Jargons and Argots and Cants, Oh My!

The world of linguistics is replete with any number of synonyms for the word language. Some of these mean exactly the same thing; others carry shades of semantic difference or have multiple senses. All this serves to create a rather confusing situation for the layman who happens to wander into the middle of a conversation about language.

What is the difference between a language and a dialect? What about pidgins and creoles? How does a jargon differ from a cant? In this article we’ll try to decipher these terms and indicate how and when they should be used to maximize clarity and reduce misunderstanding.

The most basic term for a mode of speech is dialect. The word comes to us, via French and Latin, from the Greek word dialektos, meaning discourse, conversation, and manner of speech. This latter sense is the primary one in English. A dialect is a manner of speech that is shared by or peculiar to a group of people. The term, especially in its adjectival form, is often used to denote the speech of a particular region. Dialects are distinguished from one another by vocabulary, structure (grammar and syntax), and phonetics and pronunciation.

A synonym for dialect is language, a word from the French and ultimately from the Latin lingua, or tongue. (And in English, the word tongue (from the Old English tunge) is another synonym for dialect.) To a linguist, the term language has no precise meaning, being simply another word for dialect.

In popular usage, however, the word language is often taken to mean a family of genetically related dialects, a superset of dialects that has particular significance. Any significance to this sense of the term is political and social, not linguistic. Linguists are fond of saying that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Such distinctions give rise to terms like “the American language,” when American speech is really a group of dialects within the English “family” of dialects, and cause us to distinguish between Danish and Norwegian, which are mutually intelligible, and not between Mandarin and Cantonese, which are not.

(A word on the use of genetically above. Linguists use the term genetic to describe languages that are historically related to one another. English and German are “genetically” related. English and Latin are too, but more distantly and weakly. English and Japanese are not genetically related. This linguistic usage shares a metaphor with biological genetics, but there is no other connection. There is no evidence that a person is biologically predisposed to speak one dialect over another. Your dialect is entirely a product of your environment and upbringing.)

One type of dialect is a contact language. This is a simplified dialect, with limited vocabulary and simple grammar and syntax, used where there is no common dialect. Contact languages tend to be found in ports and trading posts and on plantations or in factories where large numbers of immigrant laborers are found.

One more specific type of contact language is a pidgin (from a Chinese corruption of the English word business). A pidgin is a contact language that draws from two or more other dialects.

The pidgin that is probably most familiar to modern, Western audiences, thanks to the Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion, Tonto, is that used by Native Americans in the 19th century American West. “Good Indian me. Heap good Indian, hunt buffalo and deer,” this sample of Native American pidgin, which sounds like it comes from a bad Hollywood screenwriter, is actually a quote from an Ogalalla Sioux chief. Native Americans did speak like this, not to other members of their tribe, but to white men and to other Indian tribes. The pidgin used throughout the American West was a blend of English and French, with some Spanish and Native American words thrown in. It had a very simple grammar (e.g., most verbs took an –um ending, as in “paddlum canoe”).

Pidgins should not be confused with Melanesian Pidgin English, a language family consisting of three major dialects: Tok Pisin, spoken in Papua New Guinea; Pijin, spoken in the Solomon Islands; and Bislama, spoken on Vanuatu. These dialects started out as a pidgin, and retain the name, but have become what is known as a creole.

A creole (via French from the Spanish, criollo, meaning native; ultimately from the Latin creare, to create) is what happens when a contact language becomes the native language of a group of people. When a generation grows up speaking a contact language, the dialect loses its simple grammar in favor or more complex structures and its vocabulary expands exponentially. Creoles are full-blown dialects, as complex and sophisticated as any language you care to name.

Other terms thrown about in discussions of language are not dialects at all, but rather terms for specific vocabularies. One of these is slang.  Slang, a term of unknown origin, is a slippery one to define. Like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography (“I know it when I see it”) everyone knows what it is, but few can define it. Perhaps the best definition is the one used by the Historical Dictionary of American Slang: “an informal, nonstandard, nontechnical vocabulary composed chiefly of novel-sounding synonyms for standard words and phrases.” Unlike a dialect, slang consists solely of vocabulary items. It has no grammatical structures or phonetic systems unique to it. While individual slang terms and phrases might exhibit nonstandard grammar or unique pronunciation, these are not systematic and are associated with the specific terms.

Jargon is similar to slang in that it consists of vocabulary items. But unlike slang, jargon does not consist of nonstandard terms. Rather, a jargon (from the French for the warbling of birds) is the vocabulary of a profession or discipline. The term can also be used pejoratively to mean gibberish or nonsensical talk. A cant (from the Latin cantus, song) is, like a jargon, a grouping of vocabulary items, but it is more often used to refer to terms used by a particular social class. In one sense, often expressed as thieves’ cant, it refers to the language of the criminal underworld. This last is synonymous with argot, the vocabulary of a suspect class, from a French word of unknown origin.

In addition to these terms, which are probably familiar to laypeople, there are some specific linguistic jargon terms of a similar nature. The first of these is lect, a clipping from dialect. A lect is a generic term for any form of a language. It is used to avoid the connotations and multiple meanings of the term dialect. A dialect is a lect, but it is not the only kind.

An idiolect, is the form of dialect that is unique to an individual. All of us speak the language in a unique way. We’re influenced by where we grew up and where we have lived as adults. Our family probably had special terms for household items that were not common elsewhere. Our jobs contribute jargon terms to our speech. So we each speak our own idiolect. On a higher level are sociolects. These are forms of dialect associated with particular social classes. Both Cockney and the posh speech of the British aristocracy are examples of sociolects. An acrolect is the dialect of a creole that is most similar to the standard dialect of the original language. More generally, it is used to refer to the most prestigious dialect in a language family. British Received Pronunciation would be the acrolect of English. At the other end of the social scale are the basilects, the post-creole dialects that differ the greatest from the original, or the least socially prestigious dialect. Urban African-American dialect is probably the basilect of American English. In between acrolects and basilects are the mesolects.

We hope this explains some of the meanings of these linguistic terms and clears up some confusion about what they mean in various contexts.

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