Talkin’ ‘Bout The Generations: Gen X Language

Gen X isn’t dissected nearly as much as the other generations, but they play an important linguistic role.
Gen X language represented by a middle-aged white couple sitting on a bus.

With endless media attention given to baby boomers, millennials and zoomers, it sometimes feels like Generation X has been totally forgotten. Compared to the other generations, Gen X doesn’t seem to be very clearly defined. Is Gen X simply different from the others somehow, or is there something else at play? A good way to answer this questions is by looking at Gen X language.

When we talk about Gen X language, we don’t mean that they speak a different language than the other generations. Yet every generation differs slightly in how it communicates, whether a person speaks English or any other language. So let’s dive into this particular dialect, starting with a look at who exactly is a member of this generation.

Who Is Generation X?

The Pew Research Group says that Generation X comprises the people born from 1965 to 1980. As of this writing, that means Gen Xers range from 41 to 56. There’s no widespread agreement on generations, however, so you might see estimates that differ slightly.

One of the ways that Gen X stands out from other generations is that it took a while to form. The baby boomer generation was named after the massive increase in the birthrate, particularly in the United States, following the end of World War II. At that point, it wasn’t a common practice to name every generation, and Gen X came to its name relatively late. 

Generation X was the title of a 1991 novel by Douglas Coupland, who wanted to write about the people born between 1960 and 1978, because he thought it was important to define the difference between baby boomers and his own generation. He took the name from either a band that Billy Idol was once a part of, which itself was likely a reference to a 1952 photo essay about youth culture that used the same name (though it did not catch on at that time).

Coupland wasn’t the first person to realize that his generation was separate from the baby boomers. Other names had been thrown around for the new group of children, including the “baby busters,” the “thirteeners,” and, perhaps most doomed to die, the “twentysomething generation.” What’s really most shocking is that Gen X didn’t become popular until the 1990s, which is after the term “millennial” was coined in reference to the following generation. It also kicked off the whole naming convention, with Generation Y (more commonly called the millennials), Generation Z and, for those being born now, Generation Alpha. 

The fact that Gen X came so late to a name is a symptom of the generation’s larger problem of definition. Early on, they were the target of the same kinds of press coverage as any other young generation gets. A 1993 opinion piece in Newsweek, for example, takes issue with them: “We have a generation (or at least part of a generation) whose every need has been catered to since birth. Now, when they finally face adulthood, they expect the gift-giving to continue.” The problem is that once they got past the stage of being “the young people who are causing problems,” Gen X started to vanish.

Trapped between millennials and baby boomers, Gen X is demographically stuck in the middle. A Pew Research article on the generation shows that in almost every category — age of marriage, religious affiliation, political liberality, whiteness — American Gen Xers are statistically almost exactly the midpoint between millennials and baby boomers. One of the only ways they stand out is they’re the least likely of the three to agree with the statement “My generation is unique.” Given all that, it’s not hard to see why Gen X has a hard time distinguishing itself.

Language And Age

Gen X were never given the same, sustained media spotlight as the other generations around today. Another contributing factor to this lack of visibility, however, is that the label extends over the most homogenous age range of any generation. Linguistically, at least.

Your language changes throughout your life. Because of this, linguists who want to observe language change look at age cohorts. These cohorts are different from generations because a person is born into one generation and stays part of it for the rest of their life, but they change their age cohorts as they get older. The youngest generations tend to be the least likely to use “prestigious” language. In other words, they’re the most experimental with language, which is why it’s the youths who come up with new slang and are constantly accused of bringing an end to the English language.

As people get older, they tend to get a bit more conservative. The most commonly cited example of this is the pronunciation of -ing in gerunds (swimming, driving, withering). The prestigious form is pronouncing it fully, whereas the non-prestigious form is more like -in’. Studies have shown that people are more and more likely to use the prestigious -ing through their 30s, 40s and 50s. The most likely reason, linguists believe, is that the pressures to conform to societal expectations are greatest during the middle of a person’s life.

Gen X, then, is just going through its most conservative stage of linguistic development. They’re more likely to speak Standard English, or whichever standard of the language they speak. This may sound disparaging toward Gen X, but every generation goes through this same process. It’s another way that Generation X is caught in the middle (for now).

Gen X Language

While Gen X is in its least linguistically innovative stage, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to say about Gen X language. They’re the generation that sets the standard by which other generations’ language is measured.

For one example of how Gen X has subtly changed the language, we can look at the California vowel shift. A vowel shift is when people start pronouncing vowels in certain positions differently. At any time, there are likely a few vowel shifts going on, but for the most part they happen so slowly that speakers don’t notice them. There has been recent attention toward the California vowel shift, however, because people noticed that when you watch home videos from the 1980s, Americans sound different. Some linguists think that the very influential surfer, skater and in particular pop-punk subcultures of California in the 1990s helped spread the vowel shift across the country, popularizing linguistic features like the cot-caught merger. This merger is when people pronounce the vowels in “cot” and “caught” the same way, which is becoming more and more common in American English. It’s Gen Xers who helped usher this change along.

Vowel shifts and similar linguistic phenomena don’t inspire many headlines, however. A generation is far more often identified with its vocabulary. Let’s take a look, then, at the words that define Gen X.

The Words That Didn’t Stick

Slang comes and slang goes. It’s a fact of life. You often hear about the words that “define” a generation, but only when that generation is young. As we mentioned in the last section, it is young people who are most likely to stray from Standard English, and thus create new words and phrases to set themselves apart. 

Then, as quickly as it’s popularized, it becomes passé. Taking a tour of the phrases Gen X popularized in the 1980s and ‘90s, you feel transported back in time: gnarly, yuppie, chill pill, talk to the hand, gag me with a spoon and others. Some slang is like an internet meme. Someone creates the format, it catches on, suddenly it’s everywhere and before you know it, it’s history.

Why didn’t these words last? There’s any number of reasons. The word “gnarly,” for instance, probably didn’t last because each generation creates its own word for describing something as “cool,” whether it be groovy, hip, lit or anything else. Phrases like “talk to the hand” and “gag me with a spoon” die out because they’re like a joke that stops being funny after overuse. And then there’s “yuppie,” which is kind of still around, but its fortunes rise and fall with the cultural phenomenon it’s describing. 

The Words That Did

The vast majority of generational slang has a limited shelf life, but there are also cases where words break through. To do so, they have to check off two main criteria: they have to fill a lexical need (so they aren’t just a synonym for something that already exists) and they have to maintain relevance over time.

Gen X is largely responsible for the widespread use of the word “dude.” While the word had been around for ages, it didn’t get into the mainstream until the 1970s and ‘80s. Before then, it had been part of African American Vernacular English. That’s no surprise, as a lot of American slang was originally created by Black people.

Generational slang ages best when it’s associated with something new, like a lifestyle movement or a technology. That’s because the “lexical need” is greatest when something is just starting out. Terms like BFF, emo, hoodie, vacay and more all popped up among Gen Xers to describe various cultural phenomena that were popping up at the end of the 20th century.

There are countless other words around today that were coined by members of Gen X. They’re just less noticeable because once a word enters common use, it’s no longer associated with a particular group of people. It’s just a part of English.

Gen X Language Today

Gen X, as already discussed, is in its least creative phase right now. That’s not a value judgment, that’s just how society seems to operate. At the heart of this, though, is a kind of self-fulfilling process, and it has to do with how standard languages are created.

Standard English, like the standard of any language, is a social construction. As a society, we agree (or disagree) about what’s “correct” and what’s not, but there isn’t any language that’s objectively better than any other. For there to be a Standard English, though, there must be people who are using these agreed-upon norms. Without members of Gen X using more conservative, standard forms, there would be no standard forms at all. While it may sound unexciting, it’s just as important a contribution to language as creating new forms.

Gen X won’t be the most conservative speakers of the language forever. As people get into their 60s, 70s and later, they once again start using non-standard forms more and more, as the social pressure to speak “correctly” decreases. Right now, though, Gen X language is still a vibrant, diverse dialect. Gen X has had the misfortune of vanishing from the public discourse all too often, but it’s a mistake to write them off. The story of generational languages isn’t complete without them.

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