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On Slang, No Longer a Street Talk

Words that come out of our mouths, when we speak, are a complete betrayal of who we are and where we have been. Not necessarily pointing to a sum of our experiences, but hinting to a time or place where our social ties with a specific group of people is animated by the sometime use of words, when conversing with fellow members, whose meanings are commonly shared. To an outsider, the words might sound foreign to the ears, below the standard level of educated speech, but they supplement effective communication within the clique. In all their forms, the words are slangs, frowned upon by most; the constant use of some of these words over time, however, pushed them to a level of nationwide acceptance.

Slang is nothing but street talk, long a complement to its origin and attribution. When I was growing up, in my high school years in the Philippines, my father forbade me from speaking any slang word inside our house. The sound alone was anathema to his ears. He maintained that no good words would ever come from the mouths of the “kanto” boys, who spent time hanging around stores in street corners (“kanto,” in Tagalog), ogling at passersby, exchanging juicy gossips about their female counterparts, and sharing a forbidden lighted cigarette stick among them. To them, a stick of cigarette was a “yosi.” This group of “kanto” boys later formed into a “barkada” (group of friends), now one of the 26 Filipino words added to the Oxford English Dictionary, making them officially part of the English Language. I remember the time, decades ago, when the only Tagalog words incorporated into the English usage were “boondock” (from “bundok,” meaning mountain) and “juramentado” (assassin, driven by religious belief).

Other Filipino words, formerly categorized as slang, now added to the Oxford English Dictionary include the familiar “mabuhay” (long live, a salutation), “balikbayan” (a Filipino visiting or returning to the Philippines after a period of living in another country), “high blood” (referring to a person who is angry or agitated), “sari-sari” (a convenient store), “halo-halo” (a dessert made of mixed fruit commonly eaten in the Philippines, sweet beans, milk, and shaved ice, sometimes topped with purple yam, crème caramel, and ice cream), “comfort room” (a public toilet, sometimes called a CR), “barong” (a lightweight, embroidered shirt for men, usually made from pineapple fiber, and worn untucked), “pan de sal” (yeast-livened bread roll made of eggs, sugar and salt, consumed especially for breakfast), “presidentiable” (a likely candidate for president), “baon” (money, food, or other provisions taken to school, work or on a journey), “sinigang” (soury soup made with shrimp, meat, or fish, and flavored by tamarind or guava ingredient), and “KKB” (initials for “kaniya-kaniyang bayad” to mean each one pays his or her own, the cost of a meal is to be shared).

In the Philippines as elsewhere in the globe, tracing the origin of slang is a difficult endeavor. Experts in the field view slang as a phenomenon in any language which is ever present and consistently changing in every “subculture.” They further argued that slang exists because affected people must come up with new ways of defining their experiences that have come about with time and “modernity,” finding it more difficult to differentiate slang from the language currently used because slang generally becomes accepted into the standard lexicon over time. A true slang, to be considered as such, must, in the minds of linguists, lower the “dignity” of formal or serious speech, be a taboo term in ordinary conversation with persons of a higher social status, replace a generally-known conventional synonym, and must imply user’s familiarity with whatever is referred to or with a group of people who are familiar with the use of the term.

The Filipino language, Tagalog, has gone through evolutionary process. Although widely used as the Philippines’ national language, there are groups of user who create their own variations, slangs, to be used within their exclusive circle. Some of these variations eventually make it as parts of their daily vocabulary, while others create slangs to give new meanings to already existing Tagalog words, including “ahas” (snake for traitors), “ube” (violet color, referring to Philippine bill of 100 pesos), and “marka demonyo” (demonic mark, referring to a brand of gin with a label in the likeness of a devil). Still, some users created new words by inverting the syllables of words to come up with “erpat” (pater, a variation of the word father), “ermat” (mater, a variation of mother), or “senglot” (drunk or tipsy, a derivative from the Tagalog “laseng”).

The inclusion of slangs in everyday conversation might evoke, to some, personal distaste since everyone is entitled to a personal preference, and the use and acceptance of slangs are not merely a personal affair. Differences in the use of language could be a source of misunderstanding between or among groups and the inadvertent use of slangs by one group with malicious intent towards another group could lead to disastrous results. To keep and maintain peace, caution should be applied in every instance. To bring into focus the interest of groups socially working for an adoption of an “auxiliary” medium to supplement existing language in daily conversation is therefore a foremost need. This affects us all, and it calls for a lively knowledge of the limitations imposed on the use of slangs by the pace of their growth. We can stiffen our self-confidence, however, by recognizing at the outset that perceived difficulties in learning how to use slangs effectively are far less than most of us suppose. Personal skill should be developed in being able to follow the course of ordinary conversation among groups whose members use slangs habitually.

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