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Reviewed by:
  • African American slang: A linguistic description by Maciej Widawski
  • Sharese King
African American slang: A linguistic description. By Maciej Widawski. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. 296. ISBN 9781107074170. $105 (Hb).

Maciej Widawski’s African American slang uniquely pairs a dictionary with a linguistic description of lexical patterns in African American slang. Together, both parts display the dialect’s vast lexicon and also affirm that African American slang is a rule-governed system. Throughout the main text and the glossary, W cites over 5,000 examples from a wide range of modern and diverse resources, including movies, articles, and TV series. His study provides an easy-to-follow guide for an audience of linguists and nonlinguists alike.

This book contributes to the study of African American English by providing a detailed linguistic description of morphological, semantic, and pragmatic patterns in African American slang. While researchers have produced linguistic descriptions of the dialect’s phonology and [End Page 477] morphosyntactic properties, no single work has previously focused on exploring the ‘patterns of form, meaning, themes and functions of African American Slang’ (xi). In doing so, this book represents a step toward understanding more of the dialect’s patterns and disputing claims that African American slang is linguistically deficient in comparison to standard English.

My review summarizes the introduction and the book’s five chapters, offering critiques along the way. Overall, W convincingly shows the reader that African American slang is rule-governed, displaying many of the same patterns found in American slang and standard English more generally. Most of my concerns raised are with respect to methodology, given the potentially controversial nature of what to include in a dictionary.

Ch. 1 (1–18) lays the foundation of the book by focusing on intent, terminology, and methodology. Importantly, W emphasizes that this work is intended to be descriptive and empirical. In regards to terminology, he defines two important concepts: african american and slang. W draws on Baugh’s (2001:709) definition of ‘African American’ as referring to those who have a direct relationship to the linguistic legacy of slavery in the United States. He goes on to describe other terms used by researchers to discuss the speech of African Americans, such as Afro-American Vernacular English, Black Vernacular English, and Ebonics. Importantly, this section defines who the speakers of the dialect are, the coiners and users of African American slang.

Slang is defined across several dimensions, including its informality (Thorne 1990:iii), emotional expressivity (Chapman 1986:xii–xiv), ability to mark group identification (Eble 1996:11), its rhetorical affect (Dumas & Lighter 1978:5–17), and its development and dissemination across groups (Coleman 2012:26–116). W combines these ideas into a single definition (which he adapted from Widawski & Kowalczyk 2012:18) as follows:

Slang is a highly informal and unconventional type of vocabulary. It is perceived as deeply expressive, attractively catchy, and deliberately undignified. It consists of standard expressions modified in some way or appended with new meanings, and sometimes of entirely novel expressions. Slang is coined chiefly by members of social, occupational, or ethnic groups which are typically separate from mainstream society, yet it is often adopted by larger social segments. It is employed in place of standard expressions to convey some extra information of a psychological, social or rhetorical nature. It thus provides alternative, highly informal synonyms for referents already named in the language, but sometimes gives names for referents for which there are no standard expressions, or which have yet to be named.


This invites a larger question about what formality means. With little discussion of formality in the book, this definition assumes speakers use slang only in informal situations. Readers are not informed of the possibility that speakers who use African American slang may also do so in situations they perceive to be formal. Furthermore, not all slang words evoke the same levels of formality. For example, Major (1994) discusses the fact that African American speech and slang have contributed to formal American English, citing the movement of words like afro, attitude, and bad into mainstream formal language. Thus, it is unclear what ‘informal’ means and whether every African American slang word can...


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pp. 477-480
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