Teenagers and Young Adults

Teenagers typically understand the social consequences of the choices they make when speaking, so we interpret any shifts in their style as intentional and meaningful. While younger children might just have two distinct styles (the “us” they use with other children and the “not us” they use when speaking with authority figures), we expect teenagers to develop a range of styles as they begin to become aware that they are members of multiple communities simultaneously and as they begin to claim more power and independence and formulate their own personal identities.


Teenagers seem to feel particular pressure to self-identify and identify others as members of distinct youth subcultures. In high school, labels like “jock” and “nerd” abound (not to mention “druggies,” “cool kids,” etc. — the categories and labels change from school to school.) Linguists such as Penelope Eckert and Mary Bucholtz have shown that these social boundaries are reflected not just in words the young people use but in pronunciation differences, too. The pure “us” style (used only with other teenage friends in these subcultures) is likely to vary even farther from the “standard,” as the teenagers seek to express their disdain for the adult world — except for a “nerd” identity, which is likely to be super-standard (hypercorrect). These differences do not usually last into mature adulthood, at which point the individuals are more heavily influenced by enduring group affiliations of region, class, ethnicity, gender, profession, etc.

Features of Young Adult Language


Bad (taboo) words, bad (nonstandard) grammar, bad manners

While young children giggle over “bad” language when the adults are not paying attention, teenagers typically use it pervasively amongst themselves and may begin to use it openly in front of authority figures, overtly testing and challenging the power differences. While young children often grudgingly apologize, thank, and greet authority figures as they were taught to do, teenagers often flout those conventions. Young adults are also more likely to deliberately choose to use “bad” grammar, within the group to express solidarity with the group’s counter-culture identity, and with authority figures in order to challenge and annoy. (When used within the group, bad words, grammar and/or manners express “We’re not like the rest of the world– we make our own rules.” When used with authority figures, these all say something like, “You’re not the boss of me.”)

Slang

As discussed in the words section, every generation develops its own slang, but the use of slang does typically peak during the late adolescent and early adult years. Many websites (some listed in the recommended reading on the Age page) keep track of slang from different decades, and we’re not going to attempt to reduplicate their efforts here. While young children might giggle delightedly if you reflect their language back at them, a teenager will have nothing but scorn for an adult who attempts to use their style and their slang. There is no reason why you have to use slang at all, if it is not natural or comfortable for you, as long as you can use informal vocabulary when others around you are using slang. If others use slang around you because they perceive that you belong to “their” group, this is a friendly gesture, designed to appeal to common ground. If you respond formally, you will be seen as rejecting their friendliness.

The one case where you really might want to actively use your generation’s slang is for explicit evaluations, the expression of positive or negative judgments. Each generation, when young, develops new evaluative terms, not just using different words to express the same old judgments, but to reject the whole system of values that was previously in place. (What my mom thought was “nifty” is not what I think of as being “cool.”) This is a very powerful marker of solidarity, and one that is relatively easy to work into a conversation. Currently (though this will become quickly dated), young people express positive evaluation with (among others) serious, crazy, awesome, tight, cool, and dope. Negative evaluative adjectives include shitty, fucked (up), screwed (up), but the most common negative evaluation is not an adjective at all: the verb sucks.

Other stance markers

Younger speakers use more markers of attitude, involvement, and emotion than older speakers, resulting in a more interpersonal style. Not only do young people use these markers more than older people overall, but the particular words they use within the specific categories also vary by generation. Currently in the U.S. (according to Barbieri 2008):

  • Younger people are more likely to intensify adjectives with so, too, totally, and really, while older speakers use very more often than younger people.
  • Younger people use kind of and sort of more than older people do when hedging assertions, while older people use maybe and probably more often than younger people.
  • Younger people use like, yeah, just, right, okay as discourse markers (showing where we are in a conversation, how one turn relates to another, etc.) while older people prefer well, okay, so, and I guess.

The preferences for specific words will likely change with each generation, but the overall trend (for younger people to use more of these types of words) seems stable.

Reporting Conversations: not just ‘he said/she said.’

People who are now elderly began to prefer “go” as a slangy synonym for “say” or “tell” (where historically the verb “to go” had been used for animals and sound effects, not speech). Their children continued to use go, but also introduced other means of introducing quoted speech: be like and be all. These are not, however, simple synonyms.

  • While go, like say, purports to introduce actual utterances reported more-or-less verbatim, be like allows for more wiggle-room: what is reported is the gist of what the person said, even if it does not capture their actual words. (Often, it captures the emotional tenor of what was said; it may even, when used in 1st person, report thoughts rather than actual speech.)

  • Be all indicates that the speech is not merely going to be reported, it is going to be performed, with emotions attached. (It would be ungrammatical to use the all marker if the speech were then reported in a flat, matter-of-fact voice.)

  • Be all like or be like all, as you might predict, combines these two: an emotional performance is given, but the words may not be exactly the same as those used in the original conversation. Just as young people are more likely to express their own attitudes and emotions, they are more interested in the attitudes and emotions of others: they seem to feel that a reported conversation is incomplete without this information. The most efficient way to include it is to simply perform all parts of the conversation, reproducing the tones of voice and accompanying actions. Note that this allows the person reporting the conversation to express both the original speaker’s attitude and emotion and their own simultaneously, by caricaturing and mocking the original speaker’s style.

“Like”

Younger people are often criticized for overusing the word like, mostly by people who assume it serves no real function and adds nothing to the actual message. It is quite true that younger people use this word often, certainly more than older people do, and more often than they use any word other than pronouns and other words with grammatical functions. But notice that this word is highly multi-functional in young people’s speech: it can serve as 1) a hedge (indicating uncertainty about the message); 2) a social discourse marker (indicating social uncertainty about the situation, about how the message will be received); 3) a verbal pause-filler (allowing the speaker to hold the floor); 4) a marker for paraphrased reported speech; 5) an intensifier, building up suspense for what follows (“he’s like crazy!”); and 6) its original use as a verb, which is still quite common! Small wonder, then, that it appears so often. Since mature adults don’t use hedges or intensifiers as often as young adults do, and tend to prefer different discourse markers, it’s not surprising that the word appears less frequently in their conversations.

Shifting to “prestige” styles

At the same time that teenagers and young adults may develop extremely non-standard ways of speaking to each other, they are also becoming aware that the comforts and securities of childhood are nearing an end, that they will soon have to face the “real world.” Teenagers who plan to continue in the same neighborhood, in the same social circles their whole lives (say, working a blue-collar job with the same people they went to high school with) may not have any reason to change their ways of speaking, but those who plan to move away, who go to college, who want to “get ahead” do. For the ambitious, adolescence isn’t all about rebellion and rejection of adult norms: as rational people, these young adults also begin refining their “prestige” speech styles (featuring both more formal word choices and more formal pronunciations), shifting from “bad style” with their friends to “good style” in the classroom, and perhaps spending more time in situations where “good style” can be appropriately practiced.

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