Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dialect, Slang, Jargon, Register: Implications for Instruction

Developing word consciousness in intermediate and secondary grades includes learning about dialect, slang, jargon, and register. Students need to become increasingly metacognitive with respect to these concepts. In this post, I juxtapose the four terms, speaking broadly. For more depth, follow the links.

Dialect:  The Oxford Concise Dictionary defines dialect as, “a form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group." Dialects are noted by variations in phonology, phonetics, morphology, syntax and vocabulary. Linguists Odell, Vacca, and Hobbs (2007, p. 939) make a vital point:
"Everyone uses a dialect, and no dialect
is better or worse than another."
In the US, many dialects or varieties of English are heard: Southern English, Appalachian English, African American English, New York City English, Chicano English, California Surfer Dude and Valley Girl English, Boston English, etc. Overseas, more varieties of English are spoken, including Australian English, Cockney English, Jamaican English, and so forth. To hear varieties of English from all over the world visit The International Dialects of English Archives. Click the links in the sidebar and listen to the audio clips. Let your students listen, too. It is fascinating -- and free. Also, scholars at the University of Wisconsin created the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). This outstanding resource defines regional words and displays maps showing where specific words are spoken in America. Visit the DARE website. View the educational resources. Take the synonym quiz. (I DAREsay, "It ain't gonna be easy!")

African American English (AAE) is a dialect. However, AAE is an ethnic dialect rather than a regional dialect. "An ethnic dialect is a speech pattern of a special community that has preserved some of its heritage from the past" (Odell et al., 2007, p. 939). According to Denham and Lobeck (2009), ethnic dialects often cross regions and are/were influenced by isolation and/or segregation. For further reading, see African American English is not Slang, published by WORD., The Online Journal of African American English. Also see The diversity of English in America, published by Popular Linguistics.

To learn about Southern English and African American English, read the book pictured above: Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools. Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson are experts in their field, providing teaching strategies as well as suggestions for assessment and application. In their book, they speak not of standard English but of standardized English:
The term standardized English makes the parallel that just as specific types of knowledge are valued on standardized tests, so, too are specific types of language valued within the educational system (p. 12)
Slang: Carl Sandburg poetically but not comprehensively wrote, "Slang is language which takes off its coat, spits on its hands and goes to work" (1959). Slang words and phrases are highly colloquial and informal in type, occurring more often in speech than in print. Slang consists either of newly crafted words or of existing words employed in a special sense. Slang often manages to make the abstract concrete and memorable, by employing imagery. For example, the phrase chill out brings to mind a hothead on ice--far more picturesque than compose yourself.  For more slang, visit Alphadictionary: Historic Dictionary of American Slang. Also visit (Beware! Some words are not suitable for school. There is also the Urban Dictionary, even more liberally stocked with unmentionables.)

Often, slang words have a short shelf life, fading away after a generation. Some slang words have endured and entered the general lexicon, including bogus, geek, mob, hubbub, and rowdy. Some slang words are used across dialects. Consider the word cool. Is it heard in every dialect of English?

Eric Partridge, a British lexicographer and researcher, described 15 reasons people speak in slang (Slang: Today and Yesterday, 1933, ch. 2, available for download). His research is dated, but these reasons might still hold true today. Below, I list the first three reasons and the last reason. Notice how nicely the first three ideas lend themselves to prompting creativity, identity, word consciousness, and love for language.

1) "In sheer high spirits, by the young in heart as well as by the young in years; 'just for the fun of the thing'; in playfulness or waggishness."

2) As an exercise either in wit and ingenuity or in humour. (The motive behind this is usually self-display or snobbishness, emulation or responsiveness, delight in virtuosity.)

3) 'To be different'; to be novel. 

15) To be secret--not understood by those around one. (Children, students, lovers, members of political secret societies, criminals in or out of prison...)

Students might enjoy rhyming slang. According to David Crystal (1995), rhyming slang probably originated with the criminal underworld of London Cockneys in the mid-19th-Century. A few examples are provided below.

Rhyming Slang
apples and pears stairs
artful dodger lodger
Cain and Abel table
north and south mouth
read and write fight
trouble and strife wife

Jargon: Jargon is the specific terminology used to support our interests and occupations. For the Vocabulogic readership, associated jargon includes semantics, pragmatics, morpheme, phoneme, analogy, conceptual, contextual, etc. The American Heritage Dictionary defines jargon as, "the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group: medical jargon" and also "language that is characterized by uncommon or pretentious vocabulary and convoluted syntax and is often vague in meaning."

Unlike most slang, academic jargon is typically not imaginative or picturesque. Too much of it might leave one feeling stifled, even oppressed. This might be why the suffix -ese elicits angst in words like legalese, acadamese, officialese, bureaucratese, etc.  Like some slang, jargon might keep outsiders out, serving to exclude.  Nonetheless, jargon has its place, enabling members of a group to communicate about their interests. (For more on abuse of jargon, read about word clutter at SimpleWorld.CA.)

Does enjoyable jargon exist? Some non-academic jargon is delightfully creative, as with the metaphoric trucker jargon: bear in the air, rubber duck, roller skate, alligator, etc. Also, because rhyming slang formed the vocabulary of a particular profession, might we also call it a form of jargon (perhaps "robber jargon")? I am not always certain where slang ends and jargon begins, but clearly, not all jargon consists of stuffy academic words.

Register: According to the American Heritage Dictionary, register is "a variety of language typically used in a specific type of communicative setting: an informal register; the register of scientific discourse." An informal register is typically used at home and at play. A more formal register is used in nonfiction texts, lecture halls, etc. There are also registers that fall somewhere between formal and informal. Formal language is broadly called academic English. (See Academic Words Every Day.)

Applications: With older students, discuss language at the metacognitive level. Explore the linguistic, political, social and cultural aspects of language. Esteem every language variety. Language is personal--a part of our identity. Create an environment that treasures language and resounds with speech. (See Treated to Language.)

Instead of teaching that communication is either formal or informal, convey the notion of incremental shifts in formality. Use a horizontal scale, as inserted below, to show gradations of register, from quite informal to highly formalized and standardized. Let students converse in small groups to classify any given sample of speech or print. Discuss the rationale: What makes the communication more or less formal?

less formal                                REGISTER                                  more formal  

Teach adolescents across dialects to select a suitable register for speaking and writing, depending on the audience and the goal. If the selected register is more formal, teach students to use academic vocabulary and syntax and to limit slang. This is a matter of pragmatics, of understanding the social application and function of language.

Teach students to recognize jargon. Adolescents might sort word cards, jargon versus slang versus general words. Also, teach students to recognize when someone is deliberately (or perhaps unintentionally) creating a lexical barrier with a plethora of professional jargon or an overabundance of academic English.


Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge University Press.

Denham, K., & Lobeck, A. (2009). Linguistics for everyone: An introduction. Boston: Cengage Learning.

Odell, L., Vacca, R., & Hobbs, R. (2007). Elements of language: Fifth course (teacher's edition). Austin, TX: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

Partridge, E. (1933). Slang: Today and Yesterday.  Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Sandburg, C. (1959, February 13). The New York Times.


  1. Erin Fredrickson3/11/2011

    What a great collection of quotes and resources! I clicked all the links. My family got involved a little, listening to dialects of English at the IDEA website (even my son). Thanks for the fun!

  2. Anonymous7/01/2012

    AAE is a language, not a dialect!

    1. Yes, indeed, it is a language -- the English language. In terms of its vocabulary, syntax, morphology, phonology, and orthography, it is not sufficiently different from English to be considered a new language. If dialect strikes the wrong note, what about variety? African American English is a unique variety of English.

    2. Well put Susan. I will start using the term "variety of English" in my Issues in SLA class; dialect does carry an negative connotation because they are associated with a lower social status. The dialect associated with the most powerful group within a society is considered to be the "norm". In fact, they are all different and equal. That is true for Creoles as well. Thank you.

    3. That's all too true, Andon. Thanks!


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