"Hypersynonymy" in MLE?

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Robert Booth, "'Ching, wap, ox': slang interpreters decipher texts for court evidence", The Guardian 3/29/2019:

Do you know your “tum-tum” from your “ching” and your “corn” from your “gwop” (gun, knife, ammunition and money)? Neither do police and prosecutors, who have begun consulting a linguistics professor to help decipher urban slang and drill lyrics used as evidence in criminal investigations.

The complexity of inner-city dialects and the growing use of texts and social media posts in court evidence has forced detectives and lawyers in London, the West Midlands and Essex to seek translations, according to Tony Thorne, an academic at King’s College London, who has been studying youth slang since 1990. […]

The dialect has become known among academics as multi-ethnic London English (MLE), though is not limited to the capital. Last autumn, an image circulated of a glossary of “youth language” on a whiteboard in a Lancashire police station including “peng = attractive, feds = police, swear down = tell the truth”.

Of course they eventually get to the Eskimos and their quasi-mythical words for snow:

MLE mixes white working-class English with patois, largely from black Caribbean dialect, but with some Arabic and Polish. It is rich in status words (badmanz – tough male, bozz – leader, wallad – foolish male) and relationship words (darg – attractive male, game – flirtatious, begfriend – sycophant, fam – group).

The most obscure words tend to be about weapons and drugs. Stab can be plug, ching, bore, dip, kweng, splash. Gun has even more options: burner, wap, hand ting, iron, leng, mash, mac, mop, scram, skeng, spinner, stick, trey, tum-tum and wap. Words for knife include skeng, ox, Rambo, ramsey, shank and sword.

“It shows that, tragically, weapons are a really important symbolic part of their identity,” said Thorne. It also shows how MLE acts as a “cryptolect” – a language meant to hide things. It is also an example of “hypersynonymy” similar to how Eskimos have many words for different types of snow, Thorne said.

John Walden Jones, who sent in the link, notes in defense of Tony Thorne that "it's perfectly possible, in the high tradition of British journalism, that he didn't say it at all."

Snowcloning aside, there's an unasked but serious question here.

Obviously people tend to have words for things that members of their community often want to talk about, like the Somali words for camel spit. But when they create a profusion of different lexical items in a certain semantic domain, we often find that the different terms name relevant variants and subvariants, like the 46 Somali words for types of camel:

aaran "young camels who are no longer sucklings"
abeer or ameer "female camel that has not given birth"
afkuxuuble "miscarried camel fetus"
awr "male pack camel"
ramag or ramad "she camel who has recently given birth"
sidig "one of two female camels suckling the same infant"
tulud "one's one and only camel"
xagjir "milk-producing camel that is partially milked (two udders for human consumption; two for its calf)"

We could call that sensible idea "lexico-functionalism", and it underlies Benjamin Lee Whorf's original (misleading) idea about the Eskimos:

We have the same word for falling snow, snow on the ground, snow packed hard like ice, slushy snow, wind-driven flying snow — whatever the situation may be. To an Eskimo, this all-inclusive word would be almost unthinkable; he would say that falling snow, slushy snow, and so on, are sensuously and operationally different, different things to contend with; he uses different words for them and for other kinds of snow.

But there's no indication in the article that  MLE has innovated words for weapons in order to differentiate handguns by caliber or feed mechanism or magazine size, or to indicate whether a knife is single-edged, double-edged, serrated, folding, etc. And more-or-less-standard English already has thousands of finely-differentiated words and lexicalized phrases in this domain. So why the proliferation of new weapon-words in MLE?

The article gives three reasons:

  • sheer memetic enthusiasm for the topic ("weapons are a really important symbolic part of their identity");
  • desire to hide meaning from outsiders ("MLE acts as a 'cryptolect' – a language meant to hide things");
  • lexico-functionalism ("similar to how Eskimos have many words for different types of snow").

But the lexico-functionalism idea is apparently false, since the various MLE weapon-words apparently don't differentiate their referents even as much as standard English weapon-words do.

[Update — although Tony Thorne is quoted as saying that "'hypersynonymy' [is] similar to how Eskimos have many words for different types of snow", this was apparently a misunderstanding on the part of the journalist, since in his own writing (e.g. "Dinter, bitz, and gwop: The wacky linguistics of British slang in 2016", Quartz 2016), Thorne writes

A feature noted by some linguists is “hypersynonymy” whereby many competing coinages express the same notion. This can be seen in the dozens of words for good and bad and multiple synonyms for drunk or drugged (used by older students as well as school kids) such as carnaged, wazzed, hammered, hamstered; and for exhausted: wreckaged, bonked, spanked, and clappin’.

So hypersynonymy apparently does NOT refer to things like the Eskimos' alleged many words for different types of snow, but rather to things like young people's many words for the unitary concept of being drunk.]

And the hiding-things motivation wouldn't explain why MLE also has innovated large numbers of words for things that are not illegal or even socially deprecated. (The linguistic dynamics of social inclusion and exclusion are only accidentally connected to baffling police and prosecutors, although the article frames MLE's numerous weapon-words in that context.)

So we're basically left with memetic enthusiasm and cultural identify formation, combined with a fluid multi-origin meme pool. That's clearly an important driver of lexical evolution in general. And the question is, why doesn't it have an evocative archetype like the "Eskimo words for snow" complex?

Or does it?



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    What are "drill lyrics", may I ask ?

  2. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 9:29 am

    I'm semi-relevantly reminded of the fact that Early Modern English had many more words for polearms than there seem to have been meaningfully different types of weapons around.

  3. monscampus said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 9:58 am

    @Philip Taylor


  4. Elizabeth Zwicky said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 12:10 pm

    I’m not sure why you think you know the terms don’t differentiate. Would the journalist have bothered to tell you that one term means your own gun and another means a shared gun and another means one with no previous crimes linked to it?

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 12:49 pm

    The numerous-synonyms-for-weapon phenomenon strikes me as more similar to the oft-observed fact that many languages (like English) will have dozens to hundreds of different slangish synonyms for notions like "get or be intoxicated" or "copulate with," that generally to not differ from each other by making fine distinctions the way different-words-for-types-of-snow-or-camel-spit are alleged to. Is memetic-enthusiasm the only standard explanation for phenomena like lots-of-different-ways-to-say-drunk?

  6. Ross Presser said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 2:13 pm

    Andreas Johannson, was that by any chance a Nethack reference? Or possibly D&D?

  7. Hindivibhag said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 7:45 am

    Agree with Elizabeth Zwicky , I also want answer.

  8. maidhc said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 4:10 pm

    British street slang has a long and well-documented history. A lot of it existed to keep outsiders from understanding, but there is also a celebration of verbal dexterity in things like backslang and rhyming slang. In the past words were adopted from Romani, Yiddish and Hindi. Now the source languages have changed, reflecting changes in the makeup of British society.

  9. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 1:10 am

    Ross Presser wrote:
    Andreas Johannson, was that by any chance a Nethack reference? Or possibly D&D?

    No, it was a remark on a perhaps similar situation in older English.

    That said, D&D's lengthy list of polearms arises from the assumption that each term must refer to a single distinct weapon. The actuality seems to have been an unsystematic mess of homo-, hypo- and hypernyms.

    (Of NetHack I'm just about entirely ignorant.)

  10. maidhc said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 2:26 am

    Let me second Andreas Johansson's comment by mentioning that as far as medieval musical instruments are concerned, here are a large number of terms recorded. There are also a number of examples (both actual instruments and artistic depictions) that both resemble each other and display various differences, and it is not at all clear whether the various names represent different instruments or are just regional variants of a generic name.

  11. jaap said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 8:58 am

    I notice that skeng is listed as meaning both a knife and a gun.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 2:28 pm

    In addition to West Indian creoles, Polish, and Arabic, one of the sources is apparently fairly mainstream AmEng slang, i.e. "feds" for "law enforcement personnel." Admittedly, the etymology of that slang clipping may be much less transparent for BrEng speakers than AmEng speakers, but it has no doubt made its way into the UK through American movies and tv shoes etc.

    Separately, I'm imagining someone who worked through a stack of old U.S. pulp "hard-boiled" detective novels could probably compile a pretty impressively long list of slang terms for different sorts of weapon.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 11:46 pm

    Beyond "fed," hypersynonymy for the referent "policeman" is not a particularly new thing as can be seen from the listing at https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Thesaurus:police_officer which includes lots of opaque-to-Americans BrEng slang terms that likely predate the rise of MLE: Rozzer! Cobbler! Dibble! Wooden-top! etc etc.

  14. Rodger C said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 7:13 am

    "Rozzer" I know only from the sentence "It's crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide," which Mad magazine used to slip into its text occasionally, lo, half a century or more ago. They finally explained it as a bit of Brit criminal argot that one of the editors had read somewhere.

  15. Andrew Usher said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 7:17 pm

    It occurs to me that 'hypersynonymy' can only occur to a limited extent (excluding dialectal difference) because it would only be understandable in cases where the thing or concept referred to is already known from context, and there are only a small number of such in those, which are in fact where the phenomenon is found.

    For example, words for sexual activity: the few sentences leading up to a mention of the same are likely to already put the listener's mind into such a frame as to know what may be next, and therefore you can make up a new synonym of 'f***' (even a completely random word, really) and still be understood. And for exactly the same reason it's hard to support any semantic differentiation between such terms.

    The exact opposite is found among non-generic technical terms: they are used precisely when it is not clear from context and needs to be made explicit, and so the listener can rightly infer that any unexpected word refers do an unexpected thing, and ask without embarrassment what it is.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

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