Teen Talk and Linguistic Evolution
Baffled by the language of teenagers?
Posted November 1, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
As the parent of two teenagers, being a linguist did not adequately prepare me for the strange things that sometimes come out of their mouths. For example, "like" is omnipresent, "hecka" punctuates many a phrase and I have been called ‘dude’ by my son more times than Keanu Reeves in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures. But where my expertise as a linguist does come in handy is in understanding that what comes out of the mouths of teens is not linguistic revolution but instead its evolution.
When considering how we use language ourselves, we often fall back on notions of correct or incorrect speech, or simply notice dialects, like British or Australian, that sound different than our own. But we also all adopt a linguistic style, and it is this style that really carries the message of who we are and responds to the social pressures we encounter as we go about our lives.
Whether we are male or female, black or white, band or jock, hipster or nerd, our identities are referenced and reinforced by the linguistic choices we make.
And it is in this space between social identity and group solidarity that the mix of language and the young becomes the most powerful. It is in our teenage years where our linguistic preferences and patterns get set, and where the new forms of language that will eventually become the norms for the wider community are born.
Why? Because adolescence is an intense period of identity formation, and it is less constrained by economic and employment pressure compared to adult speech. Instead, we are exposed to a much more diverse range of linguistic input in contrast to adulthood where we spend most of our time with others who are most like ourselves.
In middle and high school, we are attracted to those who stand out as trendy and cool or edgy and non-conformist. All of these social types come with socio-stylistic markers in dress, music, activities and, crucially, language choices. And, via linguistic innovations, these linguistic trendsetters unknowingly contribute to the shape of language to come.
The Talk of Our Future
A great example of how teen talk starts becoming associated with different adolescent groups is the nerd vs. popular kid division that we all recall (and perhaps were traumatized by) in middle and high school. I’m sure we can easily come up with some of the ways this difference was marked back in our day.
In today’s middle schools, this might be the divide between those sporting Vans and hydro-flasks vs. plain old tennis shoes and no-name water bottles. In other words, certain kids that others view as cool or imitable start a trend simply by wearing or carrying something. Others pick it up because of its association with some quality or attitude that kid gives off, and voila, parents everywhere are being hit up for $40 water bottles. Sound familiar?
Language trends work much the same way, only they are less expensive and generally subtler. For instance, most of the changes in the way we pronounce our vowels, like "cul" for "cool" and "thot" for "that," start in the mouths of youngsters, and then gradually become larger community norms as those teens grow up.
When we look at studies that track sound changes like the voluminous Phonological Atlas of North American English we see that young speakers are leading the charge in most of the shifts affecting our vowel pronunciation this century. Though we might not realize it, these vowel shifts have been in process for decades, meaning we too played a role in this language change when we were teenagers. Just think of the fronted vowel sound in "duuuude" — that’s a shift an earlier generation set in motion. Today’s teens are just continuing our trend.
Another good example? The use of "like" to punctuate our sentences and draw attention to certain aspects of what we are trying to say. You, like, know what I mean? Again "like," known in linguistic terms as a discourse marker, started among adolescent speakers. Though it gets a bad rap, it’s very useful as a linguistic focuser, a marker that signposts the important part of what someone’s trying to say, or as a linguistic approximator that hedges how certain we are about something, aka “It was like 5 or 6 bucks.”
When we look at how these markers catch on, we see not only do they do linguistic work, but also stylistic work — characterizing those who use them as younger and trendy. And linguistic research shows that "like" is much more popular in teen talk, but, as these teens age up, "like" ages up with them, becoming a feature we find often in speakers under 35, though tempered perhaps in degree of use.
New Dogs, New Tricks
Why are young brains so accommodating to new tricks while older speakers stay much the same? Brain plasticity, for one. We widely recognize that developing brains are different from adult brains in many facets of learning and decision making, and language is no different. Less lateralization and more active implicit language learning processes are certainly partly at work in childhood.
But peer-group awareness and the formation of socio-stylistic associations in this age group are also at a peak. In other words, peer pressure ushers in linguistic change.
The vast majority of sociolinguistic research on acquiring new language features shows that kids readily pick up new forms whereas adults show linguistic stabilization, i.e. stick with the same old same old. This shift in children’s speech occurring during adolescence is known as vernacular reorganization, and describes the process of moving from a parent’s system to that more like one’s peers. This is why, for instance, children born to non-native speakers don’t inherit the accent of their parents.
In her book Jocks and Burnouts: Social Categories and Identity in High Schools, sociolinguist Penny Eckert traced how vowel choices varied with teen’s social category affiliation. She found that as kids move from early childhood to teen years, they become increasingly aligned with school-based social categories and aware of the social value of language. As a result, they are attracted to language forms that separate them from parental identity and help them develop a specific youth style.
As the byproduct of all this intense identity work, we are treated to teen slang and weird sayings like the Visco girl’s “And I — oop” or a dude’s "bra," referring not to lingerie but the modern take on "bro." But we are also treated to new forms like changes in how vowels are pronounced and the shift to using "have to" instead of "must" that will end up defining the speech of the next generation. How often do you say "must" anymore?
Still Slang Stressed?
Of course, such teen talk can often be disconcerting to parents who worry that the youth markers their kids use will hinder their opportunities in life. But much of this stems from our tendency toward "recentism" or the idea that somehow what is happening today is substantively different than what has happened in the past.
And rest assured, teens have always given their parents a linguistic run for their money — i.e. there was a time when using "quite" before adjectives was considered vulgar — and we seem to have survived just fine. Teen’s slang is usually just age-graded use, meaning it will fall by the wayside as they enter the larger world. And the subtler language changes they bring? Well, you just happen to have a front-row seat to hearing the speech of our future.
So relax. The nature of teen talk today is fundamentally no different than the teen talk of yore. Did 17th Century parents get tense when they heard their teens using the pronoun you instead of thou? Absolutely. But where’s thou now?
Eckert, Penelope. 1989. Jocks and Burnouts: Social Identity in the High School. New York: Teachers College Press.
Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg 2006. Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Tagliamonte, Sali. 2005. “So who? Like how? Just what? Discourse Markers in the Conversations of Young Canadians.” Journal of Pragmatics 37: 1896-1915.