My reader’s copies of two new books from Oxford University Press have been languishing for some time waiting for me to review them. My original plan was to do in-depth reviews for each for Fiat Lingua as I did for From Elvish to Klingon. That work was directly relevant to conlanging, and a full-length review was easily written. The one’s I’ve recently received are not directly related to language creation, but they do provide some interesting reading and can be helpful for conlangers. That being the case, I wanted to at least review them and post to this blog.
Julie Coleman’s The Life of Slang (Oxford University Press, 2012) provides a very thorough examination of that aspect of language. The author looks at slang in English across time, over a wide geographic area, and throughout various levels of society. The first chapter looks at what slang is and what slang isn’t. According to Coleman,
“Words don’t have slanghood: there’s no state of slangness inherent in a word or even in a sense of a word. It’s only possible to identify an individual use of a word in a given context as slang. To work out whether these examples were slang or not, you’d have needed to know who was speaking, who there they were speaking to, where they were, what they were doing, when they were speaking, and what they meant.
This begins to address where I see Coleman’s book’s usefulness for conlangers and worldbuilders. Slang has the potential to be a productive in-world source of vocabulary as well as a way to provide much more depth to conworlds. Thinking of ways to relate unrelated words (or to give your words “folk etymologies”) is also one of the benefits conlangers can get from reading The Life of Slang. For example, Coleman tells the story of the words dent (in the sense of “a hollow impression”), dentist, and dental. Dent is not related to the two tooth-related words although a folk etymology could be understood in that one can “picture the dent left in a car as a bite mark, with the jagged eges of the metal representing teeth marks.” Dent actually comes from the Old English dynt “a stroke or blow with a weapon”* and predates the tooth-related words.
There are a number of ways in which slang can be created (and potentially be adopted into the standard language) and all these can potentially be exploited by conlangers. Slang can come from:
- Changes in meaning
- Changes in function
- Changes in form (e.g., combining forms)
- By abbreviation
- Changes in spelling
Coleman addresses each of these and says, “Most slang words are produced in ways that aren’t particularly different from the ways Standard English words are produced.”
The Life of Slang also provides some alternative societal origins for slang (and thus con-vocabulary). Coleman goes into depth talking about military slang, prison slang, street slang, school/college slang, and cant (the language of beggars and criminals) and flash (the language of thieves). In fact, the chapter on cant and flash language is one of the most interesting ones in the book.
The book addresses both British and American slang and also examines more recent uses of slang like 1337 and jargon used in World of Warcraft. The fact that “words often play a social as well as a communicative function” could readily be taken advantage of in creating a con-vocabulary.
Other slang-related works include Slang: The People’s Poetry by Michael Adams (also author of From Elvish to Klingon and Slayer Slang: The Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon) and Jonathon Green’s 3-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang. In an effort to provide depth to one’s conlang vocabulary and to one’s con-world, taking a look at the life of slang might be a useful endeavor.
The other book I recently received is the New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) . At first glance, it’s a handy volume for English rhymes but, I wondered, of what use could it be for a conlanger? The 24-page introduction, however, gives a good overview of different kinds of rhyme (e.g., mosaic rhyme, eye rhyme, embedded rhyme, etc.) as well as its place in history. For those thinking about poetry in their conlang, this is enticing reading. The little notes embedded in the dictionary itself can be somewhat eye-opening as well. For example, under the entry for alphanumeric one finds “Create extra rhymes by adding -al to words like atmospheric.” And, yes, orange does not have a full rhyme; however, the dictionary does provide options of challenge and scavenge and the eye rhyme of range. Additionally, as conlangers are usually those who take joy in language in all its interesting manifestations, the New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary can be fun to simply browse and become spellbound with the sound of a word, no matter how absurd.