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[Assignment / LIU1]

„Buffy is able to survive longer than other slayers because she is embedded in language and because she embodies language. It is a very particular language with its own vernacular, but it behaves like all languages in that it creates, it compiles, it translates, it follows well-defined rules, it draws on shared knowledge, and it must be wielded with precision in order to be effective … Any slayer can brandish a weapon, but for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the tongue is as pointed as the stake.”

– Karen Eileen Overbey and Lahney Preston-Matto, “Staking in Tongues: Speech Act as Weapon in Buffy”

As this is meant to be a rather personal opinionated piece and not some sort of highbrow argumentative essay, strictly in academic style and register, let us for a moment assume that the potential reader is no member of a carefully selected academic audience. Or if she/he happens to be: Let us assume that the ivory tower has television. What’s more: It has cable. And its inhabitants – at least for the sake of this argument – are known to watch and enjoy an American TV series called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (henceforth BTVS), created by the versatile screen-writer Joss Whedon in the late 1990s.

Therefore there is no need to explain either the history, or the plot of the series. I would rather like to embark on a more adventurous journey, exploring the use of language that lies at the core of BTVS.

Language plays a vital role in BTVS because the series focuses on a group of adolescents struggling for their distinctive identities. Any teenager uses slang to separate himself/herself from the establishment, from their parents’ or teacher’s world that doesn’t seem to offer what they are looking for. Slag is, as James Slegg argued, a somewhat disruptive force. It is used by people who lack (or are denied) conventional status and it “serves the outs as a weapon against the ins. To use slang is to deny allegiance to the existing order, either jokingly or in earnest, by refusing even the words which represent convention and signal status.” (Slegg)

If this is true for any teenager who uses slang to create identity and to state cultural opposition, it is even more the case in the so-called Buffyverse, the world inhabited by Buffy and her friends. For Buffy not merely faces the burdens of being a teenager. She also has to cope with a mythic prophecy that marks her as “the chosen one”, the only girl that can protect our world from some nocturnal forces of evil, bent on either total destruction or at least world dominance (depending on the respective season of the series…)

Buffy is a reluctant heroine. Saving the world interferes with her cheerleading career and social life. Her role as a vampire slayer robs her of her adolescence. And even though she comes to hesitantly accept this, she is not giving up her ordinary life without a fight; her most powerful weapon being language. Buffy is a rapid-fire quipster who knows the language of her time and place. In his acclaimed book “Slayer Slang” Michael Adams denotes: “Buffy needs slang, as means of shrugging off millennial expectations, as a weapon, and as an expression of personality officially denied her by her role: in a sense she IS slang, as are those who associate with her.”

Therefore it does not come as a surprise that in order to carve out her very own niche Buffy has introduced new slang terms and phrases in nearly every episode, many of them formed in rather unusual ways. Most of them will probably prove to be ephemeral but some of these Buffy-isms have already found their way into everyday American teen speech. For teenagers dissatisfied with the language they inherit have always been free to invent a language that carries relevance and meaning beyond those pesky words their parents use.

In being most creative with idioms, cultural references [1] , pre[2] – and suffixation[3] , and functional shifts of items [4][5] , BTVS provides not only a lexicon of words but also a handy toolbox for its adolescent audiences, a “Do-it-yourself” language kit that has been embraced and put to most creative use in various newsgroups and posting boards on the internet.

For slang not merely separates the outs from the mainstream. It also serves as social grease, providing cohesion within the outs’ language community. In doing so it marks a language user as part of a specific group while simultaneously marking the user’s individual style or approach to language within this group.

Personally, I urge anyone who ever was interested in these mechanisms provided by language to get his/her hands on the DVD-collection of BTVS. Granted, we are confronted with fictional characters who, of course, cannot speak their own languages. They exhibit verbal styles that originate in the verbal style of the show’s writers, i.e. Joss Whedon and his creative team. Still what can be witnesses in every episode are distinctively individual and original patterns of speak, each relating to a specific character, but still belonging to a common speech community with rather fixed rules; with all those contributions of individual speakers marking variations on a given theme.

If one manages to get over the initial “Oh it’s about werewolves, demons and vampires”-shock, one is rewarded with a rich landscape of language; more imaginative than I have seen anywhere else on American television.


[1] „Does anyone feel like we’ve been Keyser Sozed?“ remarks Buffy’s sidekick Xander in one of the earlier episodes.
[2] „übersuck“, „unfun“, „untopicy“, „pre-here“
[3] „everydayness“, „glib-free“, „nowness“, “double-shiftiness”, “sticking-upness”, as well as suffixes phrases like “stiff upper-lippy”
[4] e.g. SIMPLE PRESENT VERB + „much“ + INTERROGATIVE: „Walk much?“, “Over-identify much?”
[5] „Sitch me!“ (= “Bring me up to date on the current situation”) ->  originates from „What’s the sitch?“

Futher reading (and all-time favourite source): „Slayer Slang“ by Michael Adams

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