u Notes from the Underground: Slang as signaling

Slang as signaling

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

(This post was originally a comment on a blogpost explaining the usage 'jai'. Yuppies and college students in India have an extensive collection of slang - 'pseud', 'put', 'level', 'light', 'set' etc. etc. See Aadisht's blog for more examples in natural usage.)

Not to be an asshole, but the constant invention and ostentatious usage of slang by a lot of yuppie Indians strikes me as a signaling mechanism. Its point seems to be to advertise membership of a select (or at least self-perceived select) group. The corollary is that once there is widespread adoption of a particular slang, people feel the need to invent new slang to differentiate themselves once again from the uncool masses.

Linguistically or communication-wise, there is little point to the slang. I do not claim that it makes the speakers more stupid (I am not that kind of a language maven), but there are simpler, more unambiguous, and probably more elegant ways to communicate than to use such slang. This gives me all the more reason to suspect that slang usage is signaling - the costlier a signal, the more credible it is (think peacock’s tail or a deer’s stotting). Slang usage is made costly by overloading the meaning of the slang, making the usage itself grammatically unconventional, and by making the meanings counterintuitive.

Btw, I am not dissing or criticising slang usage by saying all this. Signaling explains a lot of human behaviour, and this just seems to me to be another instance of it.

3 Comments:

At 12:45 AM, November 27, 2008, Anonymous Gubbi said...

I do not claim that it makes the speakers more stupid (I am not that kind of a language maven), but there are simpler, more unambiguous, and probably more elegant ways to communicate than to use such slang.

To me, the whole point of using slangs seems to be to abhor elegant ways. Maybe it means to signal a certain kind of attitude? or is it to signal differentiation from masses?

I tend to think it's the former especially considering that the usage of a slang tends to be viral. Or are both of them similar in some sense?

 
At 3:06 AM, November 27, 2008, Blogger Venu said...

Why would one need to signal an attitude? Attitude is easily observable.

In signaling scenarios, the thing being signaled is usually a variable that is hard to observe directly. If it was directly observable then you wouldn't need a signal for it. For example, the peacock's tail is a signal for genetic fitness - something that is hard for a peahen to otherwise observe.

 
At 2:16 AM, November 28, 2008, Anonymous Gubbi said...

Hmm. I see.

How about it being viral in it's nature? Like for example everybody in a campus has their own set of slangs passed on from batch to batch. There really isn't any attempt at differentiation there. While there still is a kind of differentiation with respect to outsiders. Hmm. I guess thats what you meant by "subscribing to a group".

 

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