The impossible, admirable crusade against slang

By - Wednesday 23rd October, 2013

The Croydon Citizen‘s Managing Editor praises the efforts of Harris Academy to make their students think about language

Last week Croydon again made the national news, although no one could seem to decide what for. Of course the story was that Harris Academy, the new school in South Norwood, had ‘banned slang’. On the BBC, this was an excuse to give the editor of ‘the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English’ a moment in the spotlight to say simply that “It’s wrong”. While the reporters of the BBC were undecided on whether this event was a) a bold move against the bleak state of language use amongst minors, or b) a draconian measure by the ‘grammar police’, or c) whatever, who cares, other local reporters used the opportunity for some hilarious slang use of their own before asking their readers to vote on this non-issue.

So, why am I still talking about this story a week after everyone has had enough of a giggle doing their best, most dated Ali G impressions? Because I disagree with almost everyone who wrote on this issue.

What’s really important to recognise, before I move on to the more amusing part where I pick out some of the more hysterical quotes from Facebook, is that language is how we make sense of the world, and of ourselves. The development of language is one of such mind boggling importance in human evolution, and yet it’s something that we (naturally) take for granted.

The triviality with which most people treated the (admittedly forced) debate was perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the brief media furore

We’re fortunate indeed to live in a first world country where illiteracy is almost unheard of – generally relegated to schmaltzy TV period dramas rather than cropping up in our day-to-day lives. And, of course, speech is a momentous discovery for any newborn and their parents, but so universal that the idea of a child being unable to speak by, say, three would be shocking.

So, really, the triviality with which most people treated the (admittedly forced) debate was perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the brief media furore. And of course, the most despair-inducing comments were to be found on Facebook. One local paper’s faultlessly professional and factual post asked fans “innit a bad idea like? Or basically, a dope move?”, while Croydon’s media commentators responded in kind by providing further impersonations of how they believe children and teenagers speak.

All of which is fine, harmless fun, and one of the joys of language is in adopting identities through different forms of language. (Although one commentator seemed endearingly unaware of the irony inherent in condemning “this garbage slang”.) There was, however, a note of condescension and mockery in the impressions that was hard to pinpoint within the text itself – except when one comes to the troubling suggestion by one fan that ‘they’ ban anyone “just talking with a ‘street’ accent”.

Fortunately, however, many other commentators recognised the most important point – that slang simply cannot be removed that easily. One impassioned defender of Croydon’s youth’s right to speak in slang claimed “just because it sounds incorrect to you doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to speak like that”. Except… that’s not really the case, is it? If a police officer informed the recently bereaved that a loved one had ‘got murked’ they’d no doubt face disciplinary action shortly afterwards. And, sadly, if a teenager admonished their peers for using such language they’d probably find themselves very quickly ostracised from all school cliques…

How do we engage critically with the world around us, and how do we come to know ourselves and our place in it?

So, apologies to Harris Academy for dragging this non-story up again, (‘Look! Local school tries to educate children!’) but I’d like to credit them with a fact that seemed to be overlooked by many in favour of impressions of Da Ali G Show (2000) (yes, it makes me feel old too): slang isn’t being banned from the school. Instead, classrooms have been designated as spaces in which language deemed inappropriate to the class environment will be highlighted so that the speaker is made more aware of what they’re saying and can think about the words that they’re using.

“Yeah. Obviously. It’s a school”, you may be thinking to yourself. Sadly, not all of us share this confidence and faith in the education system. Before I left London to pursue my calling as a PhD student, I worked with people earning many, many times what I was being paid (people whose role was to maintain client relationships, as well) who would, for example, without any hint of shame, ask each other “Where was you?”.

Last week, Cormac Mannion made a brilliant debut for the Croydon Citizen with an impassioned plea for philosophy to return to the curriculum. Among many other excellent parts I could have quoted (seriously, read the whole piece), I was struck most by this call to arms: “Croydon needs young people who have a deep, rational understanding of the world around them and the ability to engage with it critically”. How do we engage critically with the world around us, and how do we come to know ourselves and our place in it? Through language. The scoffing response to what shouldn’t have ever been a news story is a depressing sign that we’ve lost sight of this fact. I therefore wish Harris Academy and all of its students the best of luck in this small but significant stand for self-awareness and critical thinking.

Rob Mayo

Rob Mayo

The Managing Editor of the Croydon Citizen, and the only co-founder not to have ever lived in Croydon. Rob previously studied at University of Oxford and University of London, and regrets only one of them. Since co-founding the Citizen in 2012 Rob has completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Bristol, for whatever that's worth... Rob's stereotypically left-leaning views are personal, and not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Anne Giles

    I am a language tutor. If I have to teach students to speak good Spanish, then I also have to correct their English. It doesn’t matter how students speak amongst themselves, but it does matter in the classroom. It will matter when they sit exams and it will also matter when at University or in any sort of training and when filling in CVs or going for interviews. It also matters later in a work environment. Imagine a doctor talking to a patient – “got a temperature, innit? ‘Ere’s a prescription, like”.

  • Anthony Miller

    As long as one knows how and when to use it slang is cool. So as the posh white kids below my office window shout at each other outside the sweet shop …Allow it.