Kids these days, getting all over English’s lawn, just like…generations of teens before them. English is a constantly and fascinatingly evolving language, but somehow older generations seem continually surprised by this, even though they themselves participated in pushing English in new directions in their younger years. As a consequence, we get to hear a great deal of ageist claptrap about how teens and tweens are ruining everything with their txtspk and slang and nonsensical use of English and won’t someone think of the, uh, children?
Look. Here’s the thing about English, and other living languages. They’re living, as in, still in continuous use today, and one of the ways they stay in use is that they flex with the times. English has acquired (and loaned out) words to describe new concepts and ideas — it’s not like ‘tablet’ in the sense of ‘personal computing device’ has been in use for hundreds of years, but we accept and understand it today as a reflection of technological evolution. Likewise, the language we use to communicate to each other, the signifiers of culture and identify, is also under a constant state of shift, and one of the huge drivers of that is the younger set.
This is something that we should actually be quite excited about, because right here in front of us, language is actually evolving, and some of the most flexible and engaged minds are at the forefront of it. Older speakers have a tendency to slip into a very specific mindset when it comes to what English is and how it should be spoken, ignoring the fact that the language doesn’t remain static, and shouldn’t. It’s exciting to see people drawing out new words and concepts into everyday spoken English as well as more academic iterations of the language — and the continual moaning over the destruction of society as we know it is really getting quite tiresome.
A number of colleges have begun producing mindset and phrase lists for the benefit of faculty and others, and I find them really interesting. Beloit College had a great list this year for the class of 2019 — and it revealed some things about the way teens and young adults are using English that I didn’t been aware of, even as a highly active Twitter user (37 percent of Twitter users are between 18-29 so the language skews young there) and even as someone who engages with people from a variety of age ranges. I, however, am starting to evolve a social sphere of people in the late 20s to early 40s range, and we use language differently, exchange language differently.
Beloit’s list looks at two different things: Cultural touchstones, and slang. The elements of the list exploring touchstones are really fascinating, as they’re reminders that, well, time goes on. Things that seem critically important for my generation and those above us aren’t as immediate and fresh for students entering college today, most of whom were born in 1997. It’s a year that sounds ludicrously recent to me, of course, but for them, things like the Berlin Wall, the pre-widespread Internet era, dialup, and so much more are beyond their ken. (Finally, I understand the things that people older than me used to reference and how irritating it was to hear people natter on about Nixon, Harvey Milk, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
Some of the items are kind of goofy, but some of them really are more serious, and for professors seek to find a common bond with their students, they’re important — it’s useful to be reminded that this is a generation that grew up in a world that always had Google and Harry Potter. And the list also includes a series of slang terms, most of which I’ve never heard of, which opens up the really interesting part of the way English evolves — when I first read it, my kneejerk reaction was ‘oh please, no one actually says this.’
But then I thought ’round to regional slang, to the way people blend on high school campuses, to the way language rapidly morphs among youth, and I realised that while a lot of the terms namechecked were unfamiliar, that didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t exist. (Still waiting for verification from the whippersnappers about whether they use them, and still waiting to see if they’re regional, because I suspect that some of them are.) Others, like ‘Yoko Ono’ and ‘trolling,’ are familiar to me, from pop culture and elsewhere.
A friend of mine recently dug up some old tapes — speaking of things the generations after us may find unfamiliar — from high school, when we had apparently gone around pestering people with ridiculous interview questions in addition to narrating the events of our lives. What startled me when hearing the playback wasn’t just the strange sound of my own voice, which always feels painful and weird, but how I spoke then much like I do today — my accent is much the same, the slang terms I use are much the same, even the words I thought I’d acquired through the intervening years were the same. I’d played my part in shaping language, and played a role in normalising certain speech patterns, terms, figures of speech — and I still do, along with people of all ages, but teens in particular seem to act like the tip of the spear when it comes to pushing English in fascinating directions.
I want to listen to those tapes in the future, to see how much my way of speaking has deviated, and to see, too, how dated it sounds, but I suspect that in a few decades, English as I spoke it will sound very off — and truth be told, I don’t really see that as a bad thing.
Image: Teen Titans cosplayers, Gage Skidmore, Flickr