Teens Aren't Ruining Language

People of all ages influence linguistic change, and it's always been that way.

A woman talks on her cell phone while driving in Burbank, California June 25, 2008. (Fred Prouser / Reuters)

“Don't grill, dude,” was a thing the boys I knew in high school would say to each other a lot. It meant, essentially, stop hassling me. There was also “budge,” short for “budget,” which presumably was a way of saying that something was cheap, in a bad way. “Blatantly” was frequently used for emphasis. A conversation might go like this:

“I can’t go out tonight.”
“That’s budge.”
“Don’t grill, dude.”
“Blatantly budge.”

I have not heard these terms, except ironically among old friends, since maybe 1999. I’m pretty sure that’s because no one outside of a cluster of schools in my Philadelphia-area hometown uttered them in the first place. More broadly, this was an era when agreeable circumstances were “phat,” high-maintenance friends were “spazzes,” and you might taunt someone by saying, “psyche!” (Or was it “sike”?) And then, the 1990s ended, and all that slang did what it does best: It faded.

Fad words often have a different trajectory in today’s social-network-connected, meme-ified world. Platforms like Vine and Twitter have helped spread and standardize terms that might otherwise have stayed regional. And certainly the Internet has shortened the lifespan of some slang, especially when co-opted by brands trying to speak in teen parlance. (See also: On fleek, bae, basic, et al.)

As language evolves and new terms enter the mainstream, teenagers are often blamed for debasing linguistic standards. In some cases, their preferred forms of communication—like text messaging—are attacked. But, teens don’t actually influence language as much as is often claimed. That’s one of the key findings in the latest linguistic research by Mary Kohn, an assistant professor of English at Kansas State University. How much a person’s vernacular changes over time may have as much to do with personality and social standing as it has to do with age. The extent to which teenagers are credited with (or blamed for) driving lasting change to language is, she says, “grossly overstated.” The same factors that prompt teens to experiment with new language are applicable to people at many stages of life.

“There may be strong social motivations to craft an identity towards a specific social group, and changes in social structures can prompt linguistic changes as a result,” Kohn told me. “We also have fairly linguistically-stable individuals—people who just don't show much change over the lifespan. This may be expected for individuals who speak a prestige dialect or are in positions of power.”

That’s likely because people in positions of privilege don’t face the same social pressure to adapt their language, Kohn said. But there’s more to it than that. “It seems that linguistic flexibility is partially a factor of age, exposure to various inputs, social factors, but also personal factors,” Kohn said. And these personal factors are “hard to pinpoint.”

In her latest research, Kohn used an audio database that features interviews with dozens of children from infancy up to when they’re in their twenties. (The database features audio of family members, friends, and teachers, too.) She studied the kids at the same four stages of life (fourth grade, eighth grade, tenth grade, and early twenties) and tracked—by analyzing sound waves—how their pronunciation changed over time. While she focused on pronunciation, which offers a narrower view than slang terms, what she found is revealing for the way people think about teenagers and language trends. What stood out to her about the teenage years was the fact that, well, nothing consistently stood out. Just because you’re a teenager, it doesn’t mean your language will change in a way that’s more pronounced than during other key phases in life, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you’ll influence broader linguistic trends.

Because language patterns are so wrapped up in larger expressions of identity, Kohn believes that people’s word choices evolve in concert with other life changes—you might adopt new words when you start attending a new school, or take a new job, or have a baby, for example. The endurance of some slang terms over time, she says, has to do with how people navigate individual life changes against an also-changing social backdrop.

“Why some words skyrocket to popularity, only to crash and burn—for example, the unfortunate ‘fleek,’ or my generation's ‘joshin’ and ‘betty’—while others have a longer lifespan is a mystery,” Kohn told me. “‘Dude’ in its current meaning has been present for at least a century. If a word spreads too quickly from a subgroup to the mouths of moms or television actors, it will likely no longer serve the purpose of creating in-group identity, dooming it to failure.”

My colleague James Hamblin made a similar argument in a eulogy for the word “bae” in 2014. "The commercial appropriation of a word signals the end of its hipness in any case,” he wrote, “but as Kwame Opam at The Verge called it, ‘appropriation of urban youth culture’ can banish a term to a particularly bleached sphere of irrelevance.” (However, now that “bae” has been rejected by the mainstream, Robin Boylorn wrote for The Guardian last year, black people can reclaim it.)

All this underscores how language can be as much a way to communicate who you aren’t, as it can be used to signal who you are. Culturally, people often draw those lines generationally. Linguistically, it’s another story.

One infamous example of a failed attempt by outsiders to infiltrate a linguistic subculture was a 1992 New York Times story about grunge slang. The newspaper reported a list of terms based on a single interview with a 25-year-old who worked at a Seattle record label. It was later revealed that she had made up the terms she defined for the Times—including “wack slacks,” “lamestain,” and “swingin' on the flippity-flop,” to name a memorable few. The paper ended up printing the phrases as real examples of popular slang.

More often, though, words and expressions shift in and out of popular use gradually, without much notice. Sort of the way “yeah” and “yes” have made way for “yessssss” and “yaaaaas” and “yiss,” a phenomenon my colleague Megan Garber explored last year. Kohn offered an example of a once-scandalous neologism that is today utterly mundane: “While Oscar Wilde’s peers may have lamented the death of English when youth waited for the bus, instead of the omnibus, modern audiences would find the longer word stilted and strange.”

And the thing about linguistic changes is they can’t exactly be stopped in any sort of deliberate way. (“Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen,” only works if fetch was never going to happen in the first place.) Even old-school grammar geeks are warming up to “they” as an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun, understanding that culture doesn’t just trump language rules, it creates them—then destroys them, then creates new ones again.

Oft-spoken terms either peter out or they stick around. “As if!” becomes “I can’t even.” And the tendency for older adults to criticize younger generations for how language changes is its own form of establishing identity or staking a space in a social group.  Which is, let’s face it, pretty budge. Blatantly.