Slang and Grice’s Cooperative Principle

In “Logic and Conversation”, H. P. Grice outlines the unspoken but fixed rules of conversation that not only explain the workings of ordinary language, but account for implicature.

In a paper written only three years later in 1978, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”, Bethany K. Dumas and Jonathan Lighter develop a set of criterion for distinguishing slang from other language, through analysis of historical definitions and attitudes and description of its characteristics. In the contemporary F**k, A Documentary, Steve Anderson presents a more informal exposition of a particularly controversial yet ubiquitous slang word, interviewing a host of linguists, politicians, social critics, and entertainers on issues surrounding the use, abuse, and censorship of the term. These interviewees contribute a variety of insights into the nature of slang and its influence on language generally as well as on social thought and attitudes. In this paper, I explain how Grice’s rules of conversation, besides accounting for implicature, also provide an excellent explanation of the mechanism by which slang originates, develops, and conveys meaning.

Question: if sentences and terms refer to things in the world and/or express thoughts, how is it that so many utterances actually convey meaning without using apparently appropriate or specific terminology?

In his paper, Grice considers this phenomenon of pragmatics, or language behavior. He explains that implicature, the ability of a statement to convey meaning without including literal or explicit terms, is possible because acts of language are governed by rules and maxims. The Cooperative Principle (1) contains four rules: quantity, quality, relation, and manner. Each rule, in turn, contains one or more maxims, or principles of linguistic etiquette. Grice proceeds to explain how exploiting these rules and maxims enables a speaker to implicate what they want to say without expressing it literally. Implication serves countless linguistic functions: irony, the discreet sharing of gossip, insult, raising doubts, avoiding or expressing rudeness, social and political critique, proclaiming membership in a social group, artistic expression, etc. Implication is so integral to conversation, so effective for conveying meaning while tailoring the needs of expression to the context of a given situation, that Grice argues that a philosophic theory of language is incomplete without an explanation of it.(2)

Dumas and Lighter are concerned with formalizing a set of criteria for determining what constitutes slang. Prior to their paper, ‘slang’ was a variously defined, often maligned, and poorly understood category of language.(3) The paper opens with a series of descriptions and characterizations of slang over time by linguists, academics, and authors, many of whom dismiss slang as, at best, an unfortunate habit engaged in by the uneducated, lazy, and the thoughtless, or at worst, a corrosive force on language and morals. A few of these figures, however, are much more impartial in their assessment, characterizing slang as a side product of social change or simply a sort of code; a few (Walt Whitman, for example) even approve of its use. Dumas and Lighter demonstrate an attitude of professional detachment in their exploration of slang, considering their paper a much-needed contribution to this academically neglected subject; they recognize, contrary to the dismissive commentary of their peers, that slang is an important area of pragmatics. Like Grice, they narrow their criteria of what constitutes slang language to four: it lowers the dignity of formal/serious speech or writing; it implies a special familiarity between speaker and hearer or speaker and referent; it’s taboo in higher-status social circles; and it’s a euphemism to protect the user from social discomfort or the necessity of elaboration.(4)

Anderson’s documentary, unlike the scholarly works summarized above, is an informal and irreverent romp aimed at a mainstream audience, yet it provides informative insights into the usage and functions of slang.(5) It’s an exploration into a specific slang term, ‘fuck’, widely considered offensive and confrontational by society generally. Yet, it’s a subtle term as well, capable of conveying very complex meanings in various shades, and often considered especially useful for ‘expressing the inexpressible’. (Comedian Billy Connolly provides a particularly charming example of this: “…’fuck off!’…is international; I don’t care where you are…if someone’s fucking with your bags…in Tibet…and you say…’fuck off!’ …he knows exactly what you mean…and off he will fuck!”) Some of the interviewees in this documentary enjoy using this word, some consider it obscene and find hearing or using it offensive, and some are uncomfortable with it, but consider right to free speech so democratically essential that they oppose any sort of coercive censorship of its use. Many of the interviewees (even some of those who disapprove of it generally) acknowledge that ‘fuck’ and other slang/obscene terms have historical significance for challenging and testing social norms and institutions, and many entertainers, authors, academics, and reporters consider this category of language as an important element in artistic and political expression. The academics interviewed in the film, such as Geoffrey Nunberg and Reinhold Aman (the latter humorously billed as ‘a cunning linguist’) discuss why ‘fuck’ is an interesting word strictly linguistically as well, including for its venerable pedigree and for its variety of forms.

Dumas and Lighter’s quote from James Sledd: “the most crucial feature of slang: it is used deliberately, in jest or in earnest, to flout a conventional social or semantic norm”(6) neatly dovetails Grice’s characterization of the way implicature likewise works, by flouting or exploiting conventions of use. Between the the two, Dumas and Lighter’s paper and Anderson’s documentary contain at least one specific discussion or pragmatic example for each rule and maxim of Grice’s Cooperative Principle; and I’ll present and explore these examples following Grice’s arrangement.

The first Cooperative Principle is Quantity, containing two maxims; the first is “Make your contribution as informative as required”. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang terms can abbreviate a large amount of information (7) (as demonstrated previously by Billy Connolly), especially between the speaker and an ‘insider’ audience, a subgroup who uses terms familiar to the speaker. So, using any of these terms exploits this maxim by violating it when speaking within the wider community, since using this term either conveys no information, or is ambiguous meaning in meaning, in this context. However, the maxim is not violated if such a term is used within the subgroup. The mirror maxim, “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required”, is exploited in one way by the element of connotation essential for slang, another method of using a term or expression to informally convey an additional amount of information not gleanable from the general term or expression itself. (8) For example, this information can include contextual information about the speaker, approval or disapproval of the content of the discourse, or compliments or insults directed at the audience.

Quality, the second Cooperative Principle, also contains two maxims. “Do not say what you believe to be false” is exploited when a speaker intentionally breaks with conversational convention by using a term that would not be true or accurate if understood according to its usual definition. (9) The following sentence is an example Dumas and Lighter provide, a slang term inserted into an otherwise conventional sentence, as an instance of flouting this maxim.”The Federal government spends nearly one hundred billion bucks annually for defense.” (10) Traditionally, ‘bucks’, as the term for male deer, would understood according to that definition, and the above sentence would be false. However, ‘bucks’ as a slang term for ‘dollars’, is accurately used within this sentence, but the truth of the statement is only preserved for others familiar with the slang usage, or for those who accept the propriety of its usage. In this case, the choice of the slang usage of ‘bucks’ in place of ‘dollars’ could convey the additional meaning of disrespect for the Federal government, or of identification with the same social group as the audience, and so on. In this way, an apparent falsity actually functions as an more efficient method of conveying the additional meaning with a simple switch of terms. “Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence” is a more idealistic maxim, though I grant that most people expect the speaker to have some justification their statement, be it independently verifiable evidence or at least an accurate, relevant anecdote. However, in ordinary conversation, it’s sometimes important for a speaker to extricate themselves from a difficulty caused by the conversation itself. Perhaps the speaker is in a position to be embarrassed by their own lack of knowledge of the subject discussed. Or, perhaps the speaker is impatient with the conversation, out of lack of interest or in a state of offense at the subject matter, or has a personal dislike of the other participant(s) in the conversation. Whatever the reason, using slang, or more specifically obscenity, can “…protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration.” (11)

Relation is the sole Cooperative Principle with only one maxim: “Be relevant.” Walt Whitman, quoted by Dumas and Lighter, shares the slang speaker’s disdain for strict adherence to this maxim: “Slang, or indirection, [is] an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably….”(12) Whitman here extols the potency of slang terms, in much the same way as entertainers, artists, and free speech advocates such as Billy Connolly, Lenny Bruce, Shakespeare, and Sam Donaldson do, (13) for conveying force and shades of meaning the speaker finds unconveyable in conventional terms. These slang/obscene terms import some of this meaning precisely from the novelty, unexpectedness, or seeming irrelevance of the terms. While singer Pat Boone, for example, may advocate (sometimes humorously) elegant expressions using traditional, even terms for the more intimate functions of the human body as creative ways to express wrath, insult, or depths of passion (14), this general manner of speaking simply doesn’t convey other shades of meanings, such as disapprobation of a political body or philosophy, or declaration of membership in a subgroup, or disgust with corruption, or humorous social commentary, and so forth, that’s essential to political or artistic discourse or is more relevant to the context in which slang is used.

Grice’s final Cooperative Principle, Manner, contains four maxims. Sam Donaldson, veteran anchorman of ABC news, enjoys the term ‘fuck’ as an all-purpose word unlike most others, for its versatility as a substitute for an amazingly large number of other terms while retaining its own particular shade of meaning. (15) Yet ‘fuck’ clearly violates, on its face, the first maxim “Avoid obscurity of expression”, as it seems to rarely denote its original and specific referent, but instead any one of a numerous other things (often within in a noun phrase): as a substitute for actions such as ‘destroy’, ‘harm’, or ‘undermine’, descriptions such as ‘drunk’, ‘wrong’, or ‘in trouble’, or exclamations such as ‘that’s wonderful!’, ‘that’s awful!’, or ‘that’s amazing!’ It appears to be an obscure expression until the context is considered, making it an excellent one for interpersonal and other specific conversational usage but inexcusably ambiguous (according to the maxim) for formal discourse. With ‘fuck’, as with all slang, novelty is important (16), as is the speaker’s intention (17). What the speaker wishes to express is often something they find ordinary words insufficient for: conveying such additional meanings as mentioned earlier: biographical details, general attitudes about life or mood of the moment, or status in society or with a particular subgroup, to give a few examples. (18)

“Avoid ambiguity” is closely related to the obscurity maxim. Again, ‘fuck’ provides an excellent example of slang interpreted through Grice’s Cooperative Principle. As funnyman Billy Connolly explains, it has a guttural sound which aids its expressiveness; a “primal word” (19) that, while to Connolly is unambiguous in its general meaning, is ambiguous in reference to literal translatability: the hearer can understand the word to mean a whole variety of things, depending on the circumstances. Slang is also often used as a euphemism to allay the discomfort of the speaker in a given situation, for example, saying “I love you” can seem too formal, or serious, or connote a level of commitment to the hearer that the speaker is not prepared to make. Instead, a slang phrase such as “you’re cool” or “I dig you” conveys the meaning of some level of affection of the speaker for the hearer, but in a strategically ambiguous way.20 The speaker can later claim that the statement expressed merely friendly feelings or passionate emotion, whichever best suits the speaker at the time.
Some slang actually exploits the third maxim “Be brief” (or, “Avoid unnecessary prolixity”) by obeying it to a fault. ‘Fuck’, ‘dude’, and other slang words are often used to abbreviate longer sentences, as briefly discussed two paragraphs earlier in the “Obscurity”section. Many pop-culture favorites such as commercials, video skits, and comedy films such as “Baseketball” feature characters who conduct entire conversations mostly or even entirely composed of repetitions of a single slang term, variously inflected, to express entire statements of approbation, anger, surprise, inquiry, or command (a web browser search for videos, using the single keyword ‘dude’, will quickly provide multiple examples of this). Yet, this brevity of speech is only successful in conveying the desired meanings when the speaker and hearer belong to the same social group that uses the slang term this way. (21) The general community that conducts conversations according to the Cooperative Principle will not understand such usage. The fourth and final maxim, “Be orderly, is exploited by slang terms (rather obliquely) in their function of punctuating sentences with unconventional words so as to make them more informal, less “dignified”. (22) A more direct example of this, once again, is a particular way the word ‘fuck’ is used: this time, by inserting it in the middle of another word or phrase, interrupting its expression so as to lend it additional dynamic force, in a positive (“fan-fucking-tastic”, “abso-fuckingly-lutely”) or negative manner (“no-fucking-way” or “jeezus-fucking-christ”) (23). Besides the slang classification of such terms by the conversational community, the slang terms inserted into sentences in such a way obtains its forcefulness from the very fact that it interrupts an otherwise orderly sequence of syllables or words.

From my very first reading, I was impressed, and remain so, by Grice’s explanatively powerful, tidy, and intuitive theory for how ordinary conversation and implicature function.

As my research for this paper progressed, I was also surprised by how neatly Grice’s Cooperative Principle and Dumas and Lighter’s description of slang fit together. From Dumas and Lighter’s retelling of historical descriptions and accounts of slang, it appears that there was a poverty of theoretical work on its origins and pragmatics. It appears clear that this was due to an attitude of academic aloofness, if not outright disdain, towards this essentially populist form of expression. Yet slang provides a living laboratory for observing the dynamics of the evolution of language and the way new terms and expressions come into being, as slang originates, changes, and disappears so quickly. It’s the linguistic fruit fly for evolutionary research! And the sheer number of scholarly articles I found on the subject of slang while I was doing my research indicates that scholars of language have discovered this.

While I share the scholar’s high valuation of precision in discourse, I also value vibrancy of expression in many forms including that such as that slang provides, as Walt Whitman did, and as the contemporary comic and author Stephen Fry does: “Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be. But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright …Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.” (24)

Damn straight, Stephen Fry!

1 – Grice, H.P. “Logic and Conversation” in The Philosophy of Language, ed. A. P. Martinich, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, 173
2 – Ibid, 172
3 – Dumas, Bethany K. and Jonathan Lighter. “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?”. American Speech, Vol. 53 No. 1 (Spring 1978) pp 5-17, 10
4 – Ibid 14-15
5 – Anderson, Steve. F**k, A Documentary, 2005
6 – Dumas and Lighter, 12
7 – F**k
8 – Dumas and Lighter, 13
9 – Ibid, 13
10 – Ibid, 14
11 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
12 – Ibid, 5
13 – F**k
14 – Ibid
15 – Ibid
16 – Dumas and Lighter, 7
17 – Ibid 11-12
18 – Ibid 13-14
19 – F**k
20 – Dumas and Lighter, 15
21 – F**k
22 – Dumas and Lighter, 14
23 – F**k
24 – Fry, Stephen. “Don’t Mind Your Language” Stephenfry.com.

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