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Vocab Fundamentals

Communication in any language is based on a system. If you know the system, you have the power over ideas and imagination. You can build, change, plan, play and destroy. Language is a system of sounds and symbols. The sounds mean something when we combine them in certain ways through speaking and using letters and alphabets to write. We know what someone means and says because we use that same system. We can anticipate what they might say and we can expect things to occur because we know the language system. We can almost predict how words should be formed and how they should be arranged. When someone says: “I went to the ____ ” we think they will name a noun like a place or thing (I went to the store). If someone is making a new word and they say “Check out my ___” we know that the word is a noun e.g. “Check out my bling.”

Many things in a language are predictable if you know the language. You have achieved the highest level of knowledge when you can play with language and manipulate it.

The Elements

All languages are made up of dialects. A dialect is a variety of a language that operates within the same system with some noticeable differences. Everyone speaks a dialect of a language. Dialects differ according to region, city, neighborhood, country, etc. They also differ according to social class, history, country of origin and so on. Some people consider some dialects to be better and more proper than others. This is based on taste and prejudice and not the system of the dialect.

Hiphop knows the difference between language and dialect. It is always playing with language and these differences. It does this because it takes language very seriously. Hiphop exploits the language system by replacing it with the following system of belief:

  1. Sounds, objects and concepts embody and index memory, community and the social world.
  2. Choices of language and dialect can signify status, beliefs, values and specific speakers.
  3. All meaning is co-constructed (co-authored).

Jump to Higher Learning to get a more technical definition.

The Word

What’s in a Word?

One of the hardest things to define is a word. Why? Words are meaningful sounds we speak and represent in writing. Every word is not meaningful to everybody. If you don’t know the language, you may not know a word when you hear one. That is why we stress that a word has meaning for people who speak the same language.

When we refer to what a word means, we often call it a lexicon. When we refer to how a word sounds and how it is formed we call it a morpheme and the process is called morphology.

In hiphop, the WORD is the bible, the law and a source of worship and competition. It is the core of the hiphop nation, the power, trope, message and market all in one. Through the words that you use, we can tell where you’re from down to the block where you live. Thus, while the hiphop nation is constructed around an ideology that representations and references (signs and symbols) are indexical and create institutional practices, what the signs and symbols index remains fluid and prismatic rather than fixed.

Jump to Higher Learning to get a more technical definition.


Hiphop is concerned with play and pleasure inherent in contrasting and perfecting one’s knowledge of many aspects of linguistics. Hiphop artists constantly change word classes and meanings, resulting in a sense of chaos, movement, and urgency. The value of lexical items rises and falls for reasons that range from poor artistic and musical expression to uncritical appropriation by suburban youth.

When MCs believe that they have extraordinary linguistic ability and are connoisseurs of word formation, they often refer to it as slang. This is especially true for the manipulation of lexical and morphological norms. Bay Area MC E-40 is known for his linguistic skills and popular phrases of the early 2000s like “fa shizzle” (e.g. for sure).

Much of word play in hiphop is according to universal rules and principles of language. Hiphop stretches these rules to fit its creative needs. Below are a few examples.

Rule extension - It is natural to apply general rules to all categories.

Analogy - taking language forms that are similar in meaning, function sound, appearance, etc. and making them more similar.

Another striking aspect of hiphop language style is the regularization of verbs. For example, the verb ‘converse’ has been replaced with the verb ‘conversate’ and all it’s forms, e.g. conversate/ conversated/ conversating: “They conversating with me all the time.”

Transparency - meaning differences should be as obvious as possible. Hiphop plays with transparency in that it forces the listener to pay attention to context as it uses words and sounds that are similar.

Grammaticalization - new meanings are linked to a particular grammatical structure The process of grammaticalization has evolved in hiphop so that a word can be extended and then inverted once it has stabilized as a hiphop word. For example, the hiphop word ill, has been grammaticalized to include verbal usage “He’s illin’” and can also mean extremely positive though initially its meaning was categorically negative. Its hiphop meaning has evolved in its adjective state and it has been inverted as illustrated by Chris Rock’s excited promotion of his upcoming comedy special, “It’s gon be ill y’all!” The evolution to predicate adjective occurred with the inverted positive meaning of the word, though in many cases the focus is ambiguous. There are also forms such as illified and Illtown which refers to Orange, New Jersey.

Pronunciation - Changes occur within the following categories.

  • Articulation
    • Assimilation - neighboring sounds become more similar to one another.
      • Example: business becomes bidness because d is a closer sound to n.
    • Weakening - producing sounds that require less blockage of air.
      • Example: all right looses the l and r and becomes aight.
  • Sound Structure - The study of all sounds that humans can make is called phonology. Languages do not use every possible sound that exists. That is why it can be hard to pronounce some sounds from other languages. Sounds are organized in systems that many people are not aware of. When sounds have meaning differences in a language they are called phonemes.

Syllable Structure - Syllables can be added, moved and deleted. In addition, morphemes that are usually at the end of the word (suffix), middle (affix) and beginning (prefix) can be moved around.

Word Meaning/Semantics

Semantic extension emphasizes one aspect of a word definition and extends or changes the focus of the word’s meaning. Thus the word ‘wack’ which means unbelievably inept, inadequate and deficient is from the adjective ‘wacky’ which means absurd or irrational.

In cases of semantic inversion the word ‘down’ can have a positive meaning of support in the sentence “I want to be down with you.” It can also be used as part of a locative with low to mean secretive as in “Keep it on the down low (DL).”

For example, grammatical classes and meaning are routinely shifted so that the verb ‘fly’ also functions as an adjective in hiphop that embellishes the noun as in: “Those boots sure are fly.” and “Jennifer Lopez was one of the fly girls on the television program In Living Color.” The verb floss, “Do you want to floss with us?” has an extremely positive meaning that incorporates coolness and focuses on the attitude and intentionality of the subject. It follows the norms of non-state verbs (e.g. floss/ flossed/ flossing).

Artists also form new words by moving affixes (morphemes that are attached to words) into independent lexical items. Thus the bound prefix “dis” becomes a free form with a negative meaning similar to its use in words like disrespect, dispose, disdain, etc. It also exists as a verb that marks tense and aspect (diss/dissed/dissing).

Sounds and syllables like American working class norms, especially consonant
simplification and vowel length, are used to establish regional identities. Thus the
shortening of vowels, increase in glottal stops and the reduction of consonants
marks the East Coast. In contrast, vowel lengthening marks the West Coast. The
different use of vowels in the West and consonants in the East is related to
musical influences as well as social class allegiances. Thus the word didn’t and
ghetto are often pronounced so that you can hear the separation between
syllables and consonants to represent the East coast. In contrast, the vowels are
pronounced and the consonants hardly said at all on the West coast.

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