THE LANGUAGE OF YOUTH – 1

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NOTES ON SLANG AND THE LANGUAGE OF YOUNG PEOPLE

 

This is a sort of aide-memoire that I use with secondary and undergraduate students and teachers as a starting point in talking about youth language, stating the obvious by way of question-and-answer:

  1. Which recent social and economic developments in British society have affected the attitudes and behaviour of young people?

In the last three decades the UK has seen, according to some commentators, a spectacular breakdown in social cohesion, with high divorce rate/single-parenting/alcohol and drug use/teenage pregnancies/obesity, etc. Especially significant for young people is the absence of authority figures and traditional social constraints. This also contributes to youth crime and gang culture (where the gang may function as a substitute family). Economic turbulence and the peculiarities of the UK property market mean that teenagers may not be able to afford to leave home and may suffer unemployment, but attitudes among teenagers and school-leavers in some cases appear to reflect an indifference to work and lack of aspiration coupled with a sense of entitlement and ‘adult’ desire to consume...

  1. Why do young people invent and use slang?

Slang functions for transgressive in-groups such as street gangs as a secret code which allows them to describe and celebrate their illicit activities and keep them from the attention of authority figures. Young people who may not be transgressing may imitate this ‘deviant’ usage as they see it as glamorous, but in any case slang also serves more innocently as a way for young people to establish a ‘cool’ identity, confirm allegiances within peer-groups and micro-niches and claim ownership of a set of symbols (not only vocabulary but appearance, etc.) that gives them social capital and glamour while they may lack real economic power…

  1. Are text messaging and slang use by young people really affecting their ability to communicate in more formal situations?

‘Experts’ disagree: some government advisors and employers declare and assume that use of unorthodox language is associated with limited vocabulary, lack of communication skills and negative attitudes. Some academic linguists – and this writer – point out that abbreviated codes associated with electronic media are nothing new and that slang usage can be creative rather than destructive. Some research indicates that those who text or use social networking sites actually tend to have improved or possess higher literacy rates. ‘Appropriacy’ – knowing how to fit your style of language to context – may be a problem for some, but many young people are adept at ‘code-switching’ – moving between different language varieties according to who they are communicating with and why. BUT while slang cannot be disapproved of technically – it functions like poetry and literature – we must recognise that for many adults it provokes strong emotional reactions and is associated with serious crime and social breakdown…

  1. What social factors in the UK have contributed to the appearance of a so-called ‘MLE’ (multiethnic London English) or ‘Urban British English’?

Afrocaribbean, and to a lesser extent East and South Asian music and popular culture have high status among youth. In inner city schools across the UK British English is not the mother tongue for many students, while the shared code outside the classroom is for some a multiethnic youth slang rather than local or standard forms of English. Some linguists claim that an emerging generalised dialect spreading from London and developed by young people is displacing previous localised dialects and traditional slang and may impact on mainstream English in the future, possibly in terms of vocabulary, but more probably in terms of accent and intonation. Mixed urban dialects are not only a feature of the UK but have evolved in other European countries where elements of Arabic, Turkish and other ‘minority’ languages have affected colloquial usage and phonology.

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