‘Only as good as their labour’: the forgotten roots of ‘internet slang’

Most of the terms we consider “Gen Z slang” come from Black culture, from both African American English and Ballroom Speak.

In 2021, Elon Musk’s ill-fated SNL appearance featured a sketch called ‘Gen Z Hospital’, following a script peppered with terminology such as “cap”, “finna”, “lit”, and “cancelled”. As the title of the sketch suggests, such words have trickled into mainstream consciousness under the umbrella of internet- or Gen Z-specific slang. Despite this recent conflation, these words have a rich history which predates Twitter by decades, if not centuries. Most of the terms we consider “Gen Z slang” come from Black culture, from both African American English and Ballroom Speak. Let’s explore where these words come from, how they found a home on the internet, and what taking them out of context does.

Both African American English (AAE) and Ballroom Speak are dialects of English. Although there is no hard definitional difference between dialects and languages beyond political and cultural distinctions, a good heuristic is “mutual intelligibility”: as an Australian English speaker, I can probably understand someone speaking British English, but not someone speaking Amharic. As such, the former is likely an example of someone speaking a dialect of the language I speak, and the latter is a separate language. Although English has multitudes of dialects, very few are taught or recognised in institutional contexts. 

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Rachel Elizabeth Weissler, a scholar of linguistics, psychology, and Black studies at the University of Oregon, for my podcast, Standard Deviations, which discusses “non-standard” dialects of English. Although I had heard it referred to as African American Vernacular English, Dr Weissler explained to me that many linguists prefer to drop the term “vernacular” when referring to the dialect that she studies: “the term ‘vernacular’ has a bunch of weight, and can disproportionately associate the variety with not being equal as a language.” AAE is a dialect which was born as a consequence of the transatlantic slave trade.

There are two theories as to how AAE came to be. The first is that enslaved people from Africa brought to the United States, who were forbidden from speaking their native languages, developed AAE as a means of communicating with other enslaved people from different African speech communities and the slave holders who controlled them. The other is that it arose from contact between Southerners and enslaved Africans. The dialect has continued to evolve and still exists today. Words like “finna” (meaning “about to”, coming from “fixing to”), “woke” (aware of prejudice), and “cap” (lie or exaggeration) are all instances of AAE. 

Similarly, Ballroom Speak is a dialect originated by a specific cultural group. Ballroom culture describes the underground movement of LGBT+ Black and Latinx New Yorkers which emerged in the late 1920s, replete with artistic and social traditions. Ballroom culture functioned not only as a social network to connect those interested in participation, but as a (sometimes literal) safe space for queer PoC to escape rampant racism and homophobia, dress and act in a way that affirmed their gender, and find peace. Alongside artforms like voguing, Ballroom culture originated a dialect which was unique to its participants. Words like “yas” (yes), “mother” (describing an older, sometimes legendary figure within the community), and “slay” (to “kill it”, or succeed emphatically) all derive from Ballroom Speak. 

These dialects emerged for several reasons. The most obvious is that when discrete speech communities are brought into contact, and when speakers in this new context are not concerned with adherence to a prescriptive set of rules, linguistic innovation is inevitable. Enslaved people needed a way to communicate with each other and the white slave holders they came into contact with. Without access to education in standard American English, the emergent dialect, a combination of English vocabulary and grammar from West African languages like Yoruba, reflects the context in which its speakers were situated. —

Fluency in standard English is often used as a tool of exclusion, as a proxy for denying people barred from education or otherwise deemed “undesirable” from opportunities such as jobs. Sociolinguist William Labov refers to this as “overt prestige”. In contrast, though, non-standard dialects such as AAE are often awarded “covert prestige” by the communities they originate from. Speaking AAE or Ballroom Speak fluently is a marker of status in a community, a way of connecting with others from that community, and a rejection of imposed definitions of prestige. 

This signalling of group membership goes deeper than just claiming prestige; a language that is exclusive to your community is a meaningful and significant tool. The term “cancelled” also originates from AAE, referring to individuals or businesses who were deemed hostile towards Black people. This label was an important mechanism of self-preservation: knowing to avoid individuals who had been “cancelled” could be the difference between avoiding severe prejudice and not. Similarly, having a dialect specific to queer people was a survival mechanism for the Ballroom community and other underground LGBT+ movements in times when laws and society were hostile to queer folk. Being able to connect with others like you by testing how familiar they were with your secret vocabulary set was less risky than outing yourself to a stranger. Across the globe, a similar dialect called Polari was incepted by queer British people as a coded way of communicating in spite of the UK’s stringent anti-gay legislation. Speaking a non-standard dialect is not just a quirk of participation in a minority community — it is a lifeline.

Of course, the features of these dialects have not remained the exclusive domains of the members of the communities who speak them. As I flagged earlier, much of what might be labelled “Gen Z speak” by an internet user is derived from AAE or Ballroom Speak. This is not a recent phenomenon. “It’s not new that African-American English is appropriated,” Dr Weissler explains. “We’ve seen it in historical films and things like [that]… it’s just more public now with social media.” This appropriation, she explains, is a repeat of colonialist history. 

“If we think back to slavery, why were Black people brought [to America]? They were brought to have their labor be used… and so from that moment, Black people have been used for what they can do.” 

The product of Black culture and labour is too often stripped of its context and used for clout by white people. Dances like twerking and music genres like rap and R&B are examples of Black cultural products which have been appropriated and used for personal gain by white people such as Miley Cyrus and Elvis Presley. “[Appropriation of AAE] falls under that same umbrella of, we take their language, we take their style, we take their hairstyles, we take their labor, we take advantage of the fact that they don’t have generational wealth or knowledge,” Dr Weissler explains. 

Why is it the case that AAE and Ballroom Speak have been so readily appropriated as “internet slang”? I can think of three potential reasons. The first is that the dialects have universal appeal and utility, which compels users on the internet to use them irrespective of their connection to the speech communities who originate them. In the same way that a white person might just like the sound of rap music, words like “slay” and “cap” might just be especially relevant to things that non-Black people on the internet want to express. 

The second is that, with the increasing democratisation and accessibility of the internet and social media, more queer people and BIPOC are able to have their voices broadcast to larger audiences than was previously possible with a traditional model of media. Pre-social media, the few people who had the power to publish their opinions were likely from a racial majority, and, even if they weren’t, were likely forced to conform to “standard” dialectal features in their writing style to meet the demands of their publisher. With the advent of sites like Twitter, it is easier than ever to share your thoughts irrespective of your cultural or linguistic background, with very little, if any, pressure to speak in a “standardised” way. It is also relevant that, despite being far from perfect, social attitudes towards LGBT+ people have progressed greatly since the inception of Ballroom culture, mitigating the need for an encrypted dialect. Perhaps, there are just more Black and queer BIPoC on the internet than have previously been in the public consciousness.

Finally, though, it is possible that white people just like cherry-picking parts of minority cultures which we see as “cool”. It is impossible to ascribe the cultural weight of a word like “mother” to it when it is read in a vacuum by someone from outside the community. It is inconceivable to many white people that a word like “cancelled” could be a safeguard against the most abhorrent kinds of racism, and not just a flippantly-applied adjective. This is the same mentality that views twerking as simply a lewd dance move, cornrows as a cool hairstyle, or rap just as someone singing quickly. When viewed through a white lens, there is no reason these dialects or cultural features should not be appropriated. It is easy to underestimate the value of cultural exclusivity when you have never had to fight for your culture’s right to exist. 

This raises a complicated question: is it okay for white people on Twitter to say “slay”? Is linguistic appropriation inherently harmful? I posed this question to Dr Weissler. 

“Language varies and changes all the time, and, as globalisation continues, we will use different aspects of language from different cultures – this is one of the greatest benefits of diversity – allowing us to learn from one another.

“The key issue here is when appropriation happens and credit is not given where it is due…  the impact can be dire. Erasure of the language origins can be tied to erasure of the innovation that comes from the Black community. It’s important to educate ourselves about language origins, and understand what we’re saying and where our words come from.” 

It is, of course, hard to cite the origins of words as we use them. While knowledge that words like “cancelled” come from AAE is important, that does not mean that non-Black people shouldn’t use them, just that they should use them consciously. A bigger issue, in my opinion, is the use of language appropriated from AAE or Ballroom Speak as a marketing gimmick to generate profit for companies or public figures like Ben Shapiro. We ought to be critical of the ways that corporations ingratiate themselves into young or progressive communities, especially when they bastardise  rich cultural properties. 

“Appropriation and erasure can leave black people feeling alone, mistreated, worthless… only as good as their labor,” Dr Weissler explains. Black people and the Ballroom community have contributed a truly astonishing amount to popular culture and language today. We owe a lot to speakers past who would never have dreamed of words like “slay” and “finna” being widely used and celebrated. It’s time we acknowledge this rich etymology.

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