The Double Standard of Language

Posted on: 13. März 2009

Today I want to speak about something that has been bugging me for quite a while – the perceived notion of something that is called „slang“. Here’s an excerpt of the definition from Wikipedia:

On defining Slang:
It is a taboo term in ordinary discourse with people of a higher social status or greater responsibility.

First of all, a term or word can only be taboo in certain circles – there is no single word that is taboo for the entirety of all humankind, or say all of the English-speaking peoples. In fact, the notion that a word can be banned from a language for its derogatory meaning is pure, excuse my french, bullshit. Words are words – they exist to voice our thoughts in audibly understandable patterns. Banning a word does nothing to the fact that we still have the meaning of the word in our heads. For example, if the word „cunt“ were to be banned, people would not instantly forget that the word existed, or what the word meant. They would be forced to use synonyms that in some cases probably would not be able to confer the right meaning, such as the original word would have been able to (hence the usage of the original word). Instead, the people would feel censored in their right to express themselves, and rightly so.

The second part of that definition that really riles me is the „higher social status or greater responsibility“ bullshit (there, I said it again). Social equality is by no means a reality, and this definition is just exemplifying the wide gap that exists in most Western societies. So, the language of the „streets“ is too dirty for high society? A few days ago I spoke about register and the differences in register pertaining to status within the society – a homeless person might not be as eloquent as someone who graduated from Harvard. However, someone should not be looked down upon by his speech or his register. „Slang“ is just an excuse to condemn speech not pertaining to certain standard set by the higher-ups, rendering it inferior.

A recent story from the world of music illustrates my point. Nas, a very successful Hip Hop artist in the US had to change his album title due to pressure from the music industry. Nas, someone who is very outspoken when it comes to Freedom of Speech, originally planned to title his album Nigger (well aware of the implications the name would have for music industry), but had the change the name after huge amounts of pressure from the press, the rest of the music industry, and his own label. The album went on sale with the name „Untitled“, and in one track Nas tells the story of the album title and reassures that „his true fans know the name of the album„.

So, an African American, admittedly the only group on this planet that is officially allowed to use the N-word, was forbidden from using the word as his album title because of the possible complaints? How low has the world come that freedom of speech is so distorted, that perfectly normal aspects of language are branded inferior, and that whole words are banned from use just because someone was offended – if every time someone was offended by something we had to ban the thing that offended the person, we wouldn’t have very much left that was unbanned.

Further reading:
Nas changes album title

Official artist website on Def Jam

Slang on Wikipedia



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