The shelf-life of slang – what will happen to those ‘democracy sausages’?


sausage

Kate Burridge, Monash University

Every year around this time, dictionaries across the English-speaking world announce their “Word of the Year”. These are expressions (some newly minted and some golden oldies too) that for some reason have shot into prominence during the year.

Earlier this month The Australian National Dictionary Centre declared its winner “democracy sausage” – the barbecued snag that on election day makes compulsory voting so much easier to swallow.

Dictionaries make their selections in different ways, but usually it involves a combination of suggestions from the public and the editorial team (who have been meticulously tracking these words throughout the year). The Macquarie Dictionary has two selections – the Committee’s Choice made by the Word of the Year Committee, and the People’s Choice made by the public (so make sure you have your say on January 24 for the People’s Choice winner 2016).

It’s probably not surprising that these words of note draw overwhelmingly from slang language, or “slanguage” – a fall-out of the increasing colloquialisation of English usage worldwide. In Australia this love affair with the vernacular goes back to the earliest settlements of English speakers.

And now there’s the internet, especially social networking – a particularly fertile breeding ground for slang.

People enjoy playing with language, and when communicating electronically they have free rein. “Twitterholic”, “twaddiction”, “celebritweet/twit”, “twitterati” are just some of the “tweologisms” that Twitter has spawned of late. And with a reported average of 500 million tweets each day, Twitter has considerable capacity not only to create new expressions, but to spread them (as do Facebook, Instagram and other social networking platforms).

But what happens when slang terms like these make it into the dictionary? Early dictionaries give us a clue, particularly the entries that are stamped unfit for general use. Branded entries were certainly plentiful in Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century work, and many are now wholly respectable: abominably “a word of low or familiar language”, nowadays “barbarous usage”, fun “a low cant word” (what would Johnson have thought of very fun and funner?).

Since the point of slang is to mark an in-group, to amuse and perhaps even to shock outsiders with novelty, most slang expressions are short-lived. Those that survive become part of the mainstream and mundane. Quite simply, time drains them of their vibrancy and energy. J.M. Wattie put it more poetically back in 1930:

Slang terms are the mayflies of language; by the time they get themselves recorded in a dictionary, they are already museum specimens.

But, then again, expressions occasionally do sneak through the net. Not only do they survive, they stay slangy – and sometimes over centuries. Judge for yourselves. Here are some entries from A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language. Written by British convict James Hardy Vaux in 1812, this is the first dictionary compiled in Australia.

croak “to die”

grub “food”

kid “deceive”

mug “face”

nuts on “to have a strong inclination towards something or someone”

on the sly “secretly”

racket “particular kind of fraud”

snitch “to betray”

stink “an uproar”

spin a yarn “tell a tale of great adventure”

These were originally terms of flash – or, as Vaux put it, “the cant language used by the family”. In other words, they belonged to underworld slang. The term slang itself meant something similar at this time; it broadened to highly colloquial language in the 1800s.

Vaux went on to point out that “to speak good flash is to be well versed in cant terms” — and, having been transported to New South Wales on three separate occasions during his “checkered and eventful life” (his words), Vaux himself was clearly well versed in the world of villainy and cant.

True, the majority of the slang terms here have dropped by the wayside (barnacles “spectacles”; lush “to drink”), and the handful that survives are now quite standard (grab “to seize”; dollop “large quantity”). But there are a few that have not only lasted, they’ve remained remarkably contemporary-sounding – some still even a little “disgraceful” (as Vaux described them).

The shelf-life of slang is a bit of mystery. Certainly some areas fray faster than others. Vaux’s prime, plummy and rum (meaning “excellent”) have well and truly bitten the dust. Cool might have made a comeback (also from the 1800s), but intensifiers generally wear out.

Far out and ace have been replaced by awesome, and there are plenty of new “awesome” words lurking in the wings. Some of these are already appearing on lists for “Most Irritating Word of the Year” – it’s almost as if their success does them in. Amazeballs, awesomesauce and phat are among the walking dead.

But as long as sausage sizzles continue to support Australian voters on election day, democracy sausages will have a place – and if adopted elsewhere, might even entice the politically uninterested into polling booths.

The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Am I too old to learn a new language?


The brain’s neuroplasticity decreases with age, but this shouldn’t put off older learners – they do have some advantages

foreign language book shop

When Adrian Black met his Italian partner 10 years ago, he was determined to learn her home language. Having successively picked up French a decade earlier when he lived in France, he felt the challenge was attainable.

“I was blown away by how hard it was to learn French, but I came back speaking it pretty well,” says Black, who is now 50. But getting to grips with Italian has been a much tougher process, he explains: “I feel like French is deep down in my head somewhere, but with Italian it will take a lot more effort for me to get to that level. “I’ve noticed that my brain isn’t as good as it was, and I’m pretty sure I don’t retain stuff as well as I used to. It just doesn’t all click as easily as it used to.”

It’s often said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Actually this proverb is, for the most part, not true. For much of the history of modern neuroscience, the adult brain was believed to be a fixed structure that, once damaged, could not be repaired. But research published since the 1960s has challenged this assumption, showing that it is actually a highly dynamic structure, which changes itself in response to new experiences, and adapts to injuries – a phenomenon referred to as neuroplasticity.

Collectively, this body of research suggests that one can never be too old to learn something new, but that the older they are, the harder it is for them to do so. This is because neuroplasticity generally decreases as a person gets older, meaning the brain becomes less able to change itself in response to experiences.

Some aspects of language learning become progressively more difficult with age, others may get easier. “Older people have larger vocabularies than younger ones, so the chances are your vocabulary will be as large as a native,” says Albert Costa, a professor of neuroscience who studies bilingualism at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Picking up a new language’s vocabulary is much easier for adults than learning the rules that govern its grammar or syntax. This is because new words can be easily mapped on to a learner’s pre-existing knowledge. But older learners are less likely to have good pronunciation or accent, since the phonemes, or sounds, of a language are picked up naturally by children.

Learning a new language may not always be easy for adults, but there is research to suggest that doing so is beneficial for brain health. As we get older, most of us experience an age-related decline in mental functions such as attention and memory, and in some people the acceleration of this process leads to the development of Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. A number of recent studies suggest that learning a foreign language can slow this inevitable age-related cognitive decline or perhaps even delay the onset of dementia.

In the largest study of its kind to date, researchers at Edinburgh University examined the medical records of 648 Alzheimer’s patients in the Indian city of Hyderabad. They found that the bilinguals developed dementia later than monolinguals, by an average of four-and-a-half years.

We know that education can also delay the onset of dementia, but the researchers also took that into account. “A large part of the population in Hyderabad is bilingual but illiterate, so we compared educated bilinguals with bilinguals who never went to school,” says lead researcher, Thomas Bak. The study found that dementia was delayed by an average of six years in uneducated bilinguals, compared to four years in educated bilinguals.

“Learning a language later on in life might be more beneficial than learning it earlier, because it takes more effort,” Bak continues. “It has parallels with physical exercise – a stroll is good for your health, but not as beneficial as a run.”

Learning – and using – a foreign language seems to improve what psychologists and neuroscientists call executive function, which refers to a hypothetical set of mental processes that enable us to vary our thoughts and behaviours from one moment to the next, depending on the task at hand.

“Using two languages seems to have consequences not only for executive functions, but also for other processes,” says Costa. “It’s like learning to juggle, the idea being that you have to juggle two balls every time you speak. Some of the work is controversial, so we need more data to have a definite answer.”

Despite the difficulties, Black regards learning foreign languages as fun, and treats the endeavour like a puzzle that has to be solved. “I’m doing it partly to keep my brain active,” he says. “When you have some success and can express yourself, it feels like you’re using different parts of your brain that you weren’t using before.”

Indeed, research shows that bilingual children use the same brain regions for both languages if they are learned during childhood, whereas learning a second language later on in life recruits different regions from those involved in using one’s mother tongue. And learning a foreign language, much like learning to play a musical instrument, does indeed appear to be a good way of exercising one’s brain, and keeping it healthy, throughout life.

theguardian.com, Saturday 13 September 2014 09.17 BST