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How Slang Affects Language Development

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.

Traditional US Idiom (slang): Roll your sleeves up = Get ready to do hard work.

Traditional US Idiom (slang): Roll your sleeves up = Get ready to do hard work.

Misunderstanding Slang

During the whole of the American 20th century, each generation complained or at least laughed about the next generation's use of the English language. By 1960, a song highlighted the ongoing conundrum: "What's the Matter with Kids Today?" taken from the film Bye, Bye Birdie.

Slang is language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands -- and goes to work.

— Carl Sandburg (1878-1967)

By the 21st century, we had the Urban Dictionary to help older folks understand just what younger people are saying. It is a fun tool to use, but sometimes provides shocking results -- Many slang terms there have to do with a type of intimacy and related private parts. Here's a less controversial example (maybe):

Languages and Fun

Slang is a part of language change over time and in a long process over decades and centuries, can stimulate the formation of an entirely new dialect of a language.

It is part of the change often through "coinage" of new words out of thin air, of slurring words, and of using other methods (often unconsciously).

I taught English grammar and creative writing at the high school and college levels, as well as English as a Second Language (ESOL or ESL) to Asian students. I also researched Iroquois languages and their link to African tongues. It was all fun and I learned a lot through research and teaching.

The info in this document is broken into sections in order to make it easier to find the part you'd like to know more about.

What Is Slang?

Eric H. Partridge (1894-1979) was born in New Zealand and migrated to the UK, where he became a maker of dictionaries and other collections of words. His life in the two nations showed him the differences and similarities in the English language used in the two countries that resulted from human migration and cultural changes.

Mr. Partridge felt that slang is important and that people use it for at least 15 different reasons. Paraphrased below, these reasons include (Reference: Slang: Today and Yesterday. 1970, 1961, 1933. Chapter 2. Available in full at the link below.):

  1. For fun.
  2. To display wit, ingenuity, or humor.
  3. To be "different."
  4. To be picturesque.
  5. To be startling.
  6. To escape from cliches, or to be brief and concise.
  7. To enrich the language.
  8. To make the abstract more concrete and understandable.
  9. 9a. To lesson the sting of, or on the other hand to give additional point to, a refusal, a rejection, a recantation; 9b. To reduce, perhaps also to disperse, the solemnity, the pomposity, the excessive seriousness of a conversation (or of a piece of writing); 9c. To soften the tragedy, to lighten or to 'prettify' the inevitability of death or madness, or to mask the ugliness or the pity of profound turpitude (e.g. treachery, ingratitude); and/or thus to enable the speaker or his auditor or both to endure, to 'carry on'.
  10. To talk down to a subordinate or to entertain a superior public readership or audience; or to be on the same level as one's audience.
  11. To make communications easier.
  12. To produce friendliness or intimacy that endures.
  13. To show that one belongs to a certain profession, class, or other in group.
  14. To show that someone else is an outsider (member of an out group).
  15. To be secret. Children, students, lovers, members of political secret societies, and criminals in or out of prison, innocent persons in prison, are the chief exponents.

Change and Language Relationships

Causes of language changes

  • Loss of homogeneity due to geographical division: Geographical and social barriers
  • Language contact: languages in contact with each other begin to show similarities, it explains a number of shard characteristics among the world's languages.

Language relatedness

  • Languages are spoken by humans, and humans are anatomically similar.
  • The languages have completely coincidentally hit upon similar ways of expressing the same meaning: though it is quite rare that two languages would independently end up with words for the same concept that are similar phonetically, it does occasionally happen.
  • For two languages to have similar words for the same concepts is that occasionally, language is not arbitrary: there is an iconic connection between the form of the word and the meaning. This is the case with many onomatopoeic words like clock ticking.
  • Language borrowing: when two languages are in contact with each other, it is quite common for one language to borrow words from the other language.
  • The two language might be "genetically related" to each other. That is, at one point, the two languages may have been the same language, but over time, the language split into two different varieties, and each variety underwent enough changes that they can now be considered separate languages.

Deciding on whether two languages are in fact related or simply similar for other reasons--We want to see that there are a large number of correlations between form and meaning across the two languages. When the correlations are not confined to a few words, and occur across the entire vocabulary, we minimize the chances of coincidence or onomatopoeia misleading our thinking.

When we find a similarity between two words, we try to gather other words in the two languages to see whether these similarities are widespread: the type of words that correlate across two languages. That is, finding a lot of words that seem to have similar form-meaning mapping still doesn't mean that the two languages are necessarily related. Sometimes, one language borrows so heavily from another language that their vocabularies overlap to a high degree. The fact that core words are not usually borrowed is useful, linguists tease apart languages that are actually related from languages that have simply been in contact with each other making use of this fact. When two languages share many form-meaning mappings across their vocabularies, particularly in the areas of core vocabulary and grammatical function words, it is generally the case that the two languages are genetically related to each other.

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The Ways That Relatedness Can Be Shown

Protolanguage: an earlier, common language.

In the nineteenth century scholars considered language and linguistic development to be analogous in many ways to biological phenomena. Thus, it was suggested that languages, like other living organisms, had "family trees" and "ancestors." A sample "genealogical tree" for the Indo-European (I-E) family of languages is developed.

The family tree theory, formulated by August Schleicher, assumes that speech sounds change in regular, recognizable ways (regularity hypothesis) and that because of this; phonological similarities among languages may be due to a generic relationship among those languages (the relatedness hypothesis).

In order to fill in the particulars of such a relationship, it is necessary to reconstruct the hypothetical parent from which the related languages are derived. The principal technique for reconstructing the common ancestor of related languages is known as the comparative method. Some example results include:

  • Sister Languages: French and Spanish are horizontally related to Latin.
  • Daughter Languages: French and Spanish are both daughters of Latin.
  • Mother Languages: Latin is the mother of both French and Spanish.
  • Russian is an Indo-European language of the Slavic branch.
  • Indo-European language is the major family & Slavic branch is the smaller branch of the main family.
  • Note: Hungarian is related to Finnish.
  • Note: Iroquois Nation languages & culture are related to the Zulu language and culture. This was researched in the 1990s when the same word for "cousin" appeared in both an Iroquois and the Zulu languages.

Erroneous views of language change

-that each language forms a uniform speech community without internal variation and without contact with its neighbor languages, so that all speakers of Latin, for example, are assumed to have spoken exactly the same way at the time French and Spanish split off.

-that the split of a parent language into its daughter languages is a sudden or abrupt occurrence, happening without intermediate stages.

No language is uniform or isolated from others, but rather is always made up of dialects that are still recognized as belonging to the same language. And, languages do not split abruptly, but rather drift apart very gradually, starting as dialects and ending up as separate languages only after years of accumulated change. The dividing point between two "dialects" and two "languages" is often impossible to locate exactly and is often obscured by nonlinguistic (political, social, or geographic) factors.

How Changes Spread In Language

Gradual spread of change throughout a dialect, language, or group of languages

A wave expands on the surface of a pond from the point where a pebble has been tossed in. Dialects are formed by spread similarly, with different changes from different starting points and at different rates of speed. Some changes reinforce each other while others only partially overlap or affect only a certain area. These changes can either bring branches of language families closer together or push them farther apart.

Wave theory: traditional genetic subgroups of languages that you might find on a tree diagram are enclosed in solid lines, while "diffusion" groups are enclosed in dashed lines, thus cutting across the traditional categories of the family tree. Diffusion groups are those that have become more similar over time through the sharing of particular historical changes, despite being considered separate genetic subgroups at the time of their mutual influences.

The similarities between languages may be the result of borrowing in situations of language contact, language drift, similarities in types of morphological structures, syntactic similarities, or other reasons, rather than language relatedness and change.

Language drift: Independent but identical changes in seaparate dialects or languages.

Sound Change

Sound change is the most widely studied aspect of language change.

The study of how the sounds of languages change has a long tradition behind it, more so than any other area of historical linguistics. We are more informed about this particular area of language change than other areas.

It is often impossible to understand changes in other areas of the language system without studying sound change, because sound change does not affect just the system of sounds of a language but my also affect a language's morphology, and it can be involved in changes in syntax and semantics.

The study of sound change has provided a basis for the study of language relationships and the reconstruction of parent languages.

Sound change provides a very good introduction to the basic aims and goals of those who study language change: to describe the types of changes possible in language systems and to determine the causes of those changes.

Sound change is an alteration in the phonetics of a sound as a result of a phonological process. If a phonological process is introduced into a language where it did not formerly occur, it may result in a sound change.

The introduction of a phonological process into a language alone cannot be considered sound change. While it is the first step in sound change, the introduction of a phonological process at first changes the structure of a word in specific contexts. For sound change to occur, the basic form of a word must be permanently altered in all contexts (the pronunciation must be abandoned and a different pronunciation adopted permanently).

The regularity of sound change

It will always turn out to be completely regular, that is, every instance of the sound in question will undergo the change. Thus, the sound change k to ts before [i:] is regular because in every word that contained [k] before [i:] it changed to [ts]. The change was not isolated to "chide."

The acceptance of sound change in a community is a gradual process, spreading, often rapidly, from word to word, or word-class to word-class, and from one speaker to the next until all possible words and speakers are affected. One way to conceive of the dynamic spread of sound change is as spread across socially based varieties, because a particular pronunciation may be associated with one or another segment of a speech community, and that may be correlated with region, social class, age, ethnicity, and so on.

Possible Types of Sound Changes

Unconditioned sound change: the development of Old English [u:], every instance of [u:], no matter where it occurred in a word or what sounds were next to it became [au], hus: house, mus: mouse, lus: louse, ut; out...

Conditioned sound change: when the sounds are influenced by the sounds that occur around them. A sound change is influenced by a neighboring sound. The change of [k] to [ts] before [i:] in chide.

One of the ways to determine whether a sound change is conditioned or not is to see if it applies only when a sound appears in particular environments (conditioned or if it applies wherever that sound appears (unconditioned).

X - Y /C_D: the sound change is conditioned, X becomes Y only when it comes after C and before D.

X - Y: unconditioned sound change.

Assimilation: Conditioned sound change. Refers to a situation in which one sound becomes more like another sound. The alternation between [f] and [v] in the singular wolf versus the plural wolves.

Dissimilation: Conditioned sound change. Refers to the situation in which two similar sounds become less like one another. Fifth [fifth] vs. [fift] in some varieties. --- in varieties where this change occurred, we talk about a diachronic sound change ([th] - t/f_#). But if we compare a changed variety to a variety of English which has not undergone this change, we can see synchronic variation within English [fifth] in some varieties, [fift] in others.

Deletion: occurs when a sound is no longer pronounced. Unstressed word-final schwa was deleted in nose [nouze] vs. [nouz]. The spelling has remained the same, yet a sound change has taken place. It is an example of conditioned sound change because only word-final schwa was deleted, not schwa in all environments.

Insertion: is the opposite of deletion and occurs when a sound is added to pronunciation of a word. Athlete [aethelit]. Schwa is inserted between consonants of a cluster that was perceived to be difficult to pronounce (th & l), instead of [aethlit]. This is an example of a conditioned sound change, schwa is inserted only between [th] and [l].

Monophthongization: refers to a change from a diphthong to a simple vowel sound, a monophthong. The dipthoung [iu] occurred in rude [riude], rule [riule] new [niue], due [diue]... Now, diphthong became a simple vowel [u],; [rude, rul, nu, du].

Diphthongization: refers to a change from a simple vowel sound to a complex one. [i:] the high fron vowel became diphthong [ai], is [i:s] became ice [ais]. [u:] in hus became [au] [haus] in house. Unconditioned, all instances of [i:] were affected.

Metathesis: refers to a change in the order of sounds. Hros, frist, thridde, an bridd, horse, first, third and bird. In these words a consonant-/r/-vowel-consonant sequence changed to a consonant-vowel-/r/-consonant sequence. A conditioned sound change, it is not just any /r/-vowel sequence, but only ones both preceded and followed by another consonant.

Raising and lowering: refers to changes in the height of the tongue in the production of sounds. Noon [no:n] with a long mid, back, round vowel. [nu:n], the tongue height being raised from mid to high. Change of [o:] to [u:].

Backing and Fronting: refers to alterations in the frontness or backness of the tongue in the production of sounds. [a] became fronted [ae] in calf, path, glass, past, ask...

Additional Change In Language

Phonetic vs. Phonemic Change

Phonetic change refers to a change in pronunciation of allophones that has no effect on the phonemic system of the language, e.g [r] has gone many changes. Phonetic change affects only the pronunciation of words. All the words with r still have the same phonological distribution, it is not the case that one dialect has developed a phonemic contrast between different r's. The dialects have the same phonemes but with different phonetic realizations. Phonetic changes do not affect the phonemic system at all but rather add or delete an allophone of a phoneme, or substitute one allophone for another.

Phonemic change on the other hand, refers to sound change that changes the phonemic system of a language in some way, usually by the addition or loss of a phoneme. In old English the phoneme /f/ had one allophone [f] and there was no separate phoneme /v/. Then a change occurred whereby [f] was voiced when it occurred between voiced sounds, "wives" [vi:vas]. At this time the sound change had no effect on the phonemic system, it merely created an additional allophone for the phoneme /f/, namely, [v]. Later borrowings from French into English, however, created situations in which the two sounds came into contrast with one another, e.g. safe [seif] phonemes /f/ - [f] & /v/ - [v], respectively. Thus, the originally phonetic sound change f to v ultimately led to a phonemic change, since it resulted in the creation of a new phoneme, /v/.

Morphological Change

Proportional analogy

Verb (present) : verb + ed (past) :: climb (present) : climb+ed (past). The irregular past tense form (clomb) has given way to a past tense form made with the productive, regular past tense morpheme, -ed. The change brings climb more in line with a majority of verbs of English, with the productive pattern of forming the past tense with the verbs.

Paradigm leveling

Sound change affects honos (honor) [s] becomes [r], resulting in two different forms of the stem "honos" and "honor". Honos - honoris - honor-em. & honor, honor-is, honor-em...the stems were change to become only one to honor, [s] in honos changed to [r] to produce regularity.

Back formation and folk etymology

Work+er (agent noun) : work (verb) :: burglar (agent noun): X= burgle (verb).

Operat + ion (noun) : operate (verb) :: orientation (noun) : X=orientate (verb).

Back formation involves the creation of a new base form whereas proportional analogy involves the creation of a new inflected form. One of the more important differences between back formation and proportional analogy has to do with the fact that back formation is often preceded by misanalysis (burglar is mis-analyzed by English speakers as consisting of the set of English words that had been formed by such a process)

Folk etymology: mis-analysis, obscure morphemes are mis-analyzed in terms of more familiar morphemes. (garter snake - garden snake). It occurs most often in cases where the morphological (structural) makeup of a word is obscure to speakers. Variety of reasons for morphological obscurity. Brydeguma - bridegroom, the guma (man) ceased to exist as an independent word. To make this word more accessible in terms of its structure, English speakers substituted it with groom. The substitution is motivated by phonological similarity in both cases. In the second case there is a semantic motivation as well, groom is also a man, more specifically a serving-man or a man who attends to others.

Adding new words to a language

Acronyms: forming by taking the initial sounds or letters of the words of a phrase and uniting them into a combination that is itself pronounceable as a separate word: NATO.

Blends: combinations of the parts of two words, usually the beginning of one word and the end of another: smog from smoke and fog, brunch from breakfast and lunch, chortle from chuckle and snort.

Clipping: a way of shortening words without paying attention to the derivational morphology of the word (or related words). Exam form examination, dorm from dormitory, taxi and cab from taxi cab that is from taximeter cabriolet.

Coinages: created without using any of the methods described and without using any other word or word parts already existing. Created out of thin air, like the brand names Kodak, Exxon; and words like pooch and snob.

Conversions: created by shifting the part of a word to another part without changing the form of the word: laugh, run, buy, and steal all started out as verbs but can now also be used as nouns. Position, process, and contrast are nouns from which verbs have been formed (also called functional shift).

Eponyms: words, often places, inventions, activities etc. that are named for persons somehow connected with them. Washington, DC; German village etc.

Unlike sound change, morphological (structural) change does not necessarily apply regularly in the system: changes can apply to individual words or end up not being accepted by speakers at all.


  • Ammer, C. The Facts on File: Dictionary of Clichés. Writers Library, 2006. I use this book a lot, since it includes 4,000 entries, many of which originate in the Bible, history, literature, and even poetry. The 20th century entries are quite entertaining. The author, Christine Ammer, also provides quotes containing the clichés, as Webster's and other dictionaries do.
  • Inglish, P. Google Saves Indigenous Languages from Extinction. Retrieved August 24, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2007 Patty Inglish MS


caracolesmariquitas on December 01, 2011:

I think that even though for me that I am a teacher in Cambridge is really complicated to understan everything with so small wirtting and so many letters. If my students need to find something from this page it will going to be really hard for them.

Thank you for reading my comment.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on October 20, 2010:

I'd start with a university database search at the school or public library online, or a Google Scholar search. Best wishes.

Santus on October 20, 2010:

Pls can u help wit this topic: sociolinguistic analysis of slang and graffiti expressions. Pls help, i dnt kno where 2 start.

Leo on January 23, 2010:

Very useful site

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on July 22, 2009:

Well, best wishes for your job search, certainly.

SALVAONEGIANNAOLCOM from south and west of canada,north of ohio on July 22, 2009:

I find that interesting,but I never heard about that.I'm not into concerts much,or even around mid-Michigan for that matter.I'm too busy looking for work.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on July 22, 2009:

wannabwestern - tanks for commenintg. I'm not a linguist, but the topic is very interesting!

someonewhoknows - I think "burn up" is slang :) I first hear Lollapalooza changed to Oldies Palooza for golden-oldies summer concerts in Mid Michigan.

SALVAONEGIANNAOLCOM from south and west of canada,north of ohio on July 22, 2009:

Gee this sure is a Lollapalooza of a hub on language.I have a question about houses.Is it proper English to say a house burns "up" as it burns "down",or as the former president Clinton said;it depends on what your definition of the word "is" ,is. ?

Carolyn Augustine from Iowa on July 22, 2009:

Wow, I'm bookmarking this one.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on July 22, 2009:

Depends on what part of the USA they are being used in, but in my part of the Midwest, they came from :

gee = 1st letter of "gosh"

jeez = Jesus and cheese put together to be less offensive than "Jesus" applied as cursing

sitch = "such" with an Appalachian accent. As a shortening of "situation", it's an abreviation as alteration.

loon - shortening or abreviation as alteration, with re-spelling.

schtick - This is Yiddish, so it is likely from vaudeville in the 1920s Catskill Mountains and an actual word. Ask some New Yorkers about this, or Yiddish scholars at your university.

babe - shotening, abreviation

scare-apalooza -- Anything can have "palooza" on the end of it now, so it's a fad. I don't think it's strictly alteration, just application across the board, but a linguist could tell you specifically the rule on this.

Widi on July 22, 2009:

I've got a question. Some, probably. Well, I'm analyzing slang formation from the sides of morphology and semantics, and I'm having some problem with it.

First, are words like gee, jeez, sitch (from situation), loon (from lunatic), schtick, babe, and scare-apalooza (from Lollapalooza) cases of alteration?

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