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American Speech 76.1 (2001) 62-78
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"Does it Suck?" or "Is It for the Birds?"
Native Speaker Judgment of Slang Expressions
Thomas C. Cooper
University of Georgia
A friend of mine, a native German, recalls as one of the most mortifying moments of her early teaching career the icy silence that followed her utterance: "Our final [examination] is scheduled for the last time slot before Christmas break. Does that suck or what?" My friend has experienced that, as a nonnative speaker, among the most difficult tasks on the road toward competence and mastery of American English is learning when and where the use of slang expressions is appropriate. This difficulty is especially poignant for the student today, for contemporary American society appears to be more linguistically permissive than it was a few years ago. Lighter (HDAS 1994, xxxvii), in fact, predicts that the trend toward informal language will continue: "The tolerance--in fact, the demand--of contemporary literature and journalism for a vigorous informal vocabulary . . . leads us to expect that, in coming decades, more slang will achieve standard status more quickly than ever before." Nevertheless, the use of slang remains controversial. Some people feel that self-expression should be accomplished through any available language forms that get one's meaning across. Others feel that the less formal forms indicate a lack of a good education and upbringing or perhaps a lack of serious purpose; they try to speak and write in an "elevated" form of English, which they believe eschews slang.
An investigation of how people of different backgrounds view and judge the social acceptability of slang expressions will help gauge to what extent slang may have already become a generally accepted mode of expression. Such information can be of particular help to the English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, who is often in a quandary about what register of English to stress in instruction. If ESL students learn only formal English, they will have difficulty understanding everyday informal conversation, but the subtleties of using slang in a foreign language are fraught [End Page 62] with difficulties, for one must understand the appropriate social context for using slang in order not to offend people.
Judging Linguistic Acceptability
Few studies have looked at the reactions of native speakers to the use of informal words and expressions in terms of their social acceptability. Ensz (1985), one of the few scholars to investigate this area, described the reactions of native French speakers to the use of slang by young second-language learners--in this case, American college students studying in France. The native participants rated 30 French slang and colloquial expressions that had been tape-recorded by the American students. On the rating sheet, the French respondents used the following three-point scale to indicate their reactions to the expressions (Ensz 1986, 500):
1. Cela me déplaît beaucoup; c'est d'un très mauvais goût. 'It definitely offends me; it is in very bad taste.' 2. C'est peut-être un peu incorrect [in the social sense]. 'One probably shouldn't say that.' 3. Cela m'est égal; c'est un langage normal. 'It doesn't bother me; it is okay.'
Ensz calculated the average rating for each expression and for the gender, profession, age, and place of residence of the respondents. Places of residence of the French respondents included Touraine, Paris, French Switzerland, Alsace, and Provence. Data analysis indicated a general tendency among the French natives to rate the American female slang users lower than the male users. French males listeners were also more tolerant of the slang expressions, giving them higher acceptability ratings than did the French females. Professional people were somewhat more accepting of slang than nonprofessionals. Younger listeners were more tolerant than older ones, and place of residence did not seem to make a difference as to how listeners rated the recorded expressions. In general, according to Ensz (1985, 478), "the findings . . . [indicated] a lack of acceptance of French slang usage by young Americans."