, activities, and surroundings (Clark, 1996, p. 92). In a given culture or subgroup, common ground, such as mutual knowledge, mutual beliefs, and mutual expectations, shift to accommodate the circumstances and the parties with whom we are conversing. Language comes to exist in conversational layers that can shift and enable the establishment of new common grounds (Clark, 1996, p. 92). In this chapter, the ways in which language functions within society is going to be thoroughly examined. This chapter will highlight the relationships between the way different subgroups think and how this determines the words used in their languages. To further understand how speech shifts as a function of one’s social situation, this chapter will look at the use of slang, sexual talk, and taboo words in different contexts.
What is Slang?
Slang is an informal set of words and phrases that are used to reinforce or establish one’s identity within a social group or with a trend in society (Eble, 1996, p. 11). Slang is an important aspect of language to touch on in this chapter because it is vocabulary that embodies the social functions of language. Slang seems to be as old as language itself given that it is part of ordinary interactions in all languages in which communities are large and diverse enough to have identifiable subgroups (Eble, 1996, p.11). Because of slang’s social and psychologically complex vocabulary, four identifying criteria have been proposed (Eble, 1996, p. 11):
- The presence of slang will, at least momentarily, lower the formality of serious speech.
- The use of slang implies the user’s special familiarity with a class of people who also have special familiarity and use the term.
- The slang term is a taboo term in discourse with people of higher social status or greater responsibility.
- Slang is used as a replacement for a well-known conventional synonym to either protect the user from the discomfort caused by the conventional term or to protect the used from the bother of elaboration.
According to authors Bethany Dumas and Jonathan Lighter, when at least two of these defining criteria are met, a linguistically sensitive audience will react to the word or phrase in some way (Eble, 1996, p.12). This immeasurable reaction is the fundamental identifying characteristic of slang (Eble, 1996, p.12). For instance, take the phrase, “that guy was a jerk for cutting me off before the intersection!” According to the criteria, jerk would qualify as slang because it satisfies criteria 1, 2, and 4.
Why Do People Use Slang?
The existence of certain slang words and phrases may in fact seem to be part of a short-lived pattern of overused terms being reinvented with new meanings when mainstream culture deems appropriate. The vocabulary of particular subgroups such as, college students, can actually illustrate this innovative characteristic of slang. For example, Dead Soldier, a military slang term that has been around since the eighteenth century when it meant ‘empty bottle’, re-emerged in 1987 at University of North Carolina with a more modern definition of ‘empty beer can’ (Eble, 1996, p. 15).
Another important identifying characteristic of slang is its group-identifying function. Slang is often used when the user wants to be accepted by a select social group (Eble, 1996, p. 119). A strong sense of belonging can stem from the sharing and maintaining of an ever-changing vocabulary that undoubtedly serves to include and exclude members from social groups (Eble, 1996, p. 119). Like keeping up with fashion trends, slang must be new and appealing, and must be effective enough to gain group acceptance (Eble, 1996, p. 120). Slang’s function within subgroups is to enhance the feeling of internal solidarity and the shared vocabulary helps specific groups such as sports teams to work together in a stressful environment (Eble, 1996, p. 123). In the fall of 1990, members of the cross-country track team at UNC were using terms like rigging, which stood for the tightening of muscles at the end of a tough race, and doing carbo-loading, which stood for drinking beer after a race (Eble, 1996, p. 122).
Intergenerational Differences in Language and Slang Use
In prior linguistic research, age has been considered the principal correlate of language change among speakers (Barbieri, 2008) . An important factor to consider when studying slang is intergenerational differences in language use for instance, how language varies across the life span. Taking into account the fundamentally different nature of linguistic variation in syntactic and lexical levels amongst individuals, a linguistic analytical technique suited to the exploration of major lexico-grammatical differences is key word analysis (Barbieri, 2008). This technique is a powerful statistical approach that allows the unveiling of important lexical differences within a collection of spoken material, thus neglecting potential syntactic differences (Barbieri, 2008). To explore age-based linguistic variation in spontaneous conversation, the following study employed key word analysis on a large variety of casual conversation in American English (Barbieri, 2008).
The subjects in this study were of two age groups: youths aged 15-25 and adults aged 35-60. In terms of the key word analysis, “key word” is defined as a word that occurs with unusual or outstanding frequency (Barbieri, 2008). For example, the word like is a very frequent key word among young speakers because the rate of occurrence of its use in young speakers is significantly higher than in older speakers (approximately 1,749 to 1,736 occurrences per 100,000 words respectively) (Barbieri, 2008). One of the most significant patterns that emerged from the key word analysis is younger speakers’ frequent use of slang words, ranging from taboo or swear words to non-derogatory slang words (Barbieri, 2008). Key words such as man, dude, cool, guy, pissed, bucks, screwed, sucks, dope, booze, and bummer indicated that non-derogatory slang is common in American youth’s casual interaction (Barbieri, 2008). Key words man, dude, and cool were the three most commonly used non-derogatory slang words in younger speakers occurring among the top twenty key words (see table 1). Within the analysis of the use of key words, for the most part, older speakers’ patterns of speech were characterized as a departure from younger speakers’ norms in the fact that they had much lower use of attitudinal adjectives and lower use of slang and swear words (Barbieri, 2008). This research also indicated that the main cutoff in age-based differentiation is between the mid-twenties and that differences between the age groups above 35 years tend to become smaller (Barbieri, 2008). This study suggests that, in terms of slang use, slang is a more prominent feature of the language of the youth than of adults.
Table 1: Sample key slang words output (3 of the first 25 key words from the younger corpus (Barbieri, 2008).
In terms of slang use in social contexts, the current study found that cool was the most frequent slang term used amongst the youth and coincidentally, the most pervasive term of approval used by speakers born in the 1980's (Barbieri, 2008). Barbieri (2008) goes on to argue that cool is a prime example of basic slang which differs from most slang terms by two unique traits: it is pervasive, being used to express approval and to align the speaker with an attitude or set of values characterizing their generation and it endures over long periods of time.
Sexual terminology is learned at a young age through interactions with our peers (Jay, 2000, p. 85). Parental inhibition and punishment of the use of sexual references teaches children that sexual words are powerful (Jay, 2000, p. 85). In a study done on the topic of how children learn to talk about sex, parents discussed their difficulties and solutions with their children’s use of sexual slang (Jay, 2000, p. 124). The findings of this study revealed that learning about sexual terminology is a process of socialization (Jay, 2000, p. 125). From this study, we learn that a double standard in sex talk is obvious; parents will speak to their friends differently than to their children and fathers will speak differently with female friends than male friends (Jay, 2000, p. 125). Due to differences in socialization, daughters and sons of the same household will even acquire different sexual vocabularies (Jay, 2000, p.125).
As we develop linguistically and sexually, sex talk becomes more dependent on who is listening rather than the fear of parental negation and omission that comes with sex talk (Jay, 2000, p. 86). Sexual talk is an interesting topic because it is one that holds strong personal relevance yet maintains a socially unaccepted stigma in formal contexts. The following research on sexual talk will illustrate the differences in the use of sexual language in interpersonal and social contexts.
The Four Systems of Sexual Language
As we develop psychologically and as our social contexts shift, the sexual lexicon modifies accordingly (Jay, 2000, p.127). There are four different systems for sexual talk:
- child language – taught to children by parents, allowing them to describe body parts and functions without using slang or medical terms (e.g., wienie, tushy, poo-poo, bum)
- street language – used by peers, to indicate in-group identification and often to impress other (e.g., screw, make out)
- euphemisms – used to avoid using explicit terms for sex in any conversation by adults (e.g. making love, sleeping together)
- medical-scientific language – a technical and concrete language of sexual terms learned in school and from books (e.g., penis, vagina, defecate, coitus) (Jay, 2000, p. 127)
According to this set of systems, childhood terms eventually evolve into more offensive terms or euphemisms. The medical-scientific language system is used in more formal exchanges and settings.
Sexual Talk in Different Interpersonal Contexts
Given that sexual talk is highly dependent on one’s surroundings, it is not surprising that other factors play a role on how one uses sexual lexicon. Many studies have been done that look at the relationship between context and sexual terms, which highlight how the overt expression of sexual identity highly depends on social contexts. Much research has focused on the different use of sexual vocabulary amongst genders, showing that males make greater use of sexual slang than females (Wells, 1989). Given the fact that different cultures and sub-groups tend to maintain their own in-group slang, it is appropriate to consider the impact of sexual orientation on the use of sexual vocabulary. In a study investigating the use of sexual language amongst genders in different interpersonal contexts based on sexual orientation, results indicated that differences in sexual vocabulary are significant (Wells, 1989). This study used a sample of 440 heterosexual and homosexual undergraduate male and female students from the University of Northern Iowa with a mean age of 22 (Wells, 1989). A questionnaire was given to the participants asking them to write the word or phrase they would use for male genitalia, female genitalia, and sexual intercourse when with a spouse or lover, mixed-company, in a same-sex conversation, and a conversation with parents (Wells, 1989). The results shown in the following table demonstrate that lesbians used more female-oriented terms for male genitalia, love making, and oral sexual contact than did heterosexual males, homosexual males, or heterosexual females (Wells, 1989). Homosexual males used slang more often with a spouse or lover than any other group of participants (Wells, 1989). Further, heterosexual males made the largest change in language use when shifting from the primary use of slang in a same-sex context to more formal terms or euphemisms when with a spouse or lover in all sexual concepts (Wells, 1989). This study demonstrates that sexual orientation is yet another dimension that affects the use of sexual language.
|Gender and Sexual Orientation||Grand Total||Mixed Company||Same Sex||Parents||Spouse Lover|
|Heterosexual Male||Formal: 22.93; Euphemism: 26.08; Colloquial: 40.54||Formal: 29.52; Euphemism: 33.38; Colloquial: 34.62||Formal: 3.72; Euphemism: 11.64; Colloquial: 84.16||Formal: 39.18; Euphemism: 28.66; Colloquial: 8.45||Formal: 19.28; Euphemism: 38.86; Colloquial: 34.90|
|Gay Male||Formal: 22.57; Euphemism: 18.14; Colloquial: 44.86||Formal: 33.72; Euphemism: 22.88; Colloquial: 37.72||Formal: 10.28; Euphemism: 12.00; Colloquial: 76.00||Formal: 36.58; Euphemism: 22.28; Colloquial: 4.00||Formal: 9.70; Euphemism: 15.42; Colloquial: 61.70|
|Heterosexual Female||Formal: 35.83; Euphemism: 25.94; Colloquial: 28.23||Formal: 37.62; Euphemism: 23.96; Colloquial: 32.46||Formal: 30.22; Euphemism: 21.00; Colloquial: 45.244||Formal: 46.08; Euphemism: 19.72; Colloquial: 5.54||Formal: 29.40; Euphemism: 39.08; Colloquial: 25.90|
|Lesbian||Formal: 27.75; Euphemism: 21.00; Colloquial: 32.50||Formal: 31.00; Euphemism: 21.00; Colloquial: 36.00||Formal: 26.00; Euphemism: 20.00; Colloquial: 47.00||Formal: 33.00; Euphemism: 16.00; Colloquial: 6.00||Formal: 21.00; Euphemism: 27.00; Colloquial: 41.00|
Table 2. Total Language Use for Social Context by Gender and Sexual Orientation in Percentages (Wells, 1989).
|Gender and Sexual Orientation||Male Genitalia||Female Genitalia|
|Heterosexual Male||Formal: 36.5; Euphemism: 10.6; Colloquial: 49.5||Formal: 38.1; Euphemism: 14.6; Colloquial: 38.6|
|Gay Male||Formal: 35.7; Euphemism: 7.2; Colloquial: 47.9||Formal: 37.9; Euphemism: 3.6; Colloquial: 42.9|
|Heterosexual Female||Formal: 50.2; Euphemism: 9.5; Colloquial: 33.7||Formal: 51.6; Euphemism: 23.1; Colloquial: 16.2|
|Lesbian||Formal: 42.5; Euphemism: 2.5; Colloquial: 45.0||Formal: 37.5; Euphemism: 21.2; Colloquial: 26.2|
Table 3. Total Language Use for Sexual Context by Gender and Sexual Orientation in Percentages (Wells, 1989).
A Relevant Aspect of Language
It is important to note that when scholars disregard swearing as an irrelevant aspect of language, we are left with a false understanding of verbal communication (Jay, 2009). In the past, psycholinguists strongly held Noam Chomsky’s structuralist theory of language, which did not touch on the idea of emotional language at all (Jay, 2009). For a more complete understanding of language, conventional interpretations of language must expand to include the communication of emotional information, which is spoken and understood through word choice, emphasis, and speech volume (Jay, 2009). It has been argued that the emotional aspects of words are stored in the brain along with the word’s semantic and syntactic properties (Jay, 2009). Once a semantic network with lexical emotional information develops, emotion can be used as a basis for lexical access when swearing (Jay, 2009). This means that once emotional words are processed with information regarding their level of arousal, offensiveness, and appropriateness, the use can choose to use an offensive or inoffensive word (Jay, 2009). Given some background information on how taboo words are processed and expelled, the next section will discuss the origin of taboo words, why they exit, and what motivates people to use them.
What Are Taboo Words and Why Do They Exist?
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a taboo is a “ban or inhibition resulting from social custom or aversion” (Jay, 2009). Taboo words, or swear words, are deemed offensive at an institutional and social level (Jay, 2009). Taboo words acquire this offensive status and arousing effects by aversive classical conditioning (Jay, 2009). As children, we are taught that swear words are bad and when they are used, punishment is often the result. Hence, swear words are leaned through the socialization of speech.
History of Taboo Words
The use of taboo words in language goes back to ancient history. Religious authorities have prohibited profanity and blasphemy since biblical times (Jay, 2009). More recently, in 1966, ethnic slurs such as Redskin were being used; a term coined by the first British settlers to describe the Native American Indians (Allen, 1990, p. 3). As other ethnic groups arrived and the country became more diverse, the name-calling increased exponentially (Allen, 1990, p.3). Many taboo terms originated from great events in American history such as waves of immigration, urbanization, wars, and depressions (Allen, 1990, p.4). Today, taboos in English tend to be primarily based on sexual, profane, and blasphemous references and new terms are constantly emerging, especially in slang (Jay, 2009).
Taboo Words and Social Context
As with the use of slang and sexual talk, the use and interpretation of taboo words depends on contextual variables. For instance, in the previously discussed college study where students were asked to list which sexual terms they would use in different contexts (i.e. with a partner, lover, parent, or mixed company), technical terms were said to be more likely used with mixed crowd and with parents whereas sexual obscenities were used with same-sex crowds and with a partner or lover (Wells, 1989). Ultimately, the offensiveness and appropriateness of swear words are determined by the relationship between those conversing as well as the social setting (Jay, 2009). This sense of offensiveness is also determined by age and level of maturity (Jay, 2009). For instance, a young boy would find terms such as baby and wimp to be more offensive than adults (Jay, 2009). The task at hand for the social speaker is to determine what words are appropriate in a given social setting.
This chapter identified the ways in which language functions within society through examining the means by which different subgroups’ unique thought processes determine the words used in their language. To understand speech as a function of one’s social situation, this chapter discussed how the use of slang, sexual talk, and taboo words are dependent on social cues in their immediate or enduring social state. It was noted that slang term use is somewhat dependent on mainstream culture (Eble 1996), its means of enabling the identification and acceptance by social groups (Eble 1996), and its function of aligning the speaker with a set of values characterized by their generation (Barbieri 2008). This chapter also revealed that sexual talk is dependent on who is listening (Jay, 2000) and on one's gender, sexual orientation and interpersonal context (Well, 1989). Lastly, this chapter explained that offensiveness and appropriateness of taboo words are determined by the relationship of those who are conversing and on the social setting of the speaker (Jay, 2009).
Learning Exercise Part 1
The following link is of a video depicting two instances in which people speak differently depending on their interpersonal context. In the first scene, a mother and daughter are engaging in a conversation about sexual activity. The second scenario is of the daughter and a friend engaging in a conversation about sexual activity while using slang terms. Please watch the video from this link and then answer the following questions.Learning Exercise Video
1. Based on information from this chapter, does it seem fitting that the mother used the formal term "sexual intercourse" when discussing the subject of sexual activity with her daughter as opposed to a more casual term like, "sex"? Why or why not?
2. How many slang terms were used in the second scenario? What were they and how would you define them?
3. Based on information from this chapter, does it seem fitting that the friends were using many slang terms when conversing? Why?
4. When using the slang term, "cool", which of Eble's (1996) identifying criteria are met, if any?
Learning Exercise Part 2- Essay Question
Please watch the following link depicting the use of taboo words in different scenarios and then answer the following essay question. Learning Exercise Part 2- Taboo Words
As discussed in the chapter, words acquire offensive status and arousing effects by aversive classical conditioning (Jay, 2009). From a young age, children are taught that swear words are "bad" and are often punished as a consequence of their use. Through the socialization of speech, children recognize the negative connotation of swear words, enabling less than favourable associations to the use of taboo words. As we grow into adolescence and adulthood however, as you can see from the video, using taboo words is highly dependent on one's social context. While swearing is forbidden amongst parent and child in the video's fictional household, taboo word use is not deemed offensive when used casually between a couple having a conversation about a hard day at work. Why is it considered wrong to use vulgarity in different social contexts? While taboo words seem to lose their intrinsically unethical status somewhere between childhood to adulthood, they are still often deemed offensive at an institutional and social level (Jay, 2009). Yet, one must consider why it is that it can be far more hurtful to speak a sentence composed of a handful of every day words than it can with any one curse word, or even a combination of cruse words, yet taboo words maintain this offensive status? Through social pressures such as shame, shunning, and encouragement, some behaviors are deemed acceptable while others are not; among these are using highly informal and inappropriate language in many settings. Upon reading this chapter and watching the video for learning exercise (part 2), please discuss your opinion on the topic of taboo word use. In your response, consider ethics as well as the important aspect of language use as a function of one's social context.
Learning Exercise Part 3
Test your knowledge on slang, jargon, and taboo word use from this chapter by filling out the crossword puzzle below!
1. Taboo words are, in fact, a _______ aspect of language.
4. According to Clark (1996), what kind of action emerges from the social coordination of speakers during a conversation?
7. Aside from Eble’s (1996) list of criteria, another important identifying characteristic of slang is its _______-________ function.
11. Sexual ________ has an effect on language use amongst genders in different interpersonal contexts.
13. According to Well 1989, heterosexual _______ make the largest shift in language use when changing from the primary use of slang in a same-sex context to more formal terms when with a spouse or lover.
15. Ultimately, the offensiveness and appropriateness of taboo words are determined by the relationship between those conversing as well as the social ________.
16. How many slang identifying criteria are set out by Eble (1996)?
17. As we develop, sex talk becomes more dependent on who is ______ rather than the fear of parental negation and omission that comes with sex talk.
18. The third system of sexual language described by Jay (2000).
19. Taboo words acquire an offensive status and arousing effects by aversive ________ conditioning.
2. This technique is a powerful statistical approach that allows the unveiling of important lexical differences within a collection of spoken material, thus neglecting potential syntactic differences.
3. The word, _____, is a prime example of basic slang which differs from most slang terms.
5. According to Barbeiri, what has been considered the principal correlate of language change among speakers?
6. Slang is the _______ that embodies the social functions of language.
8. Among the identifying criteria for slang set out by Eble (1996), one implies the need for a speaker’s special _____ with a class of people who also use the term.
9. It has been argued that language use embodies both individual and ______ processes.
10. ‘Dead Soldier’, a military slang term that has been around since the eighteenth century when it meant ‘empty bottle’, re-emerged in 1987 at University of North Carolina with a more modern definition of ‘empty _____ can’.
12. Much like _______, one must keep up with slang to ensure the use of new and appealing terms that are effective enough to gain group acceptance.
14. Parental inhibition and _______ of the use of sexual references teaches children that sexual words are powerful.
Part 1 Answers
Question 1: Yes because the college student experiment in Wells (1989) explains that technical terms are more likely to be used with parents whereas sexual obscenities are more likely to be used among same-sex crowds and with a partner or lover (Wells, 1989).
Question 2: Three ("vibing"= enjoying each other's company, "cool"= acting in a relaxed, fun, aspiring manner, "it"= used in this case to mean "sexual intercourse")
Question 3: Yes. The group-identifying function of slang makes its an important characteristic of communication that enables and encourages acceptance among members of select social groups (Eble, 1996). The girls in the video were likely using many slang terms when conversing due to the strong sense of belonging that stems from keeping up with the latest trends in language.
Question 4: All four of Eble's (1996) identifying criteria are met: The presence of slang will, at least momentarily, lower the formality of serious speech; The use of slang implies the user’s special familiarity with a class of people who also have special familiarity and use the term; The slang term is a taboo term in discourse with people of higher social status or greater responsibility; Slang is used is used as a replacement for a well-known conventional synonym to either protect the user from the discomfort caused by the conventional term or to protect the used from the bother of elaboration.
Part 3 Answers
- joint action
- linguistic analytical
- Clark H. H. (1966) Using Language. Cambridge: Cambridge university Press.
- Eble, C. (1996). College Slang: in-group language among college students. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
- Barbieri, F. (2008). Patterns of age-based linguistic variation in American English.Journal of Sociolinguistics, 12(1),Arizona: Northern Arizona University, 58-88
- Jay, T. B. (2000). Why we curse: the neuro-psycho-social model of speech. Philadelphia: Benjamins
- Wells, J. W. (1989). Sexual language use in interpersonal contexts: A comparison of gender and sexual orientation. Archives of sexual behaviour, 18, 127-143
- Jay, T. (2009). The utility and ubiquity of taboo words. Perspectives on psychological science. 4(2), 153-161
- Allan, I. L. (1990). Unkind words: Ethnic labeling from Redskin to WASP. New York: Bergin & Garvey