The pragmatics of slang


Anthony Lodge

University of St Andrews
(received Feburary 1997, revised April 1997)
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1.0 Introduction
2. The traditional approach to colloquial vocabulary
3. Sociolonguistics and language variation
3.1 Labovian sociolinguistics

3.2 The Clermont experiment
3.2.1 Social variation
3.2.2 Stylistic variation
3.3 Partial conclusion
4 The pragmatics of colloquial vocabulary
4.1 Guiraud
4.2 Politeness theory
5 Conclusion

Appendix A: The Words
Appendix B: The Speakers
Appendix C: The Questions<br>

1.0 Introduction

In French, the crucial role played by vocabulary in signalling the social identities of speakers and in marking shifts between formal and informal style is well known to all advanced practitioners of the language. Moreover, social awareness of such matters among native speakers of French is also very high. Changing fashions in colloquial vocabulary (conventionally labelled fam., pop., vulg. and arg. in dictionaries) attract a large amount of public comment, from prescriptive guardians of usage who see them as the signs of an impending Apocalypse, to journalists keen to show just how up-to-the-minute they are by chronicling the latest lexical fads of adolecents and marginal groups. The following table, taken from Massian (XXXX) gives some idea of the scope of the phenomenon.
A chacun son français (taken from Massian XXXX)
Précieux (snob, poétique, désuet) Soutenu (littéraire) Courant (commercial, public, administratif) Familier (privé, populaire) Argotique (snob, jeune, vulgaire)
Le chef. La tête. La figure. La bobine, la bouille, la binette, la caboche, la bille. La gueule, la tronche, la trombine, la margoulette.
Un mortel. Un homme. Un individu. Un typ, un gars, un pékin, un zèbre. Un mec, un gonze, un zig, un gazier.
Cocasse. Amusant. Drôle. Rigolo, tordant, gondolant, fendant. Marrant, bidonnant, poilant, à s'tap'.
Le véhicule. L'automobile. La voiture. L'auto, la bagnole. La tire, la caisse.
Il chuta. Il tomba. vIl est tombé. Il s'est cassé la figure, il a pris un billet de parterre. Il s'est cassé la gueule, il a ramassé une gamelle.
Qu'il manque d'intelligence! Qu'il est sot! Qu'il est bête! Quel idiot! Quel crétin! Quelle andouille! Quel couillon! Quel cul! Quel con!
Il est béni des dieux. Il est né sous une bonne étoile. Il a de la chance. Il a de la veine, il a du pot. Il a du bol, du cul, il est beurré, il l'a bordé de nouilles.
Il fair preuve de pusillanimité. Il est rempli de crainte. Il a peur. Il a la frousse, il se dégonfle, il panique. Il a la trouille, les chocottes, les jetons, les grelots, le trouillomètre à zéro.
Tu m'agaces. Tu me fatigues. Tu m'ennuies. Tu m'embêtes, tu me fais suer, tu m'enquiquines. Fais chier, tu me mes casses, tu m'emmerdes.
Suffit! Assez! Par-dessus la tête! Plein de dos! Ras-le-bol! Plein le cul! Y en a marre.

New dictionaries of French slang are published almost yearly, cataloguing the latest colloquialisms. For example, over the ten year period from 1977 to 1987, these have included the following: Caradec (1977), Sandry and Carrère (1980), Cellard and Rey (1980), Merle (1986), La Rue and Casciani (1986), Nouguier (1987). However, in contrast to the great interest shown in slang by the grand public which these dictionaries document, linguists -- rather perversely in my view -- are unwilling to investigate the phenomenon. The result is that linguistc research in this area now has considerable ground to make up. Current linguistic work on vocabulary concentrates mainly on the more formal and tangible aspects of it, namely etymology and word formation (see Lefkowitz 1991, George 1996). Attempts have been made to explore variability in slang, but the results to date have been rather meagre: Müller (1985:232) and Désirat and Hordé (1976:57-8) publish lists of colloquial words illustrating the lack of agreement among lexicographers concerning the appropriate style label -- fam., pop., vulg. or arg. -- to be allocated to given lexical items (see also Maselaar 1988); Guiraud (1973 and 1978) was more ambitious in that he tried to analyze the sociolinguistic function of slang, but his analyses collapse into a series of social stereotypes which, as will become apparent below, it is hard to take seriously.

English etymology would no doubt place vocabulary labelled fam., pop. and vulg. in French under the general heading "slang". The term argot has passed into English, argot being distinguishable from slang by being more secret, less public, less generally available and, of course, "less respectable" (see Edwards 1976:23 and Spence 1986). Slang and argot possess low social value, but does this mean that they are not linguistically important? It seems to me that slang has a highly significant role to play in the linguistic life of the community, perhaps more so in French than in many other European languages. I would relate this to the rigid codification of the French standard language, which has one effect quite different from the one intended -- it triggers a proliferation of non-standard forms. These "deviant" forms cannot realistically be ignored by linguists concerned to describe the language as she is spoken.

George (1996) demonstrates brilliantly the interest contained in the morphology of contemporary French slang, but the semantics and pragmatics of slang also deserve our attention and have been conspicuously neglected in the past. This paper focuses on these aspects of the topic, following the chronological development of my own ideas:

&#bull; the traditional approach to non-standard vocabulary;
&#bull; a sociolinguistic approach -- Clermont Ferrand, and
&#bull; a pragmatic approach -- politeness theory.

2.0 The traditional approach to colloquial vocabulary

Traditional interest in slang is heavily prescriptive, being preoccupied essentially with grading colloquial words according to their fitness for use in polite society. Argot has received close attention, being a field of enquiry rich in the exotic and the bizarre, and has been studied with enthusiastic intensity for a century and a half (see in particular Sainéan 1912, Nicephoro 1912, François 1968). Paris University has an "Institut d'Argotologie". However, the findings of traditional "argotologists", picturesque as they are, are often anecdotal and do not always present a high level of theoretical interest.

The traditional approach to slang and argot is best exemplified in the general dictionaries of French like Larousse and Robert. An essential function of dictionaries is, of course, to standardize and control linguistic usage, suppressing variation by identifying the respectable words, by excluding the most disreputable ones, and by corralling the rest into high-fenced pens from which they shall not stray (see Rey 1972). Dictionaries are expected to provide a "prescriptive taxonomy" of lexical terms -- a set of neat word-boxes, ranked into a hierarchy of good (le bon français) and bad (le français non conventionnel):

Let me emphasize that there is nothing wrong with dictionaries making prescriptive judgments of this sort -- linguistic norms are part and parcel of any standard language and part of the lexicographer's job is to codify them. Standardizing usage is an entirely legitimate function of dictionaries. However, it is desirable that readers realize that the norms being imposed are artificial and conventional, and not somehow inherent in the linguistic system itself.

Given the nature of the style-boxes found in French dictionaries, we should not be surprised to find disagreement between lexicographers over the label to be attached to particular words (see Müller 1985 and Désirat and Hordé 1976). Even the best of the French dictionaries, the Petit Robert, runs into difficulties when it comes to defining the basis of the style labels it allocates to non-standard words:

arg. = mot d'argot, emploi argotique limité à un milieu particulier, surtour professionel (arg. scol. = argot scolaire), mais inconnu du grand public. Pour les mots d'argot passés dans le langage courant voir pop.
e.g. gonzesse, pèze tire.
vulg. = mot, sens ou emploi choquant (souvent familier (= fam.) ou populaire (pop.)), qu'on ne peut employer entre personnes bien élevées, quelle due soit leur classe soiale.
e.g. con, merdier.
pop. =qualifie un mot ou un sens courant dans la langue parlée des milieux populaires (souvent ancient argot répandu) qui ne s'empoierait pas dans un milieu social élevé.
e.g. baffe, baratin.
fam. = usage parlé même écrit de la langue quotidienne: conversation etc., mais ne s'emploierait pas dans les circonstances solonnelles.
e.g. se balader, blague.
Three of these definitions run into serious difficulties as soon as we confront them with our experience of how native speakers use the words bearing these labels. Most of the words labelled arg. in the Petit Robert are entirely connu du grand public; many personnes bien élevées use vulg. words quite frequently; most of the words labelled pop. are often in the mouths of people from a milieu social élevé. Only the fam. label bears a strong relationship with real usage.

The main problem with the traditional style-labels (apart from the fact that they appear to have fossilized in the 17th century is that they are geared less to style than to a primitive form of sociology: they are based in the main on speech habits attributed conventionally to particular groups in French society. e.g.

le bon français = la bourgeoisie cultivée du Paris
le fr. pop. = le peuple de Paris
l"argot = le Milieu
le patois = la paysannerie, etc.

What we have here is a set of crude sociolinguistic stereotypes, built into a highly conservative model of French society. In fairness, I should add that the 1996 edition of the Nouveau Petit Robert has modified the definition of some of its style labels, reducing the sociological reference. I am indebted to Dr. P. Bennett of Edinburgh University who drew this to my attention.

This traditional, prescriptive approach to variation in the lexicon, associating words crudely with putative categories of speakers, and prioritizing standard forms over vernacular ones, hardly does justice to so widespread a phenomenon as French colloquial vocabulary. The function of slang in the social life of the language deserves to be explored more systematically. But how can this be done? My first attempt at a solution lay in the direction of Labovian sociolinguistics.

3.0 Sociolonguistics and language variation

For sociolinguists the whole notion of linguistic prescriptivism is anathema. For them, colloquial, vernacular usage, far from being something to be eliminated, is the main focus of interest. Variation in language, instead of being an accidental, dysfunctional element which impedes efficient communication, and which should be suppressed, is crucial to the effective functioning of a language. Three features of language variation are taken as axiomatic:

(1) Variability is inherent in language and central to its social role. Without it we would be incapable of communicating all manner of nuances in our everyday use of language, in particular, vital information about our personal identity (along the social axis of variation) and about our relationship with the addressee (along the stylistic axis).

(2) There are no natural breaks between language varieties, no pure homogeneous styles and dialects, no neat word boxes, only gradations along social and stylistic continua. These fluid categories are are susceptible to quantificational analysis.

(3) Language variation is emphatically not "free". In other words, it is not randomly occurring or linguistically redundant and cannot be idealized away from the linguist's central concern. In fact, it correlates in a complex but nevertheless structured way with factors outside language, speaker variables like age, sex, social class, etc., and situational variables like the degree of formality, the relationship with the addressee and the like. However, these non-linguistic correlates need to be analyzed rigourously and not left to the impressionism of traditional social stereotypes.

3.1 Labovian sociolinguistics

While there probably exists at any one point in a language's development a central core of invariance -- items which are "categorical" in particular contexts -- there also exists a broad band of linguistic features which are subject to variation and eventually change (see Chambers 1995:25-33).

The object of Labovian sociolinguistics is to reveal the sociolinguistic patterns underlying language variation in the community: how does language variation in language correlate with extra-linguistic factors like speech-situation and the social origin of speakers? Linguistic features which can be shown to vary in this way are referred to as "sociolinguistic variables", e.g.

in English, the presence or absence of /r/ in guard, beard, car;
in French, the presence or absence of /l/ in il faut, il vient.

In order to determine the relevant extra-linguistic correlates, the sociolinguist has to eliminate all intra-linguistic constraints (stylistic and semantic) which may influence the speaker in his use of the variable. In other words, he must identify variants which can occur in the same syntactic context and which "mean the same thing". The speaker's selection of one variant in preference to another has to spring, not from differences of syntax or denotational meaning, but from differences in the speech situation and/or the social origins of the speaker.

The results will be scalar and probabilistic rather than clear-cut: different social groups and difference speech styles can be expected to favour particular variants to a greater or lesser extent, and their use of them can be quantified and expressed in the form of a graph:

The pays d'élection of Labovian analyses is pronunciation or "accent". Speech-sounds do not of themselves carry any meaning. Different pronunciations of the same word necessarily "mean the same thing" (denotationally at least). Attempts have been made to apply this method to syntactic variation too (Coveney 1996), though the results are somewhat controversial.

In my naivety ten years ago, I started asking myself whether the Labovian method could be applied to analyzing variation in French vocabulary too. Maybe it would throw up more interesting patterns than the traditional prescriptive taxonomy of colloquialisms. Maybe we could discover a systematic correlation between the use of certain lexical variables and speech situation and/or the social origin of speakers. Intuitively, this hypothesis seemed plausible enough: low-value lexical items do seem to be used more frequently in the lower social groups and in the more informal speech styles.

Like everyone else with a reasonable familiarity with French, I was aware that there exists in that language a large number of paired items, one belonging to High style and the other to Low, denoting the same thing (often very commonly occurring objects), e.g.:

voiture = bagnole
argent = fric
médecin = toubib
Here we have pairs of items which share a denotational meaning, the selection of one rather than the other being determined not by meaning or grammar, but by who is speaking and in what situation.

3.2 The Clermont experiment

Accordingly, I set up an experiment in Clermont-Ferrand to find out whether lexical variables function in a similar way to phonetic variables. I wanted to discover how use of colloquial items correlates with factors like age, sex, social class (on the social axis of variation) and with changes in speech situation (along the stylistic axis of variation). I assembled a sample of seventy inhabitants of Clermont-Ferrand, distributed evenly between the sexes and age groups between 10 and 70, and fairly evenly across socio-economic categories. I constructed a questionnaire investigating their use or non-use of a set of sociolinguistic variables, of the type voiture = bagnole, argent = fric. Ideally, I would have liked to explore the informants' actual use of non-standard vocabulary in different contexts, but such an enquiry would require enormous resources. I had to content myself with a self-report questionnaire where informants indicated their perceived use or non-use of these items. The problems raised by self-report questionnaires in sociolinguistics are well known. It is undeniable that the replies tell us a lot about the value people attribute to particular linguistic items and information of this sort about shared attitudes to language is very important in building up an overall picture of the French speech community as "a group of speakers with a set of shared linguistic norms". However, they do not provide reliable evidence about the ways speaker actually use these lexical pairs in real life. Certain groups, such as young males, are likely to over-report their use of vernacular forms, whereas others, such as middle-aged females, are likely to do the reverse. The list of WORDS is set out in Appendix A, my concern being to use pairs of words with the same denotative meaning, one belonging to H and the other to L style. The various categories of SPEAKER are indicated in Appendix B. My sociolinguistic sampling methods clearly left a lot to be desired. I am very aware of these deficiencies, but for now let it suffice to say that the methodological problems did not completely invalidate the experiment. The QUESTIONS asked are set out in Appendix C. Question 1 ('usage personnel') seeks, rather clumsily, to discover speakers' perceptions on their general use of non-standard terms, principally with intimates. Question 2 ('niveau de langue') attempts to elicit perceptions of use with strangers.

In processing the questionnaires, I was able to calculate for each informant a "slang score" according to how many jamais, rarement, souvent, très souvent he or she ticked across the fifty words. Equally, I was able to give each word an "acceptability rating" according to how many speakers had ticked jamais, rarement, souvent, très souvent alongside it. Despite the artisanal nature of my data collection, the completed questionnaires did reveal interesting patterns, findings which were entirely consonant with those of sociolinguistic surveys elsewhere.

3.2.1 Social variation

The age and gender pattern, which has been noted frequently elsewhere, was closely followed in the Clermont survey:

The correlation with socio-economic categories was less obvious, but was none the less present:

Table 1: Social Class
U.P L.
Cadres supereiurs / Professions libérales (7) 72.1 57.2
II Cadres moyens (12) 65.3 43.7
III Employés (10) 88.0 85.1
IV Ouvriers / Personnel de service (6) 74.3 69.8
If we take it that Question 1 elicited principally the speakers' vernacular style and Question 2 their more careful style, three interesting patterns emerge.

(i) The closeness of the slang scores in the highest and lowest social groups in their answer to Question 1.

(ii) The tendency of the cadres moyens to give themselves the lowest slang score. This correlates with their linguistic insecurity and their tendency to hypercorrection (cf. the "l.m.c." group in Graph 1).

(iii) The tendency of the upper groups to style-shift more markedly than the lower groups between their usage with intimates and their usage with strangers.

3.2.2 Stylistic variation

Here I was able to rank all the items on my list in order of their "acceptability rating", or speakers' readiness to use them in conversations with strangers. At the same time, I was able to correlate this ranking with the style labels attributed to them by the Petit Robert dictionary.

Table 2: Stylistic Variation
bouquin 167 fam.
balader 152 fam.
marre 152 fam.
marrant 147 pop.
blague 139 fam.
flic 134 pop.
boulot 132 fam.
chouette 131 pop.
moche 124 fam.
rigolo 119 fam.
trouille 119 pop.
dingue 116 fam.
bosser 115 pop.
costaud 115 fam.
pagaie 113 fam.
gaffe 110 pop.
esquinter 107 fam.
toubib 106 fam.
frousse 103 pop.
bagnoie 94 fam./pop.
fric 94 pop.
fringues 91 fam.
bousiller 86 fam.
baratin 85 pop.
cramer 84 pop.
roupiller 84 fam.
bouffer 79 fam.
con 79 fam./vulg.
mec 78 pop.
bahut 76 arg. des écoles
baffe 75 pop.
dégueulasse 75 vulg.
pognon 74 pop.
pompes 74 pop.
frangin 71 pop.
godasse 71 pop.
piaule 61 pop.
foutre 60 vulg.
nana 60 pop.
pif 55 pop.
merdier 51 vulg.
pieu 51 pop.
tifs 50 pop.
chiottes 40 pop.
clope 43 pop.
couillon 43 très fam.
gonzesse 39 vulg.
pouffiasse 36 vulg.
pèze 33 arg.
tire 26 arg.
The table reveals that, as long as we see the hierarchy of labels in stylistic, rather than social, terms, the dictionary gets the ranking more or less right. The label fam. reflects a perception that such word are quite gentils and can be used in most conversations. They occupy the top half of our ranked list. The labels vulg. and arg. reflect a perception that such words are very strong and cannot be used freely in conversation. They occupy the bottm half of our ranked list. As soon as it is the notion of social class which predominates in the lexicographer's mind, the dictionary label loses significance. So words labelled pop. occur randomly in the top and bottom halves of our list, making the value of the term so vague as to be useless.

3.3 Partial conclusion

The Clermont experiment helped me to see that, if speakers' perceptions are anything to go by, lexical variation in French is patterned and not random, and that the patterns it follows are similar to those observed in phonetic variation in France and other western societies. Along the social axis, the strongest determinants in the use of colloquial vocabulary were age and sex, with the role of social class being rather less obvious. Along the stylistic axis, words strung themselves out along a continuum, without slotting themselves neatly into pre-ordained boxes. There was a strong consensus among the informants as to the relative social value of each of the items. This was matched pretty well with the dictionary labels, with the exception of the label pop.

However, the limitations of the exercise cannot be disguised. Firstly, the survey bore upon perceived use rather than actual use and it remains to be seen whether the results would have been different had I gathered hours of recordings waiting for the same sample of speakers to come up with the relevant words at home or in the railway carriage. Lexical analyses of largeish corpora of spoken French suggest that the results would not be completely different, but a reliable experiment to demonstrate this scientifically remains to be devised.

Second, the survey treated lexical pairs in the list as if they were genuine sociolinguistic variables, in other words, as if they were items sharing denotative meaning whose incidence varies according to the social origins of the speaker and according to speech style. This is no doubt the case with phonological and morphological variables, but it is less clear whether lexical variables can be treated in the same way. The difficulty here is that, if we wish to claim that pairs of words like voiture and bagnole mean the same thing we have to restrict our notion of "meaning" very severely. The words in this pair undoubtedly have the same reference (or denotational / propositional meaning), but bagnole additionally carries a pejorative connotation not present in voiture. If the variants in question have a different meaning, however slight, it is always possible to claim that a speaker's selection of one variant rather than the other is determined semantically rather than sociolinguistically, and we cease to be comparing like with like. As a speaker shifts style, is he not at the same time also changing the meaning of the message? By "meaning", I do not mean here simply the denotational or propositional meaning of the utterance, I include also the affective, connotational meanings which are conveyed at the same time. In informal situations, the messages we want to convey are different from those we wish to convey in formal situations (see Levandera 1978). The dimension of meaning reveals the limits of the quantitative Labovian paradigm. By contrast, when we move to the lexical level, style-shifting has to be seen as qualitative as well (see Stewart 1995:212-4).

Third, my survey showed that certain categories of speaker and certain situations favour the use of non-standard vocabulary more than others. However, Labovian methods provide no evidence about why this should be. In other words, they reveal no information about the function of non-standard vocabulary in our everyday interactions. When we start asking questions about the communicative function of utterances in specific real-world contexts, we are moving into the realm of linguistic pragmatics.

4.0 The pragmatics of colloquial vocabulary

The insights gained by pragmatics into the way language functions in real-world interactions has not yet been fully brought to bear upon our understanding of French colloquial vocabulary. The person who has published most prolifically on French slang is P. Guiraud, but his pragmatics does not seem to be to be particularly well grounded theoretically.

4.1 Guiraud

In his widely read books on argot and français populaire in the Que Sais-Je? series (1973, 1978), Pierre Guiraud expresses his ideas fairly specifically about why people use slang. In line with the dominant French tradition, he instinctively attributes this vocabulary to low-status groups in French society and to their peculiar communicative needs. He constructs his whole explanatory model around the psychology of a pair of rather comical social stereotypes -- the Parisian working man (= fr. pop.) and the petty Parisian crook (= argot). He finds it impossible to resist a knee-jerk middle-class reaction to criminalize the working classes (les classes dangereuses after all). Guiraud's books reveal a number of interesting tendencies in colloquial vocabulary, but his attempts to explain them are disastrous. I will focus on four of this observations. The first is the tendency of colloquial vocabulary to present objects in an emotional, pejorative, or jocular way, e.g. pif, bagnole. Guiraud explains this with reference partly to the working man's lack of education, his naiveté, his affectivité (1978:83-4), and partly to his rather cynical view of life -- he talks about the dégradation des valeurs triggered by the wretched conditions of the working man's existence. The second is the tendency of colloquial vocabulary to proliferate terms in particular semantic fields like sex, various body parts and money. Guiraud explains this with reference to the working man's preoccupation with the basics of life and his inability to lift his sight to more lofty concerns, his permanent tendency towards la concrétisation de l'abstrait, his incapacité à abstraire (1973:47). He asserts that "l'obscénité du bas-langage s'explique par des conditions de vie enfoncée dans la matière (1973:45). The third is la troncation, the tendency of colloquial vocabulary to proliferate elliptical terms like psycho, prolo, télé, ciné (1973:75, 83). Guiraud explains this with reference to the working man's fundamental laziness, and his consequent refusal to spend the necessary intellectual and articulatory effort making his message explicit (1978:96). Here, Guiraud is expressing a social attitude widely held, even among the most respected of traditional linguists. For example, von Wartburg (1962:176) writes about the developments of French in the 17th century (my italics): Les sentiers sinueux d'un esprit parfois quelque peu embrouillé [XVIe s.] font place aux large avenues taillées par une pensée conduite avec une logique impeccable [XVIIe s.]. Le résultat est une simplification très sensible de la langue. Un pareil développement ne peut pas partir des classes inférieures du peuple. Celui-ci n'a pas l'habitude de l'effort intellectuel. A une époque comme celle du XVIIe siècle les forces directrices de la nation se concentrent dans les cercles des "honnêtes gens". The fourth is the tendency of slang to be constantly creating new items, with large numbers of "séries synonymiques", with language codes like locherbem, javanais and verlan generating a constantly renewed stream of parasitic lexemes. Guiraud explains this (1973:66) with reference to the long tradition of crooks in the Parisian underworld (going back via Cartouche to Villon and the Coquillards in the 15th century. Outlaw groups naturally require a secret lexicon which always manages to stay one step ahead of the police.

It seems to me that, while the observation of these features in colloquial vocabulary is entirely accurate, there has to be a more powerful explanation for them than the one Guiraud proposes. It is grotesque to suggest that it is only the vocabulary of uneducated speakers which exhibits these characteristics. A better explanatory model seems to me to be provided by the pragmatics of Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness.

4.2 Politeness theory

Brown and Levinson's theory derives from work on conversational interaction in the 1960s by Ervin Goffman. In conversational exchanges a central concern of the participants is the preservation of "face", both their own and their interlocutor's. Our "face" is our public self-image and, according to Brown and Levinson, it comes in two varieties -- our negative face and our positive face.

Our negative face is our desire to protect ourselves from imposition and to maintain our freedom of action. Our positive face is our desire to be accepted and appreciated by our interlocutors. All conversational encounters, such as requests, orders, reminders, threats, and warnings, involve risks to the "face" of the participants. Speakers' attempts to preserve "face" are seen in complex politeness strategies, designed to keep the interaction running smoothly.

Negative politeness strategies involve pandering to the negative face of our interlocutor. They can be summed up in the words "Don't presume!", in other words behaviour designed not to encroach on the personal space and the intimacy of the person addressed. This will involve the use of linguistic forms which protect the other person by interposing distance between the participants in the dialogue, which express deference, maximize the dignity and power of the other person, and which tend towards elf-effacement of the speaker. They will also tend to maximize the seriousness of the matter in hand, that is the gravity of our encroachment on the other's personal space.

The mechanisms of negative politeness are to be found most fully at work in the formulae of formal letter-writing conventions in French:

"Veuillez croire, Monsieur le Directeur, à L'expression de mes sentiments les plus distingués ..."

or (when writing to the Pope) (Chaffurin 1954:15-16):

Prosterné aux pieds de Votre Sainteté et implorant
la faveur de sa bénédiction apostolique,
j'ai l'honneur d'être,
Très Saint Père,
avec la plus profonde vénération
de votre Sainteté,
le très humble et très obéissant serviteur et fils.

Positive politeness strategies involve pandering to the positive face of the interlocutor. They can be summed up in the words "Presume as much as you like!" because both parties want to share their space and cooperate on equal terms. Here it is the ethic of solidarity, not that of power and deference, which predominates. It would be regarded as unfriendly in these circumstances to use linguistic forms marking social distance and a power difference between the speakers. It would be uncooperative to stand on one's dignity.

Politeness theory predicts that linguistic forms expressing positive politeness will therefore have four main features. First, they will tend to belittle the gravity of the topics being discussed and will often be jokey and irreverent.

Second, they will refer quite freely to topics pertaining to the intimacy of the addressee, e.g. money, bodily functions and sex.

Third, they will claim in-group membership with the interlocutor by assuming shared knowledge and using familiar, in-group vocabulary. There will be no need to spell everything out, as the interlocutors will know what is being referred to, so elliptical forms will be entirely appropriate.

Fourth, people will wish to carry this affirmation of in-group solidarity further by developing their own members-only vocabulary with the express intention of distinguishing members of the group from those outside. This would involve repeated generation of new items to enable core members of the group to remain constantly ahead of the game, hence the proliferation of séries synonymiques and lexical codes like verlan with the creation ad infinitum of new lexical forms for in-group use. Argot is a form of deviance, a gesture of defiance against the straight world. Crooks may or may not have recourse to such strategies, but tot suggest that they are its principal perpetrators is absurd.

We can see from this list of the linguistic exponents of positive politeness that they correspond closely to the characteristics Guiraud noted as being present in French colloquial vocabulary and which he attributed essentially to lower-class speakers. As we saw in Clermont-Ferrand, the "working classes" are not the only ones who use colloquial vocabulary. Upper class speakers commonly use in their own informal style linguistic forms which they attribute to lower social groups. Slang is a common resource available to all speakers. Register (or speech situation) is a much more basic determinant of their use than the dialect (social origins) of the speaker (see Finnegan and Biber 1994).

5 Conclusion

In this paper I have tried to show that colloquial vocabulary in French deserves a fuller investigation than that offered by traditional approaches. These tend to be prescriptive and taxonomic rather than descriptive and explanatory. They tend also to see variation in the lexicon as reflecting primarily divisions of social class, ascribing in a rather crude way high-value items to the upper classes and low-value, vernacular ones to the uncultivated masses.

I went on to show that the methods of Labovian sociolinguistics can reveal certain interesting correlations between use of colloquial vocabulary and speaker variables like age and sex, and, up to a point, social class. It emerged that speech situation (register) is probably a more basic determinant of vernacular use than the social origins of the speaker (dialect).

Labovian sociolinguistics cannot provide all the answers, however. It is in fact of very little help when it comes to understanding the social function of this part of the lexicon. For this we have to look beyond Labovian sociolinguistics to pragmatics. Here I believe politeness theory has real help to offer, for colloquial vocabulary seems to play a central role in positive politeness strategies.

There is, however, a twist in the tail in this demolition of traditional approaches to slang: it is clear, when we look at Labov's graphs, that the association of vernacular speech forms with less educated speakers is by no means gratuitous. It was B. Bernstein in the 1970s who probed deeply into the relationship between language and social class, particularly in the sphere of education. Bernstein (1974) drew a distinction between "elaborated" and "restricted" codes, the former being explicit and universalistic use of language, the latter being implicit and context-bound. He argued that by their lifestyle and social network patterns, middle class speakers have greater access to elaborated code than working class speakers who remain ore or less limited to restricted code. Bernstein's "Language Deficit Hypothesis" maintained that differential access to elaborated code helps explain the lower achievement of working-class children in schools. Since schooling is conducted primarily in elaborated code, middle-class pupils by their home background have an unbeatable start in the education race from the very beginning.

It seems to me that Bernstein's distinction between elaborated and restricted codes is somewhat analogous to Brown and Levinson's theory of politeness: the distinction can be assigned to negative-politeness versus positive-politeness preferences in linguistic expression. Moreover, Brown and Levinson suggest (1987:246) that in complex societies dominated social groups have positive politeness cultures; dominating groups have negative politeness cultures. So maybe the traditional subjective association of slang with the workers has some foundation in empirical reality after all.


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Appendix A: The WORDS

baffe pop. "gifle"
bagnoie fam./pop. "automobile"
bahut arg. des écoles "lycée"
balader fam. "se promener"
baratin pop. "discours abondant"
blague fam. "farce"
bosser pop. "travailler"
bouffer fam. "manger"
boulot fam. "travail"
bouquin fam. "livre"
bousiller fam. "endommager"
chiottes pop. "toilettes"
chouette pop. "beau"
clope pop. "cigarette"
con fam./vulg. "stupide"
costaud fam. "solide"
couillon très fam. "imbécile"
cramer pop. "brûler"
dégueulasse vulg. "dégoûtant"
dingue fam. "fou"
esquinter fam. "abimer"
flic pop. "agent de police"
foutre vulg. "faire"
frangin(e) pop. "frère / soeur"
fric pop. "argent"
fringues fam. "vêtements"
frousse pop. "peur"
(faire) gaffe pop. "attention"
godasse pop. "soulier"
gonzesse vulg. "fille"
marrant pop. "amusant"
(en avoir) marre fam. "être excédé"
mec pop. "individu quelqounque"
merdier vulg. "grand désordre"
moche fam. "laid"
nana pop. "femme, fille"
pagaie fam. "désordre"
pèze arg. "argent"
piaule pop. "chambre"
pieu pop. "lit"
pif pop. "nez"
pognon pop. "argent"
pompes pop. "chaussures"
pouffiasse vulg. "femme épaisse vulgaire"
rigolo fam. "amusant"
roupiller fam. "dormir"
tifs pop. "cheveux"
tire arg. "voiture"
toubib fam. "médecin"
trouille pop. "peur"

Appendix B: The SPEAKERS

Socio-professional categoryno. of informants
0 Agriculteurs exploitants0
1 Salariés agricoles0
2 Patrons de l'industrie et du Commerce1
3 Cadres supérieurs, professions libérales7
4 Cadres moyens12
5 Employés10
6 Ouvriers4
7 Personnel de service2
8 Autres actifs0
9 Personnes non actives34

Appendix C: The QUESTIONS

1. Usage Personnel Pensez-vous avoiur utilisé ce mot au cours des trois derniers mois?
0 1 2 3
Jamais Rarement Souvent Très Souvent
2. Niveau de Langue Imagine que vous êtes en tête à tête (dans un compartiment de chemin de fer par exemple) avec une personne que vous ne connaissez pas, mai qui est du même sexe que vous et d'à peu pres votre âge. Au cours de la conversation, vour êtes amené(e) à utiliser les mots suggerés dans la liste. Dans le cas de chaque mot dites s'il est impossible / improbable / probable / tres possible que vous utilisiez le mot de la colonne de gauche (plutôt qu'une expression comme celle qui se trouve entre guillemets et qui appartient au français "correct".
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