November 14, 2006

Wanna: neither slang nor language murder

The Guardian (11/1/2006) obediently repeats from a press release that the non-standard features that will be permitted in examination answers (as Mark recently noted) range "from the slang ‘wot’ and ‘wanna’, to the short cut ‘CU L8R’". Can't Guardian journalists even look up the meaning of the word "slang" in a dictionary that's free on the workstation on the desk in front of them?

Webster says this about slang:

1 : language peculiar to a particular group: as a : ARGOT b : JARGON 2
2 : an informal nonstandard vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech

The clearest point here concerns wanna, a standardized spelling (constantly used, for example, in representing dialog in novels) for a kind derived amalgam of want and to about which linguists have written reams over the last thirty years (since David Lightfoot suggested it provided crucial evidence for a certain theoretical point in syntax [Linguistic Inquiry 1976] and Paul Postal and I took out after this false claim in a whole series of papers [Linguistic Inquiry 1978, 1979, 1982, 1986] there have been dozens of papers on the topic; two have been in Language, one by me in 1997 and one in the latest 2006 issue by Dick Hudson). This isn't a slang form by any conceivable definition of slang: it isn't peculiar to a particular group, it's familiar for every American speaker (and I think most British-derived speakers too). It isn't non-standard at all; it's part of informal style in Standard English (which is why it's treated in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language). It isn't a recent coinage; it isn't "arbitrarily changed"; it isn't "extravagant, forced, or facetious". Nobody who knows what slang is could think wanna is slang.

But then I'm not sure that any testing authorities actually gave any of the examples, or characterized them as slang. The Guardian says: "The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) said the use of phrases like "2b r nt 2b" or "i luv u" in exam papers would be allowed as long as candidates showed that they understood the subject." Maybe you truly believe that a staff member from the Scottish Qualifications Authority solemnly told education journalists that "2b r nt 2b" is now an acceptable spelling of the first line of Hamlet's famous soliloquy as far as the testing of knowledge of Shakespeare is concerned, but I don't. I think the journalist tossed that in as a gratuitous illustration. My guess is the SQA did little more than to announced (or remind people of the prior existence of) a policy that says an unconventional spelling will not automatically lead to a student who sees what the answer is being graded the same as one who didn't know. (This seems sensible. Preserving the distinction between students who do know the answer and students who don't is surely rather important educationally. But I suppose that makes me a dangerous linguistic libertine.)

Katie Grant of The Sunday Times (11/5/2006) uses the texting-is-OK story as part of her evidence that "Our language is being murdered." It's not all of her evidence; her rant touches on a variety of different subjects relating to the supposed disastrous slippage of linguistic standards in Britain's schools. She is aware that language changes, but she dismisses this briskly by saying, "what the "anything goes" brigade refuse to acknowledge is that there is a difference between developing language and abandoning it."

Our language is being murdered and/or abandoned because your is occasionally spelled ur (as opposed to the common older abbreviation yr) by a teenager writing in a hurry? You know, we do try to exaggerate the dumbness of newspaper stories about language here at Language Log, for a little humorous leavening; but it isn't very easy, because what the journalists say is often far out beyond where satire can reach.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 14, 2006 11:45 AM