If you listen to sensationalized media reports, you would think that millennials and baby boomers are at war with one another. There’s no end to articles declaring that millennials are “killing” various industries, which of course leads to a chorus of tweets that claim it is, in fact, the baby boomers’ fault that various companies are dying out. There’s so much intergenerational bickering, you have to wonder if these people are even speaking the same language. As it turns out, the answer isn’t obvious.
Yes, if you define a language as being a mutually intelligible mode of communication, then of course we’re all speaking the same language. Still, there does seem to be a distinct difference in the way generations communicate, and millennials have enough slang to warrant articles that explain what they’re saying. Language naturally changes over time, and often within the span of one person’s lifetime, so it’s worth considering how age affects the way we talk.
How Our Language Changes Throughout Our Lives
One big cause of generational language gaps is that an individual’s language habits change throughout their lives, which is referred to in the linguistic community as age-grading. There are a huge number of factors that contribute to how we speak, so it should be noted that any general statements about language are one part of a much larger story. While everyone is different, there is a general pattern to how a person’s language changes throughout their lives, and it’s mostly because of social factors. This is still an area that’s being heavily researched, but linguist Penny Eckert created a framework that is still used as a source for linguistic age research. It is limited in that it applies mostly to white, middle- and upper-class people, but that is a problem that is now being addressed.
To look at the age-grading phenomenon, we’ll use the stable variable -ing/-in’ as an example. The variable is “stable” because gerunds like “working” have been pronounced as both “working” (more prestigious) and “workin’” (less prestigious) for hundreds of years. People who are speaking Standard English use the former, while the latter is nonstandard.
This graph shows an idealized pattern for the use of non-prestigious forms. In our example, the “proportion of use” would be how often people use -in’ instead of -ing.
1. Early Childhood (birth to 12 years old)
In the early days of your life, you’re pretty conservative. Well, you’re linguistically conservative at least. You learn your language from a very small group of people, with parents generally contributing the most to your development. Because your parents are likely in young adulthood, they will be conservative (more on that shortly), and you will take after them for now. Here, you’re more likely to pronounce, or at least try to pronounce, “-ing” when using a gerund. This depends on your parents, of course, but this is the general trend.
2. Adolescence (13 to 22 years old)
Adolescence is when your identity is shaped, and that includes your language. This is also when you rebel against the conservatism of adults, and so will tend to pronounce gerund endings as -in’. The way you speak technically has “less prestige,” which just means that you don’t adhere as closely to Standard English as others do. Though these nonstandard forms lack prestige in, say, an office, they do have prestige among your social group. Adolescents enforce each other’s nonstandard language as a way of demonstrating belonging to a group.
3. Adulthood (23 to 50 years old)
As you age, you’re generally pressured back into Standard English. The very idea of adulthood is a social construct, so it is social constructs that shape your speech. Polite society decided that standard language is an important part of showing that you’re an “adult,” and that’s almost all there is to it. Nonstandard forms are not welcome in the working world (definitely not the workin’ world).
4. Late Adulthood (51 years old and up)
As you get older and you no longer have to signal to others that you’re a serious employee by using Standard English, you become less conservative again. This doesn’t mean you’ll start talking like teenagers, but it does mean your speech will become more casual in retirement.
Linguistically Innovative Adolescents
The way someone’s language changes throughout their life provides some insight into how generations grow apart in the way they speak, but the measure of conservatism is just one factor. What is also important is that young people are the most linguistically innovative of any age group. Adolescence is the time when people try to define themselves, and experimenting with language is part of that.
The most apparent difference between older and younger people is slang. Take, for example, “on fleek,” a phrase that seemed to come completely out of the blue from a teenage girl’s video on Vine. The original Urban Dictionary definition was posted in 2003 for the word “fleek,” but the term didn’t explode until the video was posted in 2014.
This graph from Google Trends shows the popularity of the phrase “eyebrows on fleek,” which peaked in 2014.
As this example shows, the internet has also been a great aid to the spread of slang. The use of spoken acronyms, like “tbh” (“to be honest”) and “v” (for “very”), has shown that internet language is not at all confined to the internet. It’s generally agreed that the internet affects language, but unfortunately it’s not yet been proven to what extent, because it has not been around long enough to provide sufficient data.
Slang often doesn’t have a lasting impact on language, however. There’s a reason we don’t say “groovy” or “horsefeathers” anymore. Blaming slang for the destruction of language is pretty pointless, then. While they can persist within certain groups, slang terms almost never have an impact on Standard English.
Language does change, however, and young people are the drivers of it. These changes are just more likely to happen in the realms of grammar and pronunciation. The gradual fall of “whom” from use has been led by younger people who never bothered to learn when it’s used. Same goes for the split infinitive, though that started as an arbitrary rule. As research shows, language evolution is a random process, where nothing gets objectively “better” or “worse.” The youths lead the change, but blaming them for change is kind of like blaming the sun when it’s too hot out.
Old Versus Young: The Eternal Feud
Young people will always be the source of change, and that will always cause tension between generations. In 2018, millennials are technically all adults, meaning it’s just a matter of time before the media starts blaming things on the next generation, often called Generation Z. Soon, they’ll be the ones killing businesses and ruining everything. In fact, it’s already begun.
Maybe, however, this doesn’t have to be what happens. Maybe we can realize that generations are artificial constructs created by marketing agencies to figure out how to sell their products by homogenizing massive groups of people. Each new generation is just the next step in the cycle that will continue until the end of humanity. There’s no use fighting change, linguistic or otherwise, so it’s far better to embrace it.