Breaking: Teen Talk Is Totally Not Ruining Language

The death knell of language-as-we-know-it is sounded so often, it’s beginning to seem more like a false alarm. 

Last year, Oxford Dictionaries announced that its word of the year was an emoji – specifically, the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji, a symbol that could represent a fit of laughter or a wave of joy. The dictionary’s president Casper Grathwohl explained, “it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully.”

Sure, decriers conceded, but is it a word? One linguist I spoke with, Lauren B. Collister, denied that “emoji” was an emerging language. “Emojis, while they do have some basic conventions for their use, do not have the regular, recursive grammatical structures that are a fundamental part of human language,” she said. By that logic, the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji is not a word, but a signifier of mood or tone.

Still, Collister and other linguists who study Internet language, teen language and other emerging modes of communication generally aren’t cynical about emoji use, abbreviations, filler words, and other teen-centric tendencies. Collister believes teens are among the most creative language-users, and adorning their texts with emoji is evidence of that.

Another defender of youthful language flourishes is Sali Tagliamonte, Linguistics Professor at the University of Toronto and author of Teen Talk: The Language of Adolescents, out this month. 

“People are always so critical about teenagers and their use of language,” she said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “It’s a generational thing that happens over and over again. Young people are always highly criticized as leading to the demise of the human language, the bastardization of language, the decline of good and proper English. I wanted to set the record straight.” 

In order to do so, Tagliamonte asked her students to submit conversation logs accrued on different social media platforms. Analyzing years worth of data, she found that grammatically, text messages are just as sound as a well-written book, and that any linguistic changes that were occurring — spelling conventions, stylistic choices — were “superficial.”

One such superficial development: the use of “like” as a verbal hedge. It’s a change that’s been characterized as vapid, but Tagliamonte says the word has a storied history, with shifts in meaning that were criticized along the way. Today’s linguistic prescriptivists say “like” should be reserved for similes — comparisons using “like” or “as.” But, Tagliamonte notes, that wasn’t always the case.

She cites a popular ad from 1954, for Winston Cigarettes, that read, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Poets, journalists, and even news anchor Walter Cronkite decried the slogan’s grammar, which they claimed should’ve read, “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should.” Their complaints didn’t slow the change in the word’s meaning; by 1961, Merriam Webster cited the phrase as an example of “like” as a commonly used conjunction.

Teen language use often reflects the language use of the general population. Both among young people and adults, women are the ones leading linguistic change 95 percent of the time – which may explain why words like “like,” “whatever,” and “so,” are discussed as ditsy rather than innovative.

Not every contemporary teen slang word has a storied history that can be recited to illustrate its flexibility. But, Tagliamonte defends words like “whatever,” describing them as inventive and uniquely useful rather than improper. “It filled a nice niche,” she said. “It’s a good word for talking about things that don’t really matter. ‘So, whatever.’ I think that’s a pretty good word.”

Another needlessly condemned construction: beginning sentences with “so.” It’s associated with teenage sloppiness, but Tagliamonte found that it’s used across all age groups, not just grammatically freewheeling young people. “I looked at ‘so’ across the community, from pre-adolescence around 9, 10, 11 right through to octogenarians in their 80s,” she said. “Everybody uses ‘so’ to introduce a sentence. So, that’s been around for at least 100 years.”

In fact, Tagliamonte says teen language use often reflects the language use of the general population. Both among young people and adults, women are the ones leading linguistic change 95 percent of the time — which may explain why words like “like,” “whatever,” and “so,” are discussed as ditsy rather than innovative. There is one exception, however; when it comes to using “stuff” as a generic, young men are leading the charge.

Both young men and young women use acronyms while texting — “rn,” “tbh,” “lol,” “TL;DR,” and countless others. The seemingly endless list of inventions is portrayed as goofy, lazy and mystifying rather than creative. But, Tagliamonte points out, there’s more invention happening than actual rampant word-replacement. In the conversations she analyzed between both teens and adults, 2 percent of words used were acronyms, across the board.

“Acronyms are just part of language,” Tagliamonte said. “People use acronyms! They use them all the time. Just because some acronyms have become normal, like TV and DVD — the acronyms being used by young people today are normal for them. Some of them may go by the wayside, but that’s always true, some words come and go.”

Tagliamonte discussed one word that began as an acronym, and became normalized after colloquial use: “posh.” Originally, the word meant “port out starboard home,” referring to English travelers who could book cruise ship rooms that best blocked them from the sun. Today, it’s a word in its own right.

“What are the things that are going to stay in the language and what’s just passing fancy? That’s a tough question,” Tagliamonte said. But, “once something gets going, it’s pretty hard to make an about-turn. It’s possible, but once something gets going, it’ll probably just keep increasing.” 

So don’t expect the latest teen-driven trends — beginning sentences with “so,” using “like” as a filler word, and sprinkling written communication with occasional acronyms — to go anywhere anytime soon.

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