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.