Tuesday March 13, 2012
Accent and slang
MIND OUR ENGLISH
By FADZILAH AMIN
Footballer John Terry speaks differently from British Prime Minister David Cameron. And they may all be ‘geezers’ too.
I WROTE last week about British and American English, but not all British people pronounce their words in the same way, and the same goes for Americans. Now and then, in the course of my teaching over more than three decades, a student would say to me that he or she found it difficult to understand somebody’s “thick English slang”.
The person referred to inevitably turned out to be a native speaker of English (usually British, sometimes American) who was speaking the standard form of his language naturally. I usually pointed this out to the student, and also told him that the word “slang” was the wrong word to use for somebody’s “accent”.
Confusing these two words is also common among other Malaysians. Let me therefore try to clarify the differences not only between these two terms, but also between each of them and two other terms: “dialect” and “jargon”.
“Accent” means “a particular way of pronouncing a language, associated with a country, area, or social class.” “Slang”, on the other hand, means “informal language that is more common in speech than in writing and is typically restricted to a particular context or group.” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2004, revised 2009). Thus “accent” has to do with the way one pronounces words and “slang” with some of the words one uses.
There are many British and American accents (not to mention Canadian, Scottish, Northern Irish, Indian and Arabic accents to name a few). I don’t know much about American accents, and will therefore talk only about some British accents.
There is the Received Pronunciation (RP) of southern England that David Cameron, the British prime minister, speaks and there are accents from East London, often heard on our TV when British footballers speak.
The natives of London’s East End, loosely known as cockneys, drop the initial “h”s from their words, e.g. ’ave for have, ’eard for heard. They also pronounce the unvoiced “th” as “f” or a sound like it: thus we hear fink instead of think and norf instead of north. If you listen carefully to interviews with footballers John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Joe Cole and Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp (all East Londoners by birth) on TV or YouTube, you will notice these characteristics – some of the traces of the cockney accent in their speech.
Slang is something else. A lot of English-speaking young Malaysians use the blanket term “cool” to mean a range of attributes they approve of: attractive, fashionable, understanding and so on, when people a generation or two older would use the word “nice”.
But cool also has another informal use for the young. If someone makes a suggestion and you agree, you say “Cool!” instead of “That’s fine by me.” Young men would also address one another sometimes as “dude”, which is current American slang for man. Two other examples of slang or informal expressions among the young here are “hang out with” (= spend time with) and “chill out” (= cool down, and relax).
Some British English slang words are hardly ever used in Malaysia. The word “gaffer”, meaning “supervisor” or “manager” is often used by English footballers to refer to their manager. The cockney word “geezer” means “man”. In 2006, after the English football squad met and talked to Prince William (president of the English Football Association), Joe Cole delivered this approving verdict on the prince: “He’s a nice geezer.”
The third term I want to consider here is “dialect”, defined by the online Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as “the form of a language that is spoken in one area with grammar, words and pronunciation that may be different from other forms of the same language.” In other words, dialect is distinctive accent and grammar, plus the use of some dialect words. It is not considered inferior to standard English: it is just the natural way people speak in their own region, which outsiders may sometimes find hard to understand.
Here’s an example from Chapter 3 of the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. The dialect is that of West Yorkshire, since the Brontes lived in Haworth near Bradford, and the novel is set around there. Joseph the servant is speaking to a visitor to Heathcliff’s house: “There’s nobbut t’missis; and shoo’ll not oppen ’t an ye mak’ yer flaysome dins till neeght.” This translates into standard English as: “There’s nobody but the mistress [of the house]; and she’ll not open it [the door] even if you make a dreadful din till night.”
I should point out also that the word “wuthering” used in the title of the novel is also a dialect word of those parts, as Bronte explained through her narrator in Chapter 1 of the novel: “Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather.”
Finally, I come to “jargon”. This is defined as “words or expressions used by a particular profession or group that are difficult for others to understand” (CALD). Unlike dialect, jargon is not regional and unlike slang, it is not necessarily informal. Some examples are computer, medical and legal jargon, which are almost incomprehensible to outsiders.
Computer illiterates, for example, may wonder what software, hardware, browser, computer virus, adware and cookies mean. And only doctors would be able to fully understand what the following excerpt from the British Medical Journal means: “... those with incidental electrocardiographic abnormalities are at risk of cardiomyopathy... Most cardiomyopathies are inherited in an autosomal dominant manner ... Disease severity varies owing to variable penetrance ...” To the rest of us, this is, well, jargon!