Obviously an individual in one of the groups or subcultures mentioned above, or any of many others, resorts to slang as a means of attesting membership in the group and of dividing him- or herself off from the mainstream culture. He or she merges both verbally and psychologically into the subculture that preens itself on being different from, in conflict with, and superior to the mainstream culture, and in particular to its assured rectitude and its pomp. Slang is thus an act of bracketing a smaller social group that can be comfortably joined and understood and be a shelter for the self. It is simultaneously an act of featuring and obtruding the self within the subculture — by cleverness, by control, by up-to-dateness, by insolence, by virtuosities of audacious and usually satirical wit, by aggression (phallic, if you wish). All this happens at fairly shallow levels in the psyche and can be readily understood. It explains most of what we know and feel about slang.
But what explains “it”? If, as the authorities agree, slang is a universal human trait and as old as the race itself, and if it came into being in the same human society where language itself was born, can we not seek deeper and more generalized explanations? Authorities also agree, as it happens, that the roots of slang must be sought in the deepest parts of the mind, in the unconscious itself. Although that territory is perilous ground for a working lexicographer, a few conjectures and a few relationships can be proposed for consideration. It seems that the deeper psychodynamics of slang has to do with two things: 1) defense of the ego against the superego, and 2) our simultaneous eagerness and reluctance to be human.
Surely wounded egos are the most common human non-anatomic possession. Slang might be seen as a remedy for them, as a self-administered therapy old as the first family that spoke. The family, like society, entails a hierarchy of power and of right, against which the healthy growing self of the child needs measures to compensate for its weakness and sinfulness. Slang as a remedy denies the weakness and brags about the sinfulness.
In this view, it would not be too much to claim that therapeutic slang is necessary for the development of the self; that society would be impossible without slang. It is curious that a linguistic phenomenon that seems so fleeting and so frivolous, as slang undeniably does, should at the same time be so deep and so vital to human growth and order. This is only one of the paradoxes of slang.
This aspect of slang is “deeper” than the matters mentioned above, like group identification and so on, only because it existed before groups, and it persists as groups themselves chop and change in the flux of history. In this aspect slang is similar to, and perhaps the same as, profanity. Like profanity slang is a surrogate for destructive physical action. Freud once remarked that the founder of civilization was the first man who hurled a curse rather than a rock or spear at his enemy. Slang also has this usefulness, and I suspect that profanity is a subcategory of slang, the more elemental phenomenon.
Hence, slang is language that has little to do with the main aim of language, the connection of sounds with ideas in order to communicate ideas, but is rather an attitude, a feeling, and an act. To pose another paradox: Slang is the most nonlinguistic sort of language.
“Our simultaneous eagerness and reluctance to be human” — what can that have to do with slang? Our notion here is that when you try to consider it deeply slang seems to join itself with several other phenomena: with Freud’s “dream-work,” with comedy, with elements of myth.
It seems that slang (we mean the slang impulse of the psyche) shares with all these the salvational and therapeutic function of both divorcing us from and maintaining our connection with genetic animality. Dream-work relieves us of the need to be reasonable and discharges the tension of the great burden with which our angelic rationality charges us. Although we are uncomfortable with paradox in ordinary language, we easily tolerate it in slang, where it seems as much at home as it is in the study of logic.
Slang links itself with comedy in the respect that it exploits and even celebrates human weakness, animality, without working to extirpate it. It makes room for our vileness, but only so much room. The great comic figures of our culture usually come in pairs, each member having its legitimacy, and each limiting the other: Sancho Panza and Don Quixote; Falstaff and Prince Hal; Huck Finn and who? — Tom Sawyer, Aunt Polly, even Jim. To these we may add the Wife of Bath, whose counterfigure was a part of herself, making her more like most of us than Sancho or Falstaff or Huck are. We may add, without too much strain, the comic figure Dante Alighieri over against Beatrice and the lightweight devil Mephistopheles over against Faust. What we seem to have in the comic heroes and in our own slang impulse is a reaching for or clinging to the primal earth, a nostalgie de la boue, which helps make tolerable the hard aspiration to be civilized and decent.
As to myth, Sancho, Alice of Bath, and Falstaff are modern myths themselves. For ancient myth we might think of Antaeus, whose strength was valid only while he had his feet on the earth, and of Silenus and the satyrs, and even of the Devil himself, who must, when he is not quoting scripture, speak a great deal of slang. We may also attend to the intriguing “trickster” figure who is so prevalent in world mythology. C. G. Jung reminds me of the slang impulse when he asserts, for example, “... [the trickster’s] fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and — last but not least — his approximation to the figure of a saviour.” In the same essay, “On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure,” Jung relates the trickster to the medieval Feast of Fools and other manifestations of the comic and slang spirit, especially those that deflate pomp, that prick presumption, that trip up our high horses. Jung believed that the civilizing process began within the framework of the trickster myth, which is a race memory of the human achievement of self-consciousness.
As the literary scholar Wylie Sypher said, “…man is not man without being somehow uneasy about the ‘nastiness’ of his body, [and] obscenity… is a threshold over which man enters into the human condition.” For obscenity we might read slang, and observe that we are not so far beyond the threshold that we cannot always reach it with out foot, which is of clay.
Slang is also the idiom of the life force. That is, it has roots somewhere near those of sexuality, and it regularly defies death. What we have in mind is partly the “dirty” and taboo constituent of slang, but even more its tendency to kid about being hanged, electrocuted, murdered, or otherwise annihilated. Gallows humor is, from this point of view, more central to slang than may have been thought.
One changing pattern that has obvious connections with both socio- and psycholinguistics is the relation of slang to gender. In these times, and partly because of the feminist movement, women are more and more using the taboo and vulgar slang formerly accounted a male preserve. Sociologically this shows the determination of some women to enter the power structure by talking on this badge, among others, that denotes “maleness”, and simultaneously to shed the restrictions of the “ladylike” persona. Psychologically the implications are not that clear, but it may be that some women are determined to replicate at the core of their psyches the aggressive and ordering nature we have usually identified as a part of profound maleness, or else to show that these masculine traits do not lie as deep as we thought.
There isn’t any litmus test for slang and non-slang. Slang shares misty boundaries with a relaxed register usually called “informal” or “colloquial”, and we inevitable stray across the boundary, hence altogether this type of vocabulary combines slang and the so called unconventional English.
Slang also shares a boundary with a stylistic register we might call “figurative idiom”, in which inventive and poetic terms, especially metaphors, are used for novelty and spice, and incidentally for self-advertisement and cheekiness, in relief of a standard language that is accurate and clear but not personal and kinetic.
THE VERB: ASPECT
It is but natural that the verb should take up as much, or indeed, more space than all the other parts of speech we have so far considered, put together. It is the only part of speech in present-day English that has a morphological system based on a series of categories. It is the only part of speech that has analytical forms, 1 and again the only one that has forms (the infinitive, the gerund and the participle) which occupy a peculiar position in its system and do not share some of the characteristic features of the part of speech as a whole.
In analysing the morphological structure of the English verb it is essential to distinguish between the morphological categories of the verb as such, and the syntactic features of the sentence (or clause) in which a form of the verb may happen to be used. This applies especially to the category of voice and, to a certain extent, to the categories of aspect and tense as well.
The order in which we shall consider the categories of the verb may to a certain extent be arbitrary. However, we should bear in mind that certain categories are more closely linked together than others. Thus, it stands to reason that the categories of aspect and tense are linked more closely than either of them is with the category of voice. It is also plain that there is a close connection between the categories of tense and mood. These relations will have to be borne in mind as we start to analyse the categories of the verb.
One last preliminary remark may be necessary here. It is always tempting, but it may prove dangerous, to approach the morphological system of the verb in one language from the point of view of another language, for example, the student's mother tongue, or a widely known language such as Latin. Of course the system of each language should be analysed on its own, and only after this has been done should we proceed to compare it with another. Anyway the assessment of the system of a given language ought not to be influenced by the student's knowledge of another language. Neglect of this principle has often brought about differences in the treatment of the same language, depending on the student's mother tongue.
We will begin the analysis of each verbal category by examining two forms or two sets of forms differing from each other according to that category only.
There are two sets of forms in the Modern English verb which are contrasted with each other on the principle of use or non-use of the pattern "be + first participle":
writes — is writing wrote — was writing
' will write — will be writing has written — has been writing
These two sets of forms clearly belong to the same verb write and there is some grammatical difference between them. We will not here consider the question whether the relation between writes and is writing is exactly the same as that between wrote and was writing, etc. We will assume that it is the same relation.
What, then, is the basic difference between writes and is writing, or between wrote and was writing? If we consult the definitions of the meaning of is writing given in various grammar books, we shall find, with some variations of detail, that the basic characteristic of is writing is this: it denotes an action proceeding continuously at a definite period of time, within certain time limits. On the other hand, writes denotes an action not thus limited but either occurring repeatedly or everlasting, without any notion of lasting duration at a given moment. It should be noted here that many variations of this essential meaning may be due to the lexical meaning of the verb and of other words in the sentence; thus there is some difference in this respect between the sentence the earth turns round the sun and the sentence the sun rises in the East: the action mentioned in the former sentence goes on without interruption, whereas that mentioned in the latter sentence is repeated every morning and does not take place at all in the evening, etc. But this is irrelevant for the meaning of the grammatical form as such and merely serves to illustrate its possible applications.
The basic difference between the two sets of forms, then, appears to be this: an action going on continuously during a given period of time, and an action not thus limited and not described by the very form of the verb as proceeding in such a manner.
Now, the question must be answered, how should this essential difference in meaning between the two sets of forms be described. The best way to describe it would seem to be this: it is a difference in the way the action is shown to proceed. Now this is the grammatical notion described as the category of aspect with reference to the Slavonic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, etc.), and also to ancient Greek, in which this category is clearly expressed.
As is well known, not every verb is commonly used in the form "be + first participle". Verbs denoting abstract relations, such as belong, and those denoting sense perception or emotion, e. g. see, hear, hope, love, seldom appear in this form. It should be noted, however, that the impossibility of these verbs appearing in this form is sometimes exaggerated. Such categoric statement give the reader a wrong idea of the facts as they are not verified by actual modern usage. Thus, the verbs see, hope, like, fear and others, though denoting perception or feelings (emotions), may be found in this form, e. g. It was as if she were seeing herself for the first time in a year. (M. MITCHELL) The form "be + first participle" is very appropriate here, as it does not admit of the action being interpreted as momentaneous (corresponding to the perfective aspect in Russian) and makes it absolutely clear that what is meant is a sense perception going on (involuntarily) for some time.
This use of the form is also well illustrated by the following bit of dialogue from a modern short story: "Miss Courtright — I want to see you," he said, quickly averting his eyes. "Will you let me — Miss Courtright — will you?" "Of course, Merle," she said, smiling a little. "You're seeing me right now." (E. CALDWELL) It might probably have been possible to use here the present indefinite: "You see me right now," but the use of the continuous gives additional emphasis to the idea that the action, that is, the perception denoted by the verb see, is already taking place. Thus the descriptive possibilities of the continuous form are as effective here with the verb of perception as they are with any other verb.
A rather typical example of the use of the verb see in the continuous aspect is the following sentence: Her breath came more evenly now, and she gave a smile so wide and open, her great eyes taking in the entire room and a part of the mountains towards which she had half turned, that it was as though she were seeing the world for the first time and might clap her hands to see it dance about her. (BUECHNER)
Here are some more examples of continuous forms of verbs which are generally believed not to favour these forms: Both were visibly hearing every word of the conversation and ignoring it, at the same time. (CARY) The shade of meaning provided by the continuous will be best seen by comparing the sentence as it stands with the following variant, in which both forms of the continuous have been replaced by the corresponding indefinite forms: Both visibly heard every word of the conversation and ignored it, at the same time. The descriptive character of the original text has disappeared after the substitution: instead of following, as it were, the gradual unfolding of the hearing process and the gradual accumulation of "ignoring", the speaker now merely states the fact that the two things happened. So the shades of meaning differentiating the two aspect forms are strong enough to overcome what one might conventionally term the "disclination" of verbs of perception towards the continuous aspect.
We also find the verb look used in a continuous form where it means 'have the air', not 'cast a look': Mr March was looking absent and sombre again. (SNOW) This is appropriate here, as it expresses a temporary state of things coming after an interruption (this is seen from the adverb again) and lasting for some time at least. Compare also the verb hope: You're rather hoping he does know, aren't you? (SNOW) If we compare this sentence and a possible variant with the present indefinite: You rather hope he does know, don't you? we shall see that the original text serves to make the idea of hope more emphatic and so the form of the continuous aspect does here serve a useful purpose. But I'm hoping she'll come round soon. .. (SNOW) Let us again compare the text with a variant: But I hope she'll come round soon. .. The difference in this case is certainly much less marked than in the preceding example: there is no process going on anyway, and it is clear from the context (especially the adverbial modifier soon) that the feeling spoken of only refers to a very limited space of time. So the extra shade of meaning brought by the continuous form appears to be only that of emphasis.
Our next example is of the link verb be in the continuous aspect form: There were a few laughs which showed however that the sale, on the whole, was being a success. (SNOW) With the non-continuous form substituted: There were a few laughs which showed however that the sale, on the whole, was a success. In this instance, once more, the difference would appear to be essential. In the text as it stands, it is certain that the laughs mentioned were heard while the sale was still going on, whereas in the second variant this is left to conjecture: they might as well have been heard after the sale was concluded, when some people were discussing its results. So the continuous form of the link verb has an important function in the sentence. Compare also the following: You are being presumptuous in a way you wouldn't be with anyone else, and I don't like it. (TAYLOR) Compare also: "I think you are being just," Charles said... (SNOW) Here the continuous is perhaps more necessary still, as it clearly means that the person's behaviour in a certain concrete situation is meant, not his general characteristic, which would be expressed by saying, "I think you are just." Compare also: Perhaps I'm being selfish... (LINKLATER) The link verb be is also used in the continuous aspect in the following passage: What I think is, you're supposed to leave somebody alone if he's at least being interesting and he's getting all excited about something. (SALINGER) He is being interesting obviously means here, 'he is behaving in an interesting way', or 'he is trying to be interesting', and it implies a certain amount of conscious effort, whereas he is interesting would merely mean that he has this quality as a permanent characteristic, without reference to any effort of will and without limitation to any period of time. Compare also: Now you are being rude. (TAYLOR)