Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

Today, there’s no reason anymore for us to aspire for English slang

In our youth, as nonnative English speakers still grappling with the language, not a few of us surely had envied friends and acquaintances who spoke English slang. Even if hardly understandable, their glib and seemingly worldly-wise English could not but wow us! Indeed, it was difficult not to think that deep English slang was the epitome of proficiency and the mark of excellence in speaking English. This thought obviously heightened our feeling of inadequacy in speaking English, prompting some of us to cultivate and affect English slang ourselves, often with socially ludicrous results.

That, of course, was at a time when English slang was still perceived by many as the sophisticated way to speak rather than an undesirable vestige of regional English that’s mighty hard to shed off.  Today, however, straight English without heavy accent has become the global norm; as proof, we need only look and listen to the choices of CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera for their multinational English-speaking news anchors and reporters. Definitely, with English now truly a global language, slang is no longer the English pronunciation of choice for both native and nonnative English speakers. As I explain in “Don’t worry about English slang,” an essay I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2008, there’s absolutely no more reason in the world for us to aspire for English slang. (March 19, 2011)

Click on the title below to read the essay.

Don’t worry about English slang

A reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times, Raul Galleros, has posed this very interesting question about English slang:

“What is the best way to understand deep English slang? I have difficulty understanding its pronunciation. When I am watching a movie or a talk show on television, I find it hard to understand the dialogue of people talking in very deep English slang. I make an effort to watch a lot of English movies and TV shows to develop my comprehension, but it seems I am not making any progress. In contrast, when I hear Filipinos speaking in English in a movie or on TV, I can easily understand and absorb their language.”

Here’s my open reply to Raul:

Unless you are a serious student of English linguistics, don’t worry too much about not understanding the deep English slang you hear around you. It doesn’t mean that your English or your listening comprehension is deficient. It simply means that the English you are hearing is not meant to be understood by you, and that you really don’t belong to the group or community that uses it. Slang is a special-purpose coded language that’s meant to exclude you and other people from the coterie of friends, contacts, or initiates that uses it.

And there’s absolutely no need for you to actively learn any form of deep English slang. You’ll acquire it simply by the company you keep or by sustained exposure to it. The more prevalent a particular slang—whether it’s gay-speak, drug-speak, gangsta rap, Ebonics or Black English, Cockney, Singlish, Chinglish, or our very own Taglish—the more it will insinuate itself into the language through the movies and the mass media, particularly TV and radio. But if you are befuddled by any of them, don’t ever feel that your English is inferior or inadequate. The problem is not with you; the problem is with the scriptwriters, the talk-show hosts or guests, or the video or radio jockeys. They are forgetting one cardinal rule of communication: to use language understandable to the great majority of their mass audiences. By using deep English slang, they are failing to get their ideas across to you and to others like you.

It’s possible, of course, that you are watching movies and TV shows or listening to radio shows that are not really meant for you. A good number of Hollywood movies that reach us, for instance, are made for predominantly American Black target audiences; this is why those movies often use rather heavy Ebonics in their dialogue. And some TV and radio shows cater to special audiences appreciative of heavy metal or gangsta rap English. So what do you do? Avoid them and choose only those that use the kind of English you are comfortable with.

Naturally, it will be much easier for you to understand and absorb the English of Filipinos appearing in the movies or speaking on TV or radio. This is because the best of them use Standard American English, which is the kind of English that the Philippine educational system is trying its best—but not entirely succeeding—to teach Filipinos to write and speak from grade school onwards. This English is easily understood because it deviates little from the vocabulary, grammar, structure, and semantics of the English that’s formally taught to us—and it’s spoken without the infuriating twang or drawl of some native English speakers or the jaw-dropping peculiarities or flourishes of some nonnative ones.

So, Raul, don’t worry too much about not understanding deep English slang. And don’t even bother learning it unless you are keen on joining an exclusive gang or fraternity that requires members to speak its particular English slang. You can find much better use of your time by continuously improving your Standard American English instead of engaging in linguistic jaywalking, which is what speaking in deep English slang of whatever kind actually amounts to. (March 5, 2008)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 5, 2008 © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Click here to discuss/comment

Previously Featured Essay:

Making nominalization work for our prose

Many of us are familiar with this conventional grammar wisdom: turning verbs into nouns—or what is termed “nominalization” in linguistics—is bad for the health of our prose. The evidence that this is so is, of course, painfully clear. Take this particularly turgid example of bureaucratic writing: “The conclusion of this interim faculty performance evaluation committee is that there has been an inadequate information dissemination effort with respect to the new instruction performance standards as mandated and enforced by the Department of Education effective January 1, 2004.”

The sentence above is obviously not only difficult to understand but also sounds obtusely and irritatingly authoritative. The unfortunate thing, however, is that many academics and bureaucrats think they are doing a great job by making such convoluted semantic constructions. Few of them ever realize that for every verb that they assiduously convert to a noun-form in their vaunted circulars and directives, they are erecting just one more formidable barrier to good communication with their constituencies.

Let’s check precisely what have been “nominalized” in the offending sentence above. The following verbs, we can readily see, were converted to nouns: “conclude” to “conclusion” and “disseminate” to “dissemination.” And this nominalization binge gave rise to two inevitable things: (1) a passive sentence in which nobody or nothing seems to be doing anything, and (2) long noun-strings whose constituent nouns already cross-modify themselves into near incomprehension even before the adjective can do its own modifying job, like “interim faculty performance evaluation committee,” “inadequate information dissemination effort,” and “new instruction performance standards.” The horrible “-ion” words simply multiplied like rabbits.

Is there a way out of this semantic rigmarole? A good way to begin is, of course, to restore the nominalizations into their active verb-forms and to clearly establish who or what the doers of the action are in the passive sentence. Try this one for size and clarity: “This interim committee has ascertained that the new standards for measuring the teaching performance of faculty members have not been properly disseminated. Faculty members have not clearly understood the new instruction standards put in force by the Department of Education last January 1, 2004.”

Having made this indictment this against nominalizations, however, we must not think that they have no value whatsoever in exposition. They can actually prove useful in at least five semantic situations. Here are those situations:

Nominalization to make abstract things more concrete and credible. As we have already seen above, this is actually what many academics and bureaucrats do to their prose—but to great excess. If done sparingly and with restraint, however, this form of nominalization can actually make abstract statements more convincing. Without nominalization: “The woman couldn’t believe that her son’s decision was a wise one.” More convincing with “wise” nominalized to “wisdom”: “The woman couldn’t believe the wisdom of her son’s decision.”

Nominalization as a transitional device. By serving as a subject referring to an idea in a previous sentence, a nominalization can provide smooth transition: “The election losers finally accepted defeat after a perfunctory protest filingThis acceptance paved the way for better governance in a country notorious for unceasing politics.” Here, the noun-form “this acceptance” in the second sentence nominalizes the verb-phrase “accepted defeat after...” of the first sentence, thus effortlessly leading the reader to the next idea.

Nominalization to attenuate extremely harsh or forceful statements. In making extremely sensitive statements, it is often prudent to use a nominalization instead of its more direct and vigorous verb form. Too pointed and insensitive: “The prison officials will electrocute the convict tomorrow at exactly 9:00 a.m.” A more prudent statement with “electrocute” nominalized: “The prison officials set the electrocution of the convict tomorrow at exactly 9:00 a.m.”

Nominalization to more clearly identify the object of its verb-form. For stronger emphasis, it is sometimes desirable to use a nominalization to clearly identify the object of the verb in a sentence. Without nominalization: “The job applicants are not aware of what are required by the newly created position.” Smoother and more concise by nominalizing the phrase “what are required by...”: “The job applicants are not aware of the requirements of the newly created position.”

Nominalization to replace awkward “the fact that....” phrases. When making a transition to the next sentence, the easy but lazy way is to use the phrase “the fact that...”: “The fact that she was able to convert a virtually certain defeat to a resounding victory is a miracle of sorts.” Nominalization of that phrase results in a better sounding sentence and a more elegant transition: “Her conversion of a virtually certain defeat to a resounding victory is a miracle of sorts.”

Knowing now that nominalizations aren’t all that bad for the health of our prose, let’s not hesitate to let them do their job when the semantic situation really calls for it.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, August 9, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently became part of the author’s book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.

Click here to discuss/comment

Click to read more essays (requires registration to post)

Copyright © 2010 by Aperture Web Development. All rights reserved.

Page best viewed with:

Mozilla FirefoxGoogle Chrome

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Valid CSS!

Page last modified: 20 March, 2011, 1:15 a.m.