Talkin’ ‘Bout The Generations: Gen Z Language
The split between the generations has been a hot-button issue for decades, if not longer. Thanks to a societal obsession with youth, the generation constantly under the spotlight right now is Gen Z, or the Zoomers. Is the youngest generation really so different from the ones that came before, though? There are no simple answers, but here we’ll look at one aspect of the culture: Gen Z language.
Gen Z speaks the same languages as the rest of us, of course, but it can certainly feel like they’re using a whole different set of vocabulary. Why is this the case? There are a complex set of factors, including age, technology and changing demographics. So let’s dive into the generational divide in the United States (and elsewhere) to figure out what’s really going on.
Who Is Gen Z?
This seems like a basic question, but the generational divide isn’t written in stone anywhere. The Pew Research Center has decided that, for their surveying purposes, Gen Z is anyone born from 1997 to 2012. This is roughly accurate, though other places might vary the definition by a few years. As of this writing, that means the age group spans anywhere from 9 to 24 years old.
Though people love to make generalizations about generations, it should be noted that young people are particularly difficult to group together. You can’t really say that a 9-year-old and a 24-year-old are in the same cohort. The younger side is preoccupied with getting through elementary school, while the older is entering the workforce. So before we even get into Gen Z language, we’ll acknowledge that it’s a difficult group to pin down.
Returning to the Pew Research Center’s surveys, though, we can see a few differences between Gen Z and the other generations. First, it’s more diverse than any generation that came before, and it’s more educated (at least by looking at the percentage of Zoomers pursuing college). It’s also politically more liberal on topics like same-sex marriage, race and climate change. None of these findings are particularly surprising — they’re all following trends that have been around for decades — but these demographic and political differences are important parts of Gen Z identity and language.
Age And Linguistics
The way you talk changes throughout your life. This might not sound entirely intuitive, but research into different age cohorts shows that people really do speak differently based on their age. The key word here is “age cohorts” instead of “generations” because they both describe age groupings, but they’re slightly different. You’re born into a generation, and you’re part of it your whole life, whereas you age into and out of age cohorts over time.
One of the most common findings with age cohorts is that people grow more conservative as they pass from adolescence to middle age. Not politically, but linguistically. The most famous example of this is pronouncing gerunds (running, jumping, singing or any other ongoing verb with “-ing” at the end) as –in’. Saying -in’ instead of -ing is — in Standard American English, at least — considered less correct. Studies find that young people use the -in’ variant quite a bit, but as they get older they say -ing more and more often. There’s a lot more at play, but basically people choose more “conservative” forms once they’ve entered the workforce.
This is true for many different forms, even if it’s subconscious. Another example: Research has found that people use the quotative like (“And then he was like…and then I was like…”) less as they get older. The quotative like is much newer than “-ing vs. -in’, which makes it a slightly more interesting case. It was first used mostly by young people, and so it may have been assumed that as those young people grew up, quotative like might just become the norm. While it’s still widely used, it does seem like people still consider it “incorrect” and try to use it less as they get older.
Gen Z is in the age cohort right now that is the least conservative. It’s during our youth that we’re most likely to experiment, try out new things we hear other people doing and rebel against what our parents did in the past.
Gen Z Vocabulary
The most noticeable part of any generation’s language is the words they invent. Young people tend to be the most linguistically innovative, thus it must be the Zoomers who currently have the newest and most vibrant vocab.
Slang is tricky, though. The real problem is that it changes constantly. We made a list of Gen Z slang just two years ago, and it has already fallen a little out of date. What used to be “mood” is now “vibes.” Instead of simply looking at words, then, it might be better to look at the forces shaping the slang. We’ll still use some real-world examples, but we’re sorry if by the time you read this, they’re already cringe.
African American Vernacular English
Earlier this year, Saturday Night Live created a skit called “Gen Z Hospital,” where the joke was that everyone used “Gen Z slang.” This included phrases like “catch hands,” “sus” and “the tea.” It didn’t take long for viewers to point out that a lot of what they were calling “Gen Z slang” is in fact African American Vernacular English. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon, either. There has been a constant conflation of AAVE and Gen Z or internet slang these past few years.
Non-Black people using AAVE to be cool is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s one of the oldest phenomenons in American culture. Words like daddy-o, the bomb and boogie were all used by Black people before being appropriated by white mainstream culture. There’s a painful irony in the way that American culture has tried to degrade AAVE, while at the same time constantly stealing from it. Yes, it’s true that Zoomers of all races are using AAVE terms, but equating Zoomer slang with AAVE is inaccurate and condescending.
The words we use to define ourselves are not set in stone. Each generation looks at the labels that they’re offered and starts to invent new ones. As mentioned above, Gen Z is more racially diverse and more gender diverse than the other generations, so it makes sense they would have a vocabulary to reflect that.
For example, the terms Latinx and Latine were invented as ways to identify with Latin American heritage without using the gender markers inherent in the words Latina and Latino. A recent study — once again by the Pew Research Center — found that only 3 percent of the Latin American community actually uses Latinx. If you break it down by age cohorts, though, that percentage more than doubles when you look at the group of 18- to 29-year-olds. And while less than 1 percent of people over the age of 65 had even heard the term before, 42 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were aware of it.
These kinds of linguistic innovations are happening all the time, and you have to look at Gen Z to see how these terms are actually catching on. While only 8 percent of people over the age of 65 know someone who uses a gender-neutral pronoun (like the singular “they”), 32 percent of people between 18 and 29 do. We could keep going through examples, but you get the point. While some are resistant to changing identity terms, there’s (once again) nothing new about the phenomenon.
Gen Z may be the first generation that doesn’t remember a time before the modern internet. Facebook launched in 2004, only seven years after the oldest millennials were born, and the first iPhone was sold only three years after that. Gen Z is growing up online — 95 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have access to a smartphone, 97 percent are on social media — and so is their language.
Some of this language is set by the technology itself. The talk of likes, faves, retweets, subscriptions and more are all decisions some company made when creating the vocabulary for their products. Yet when young people come online, they build their own vocabulary. They make “finstas” — a portmanteau of “fake” and “Instagram” — where they cultivate a different following than on their regular Instagrams. They “slide into the DMs,” which is starting a usually flirtatious conversation in direct messages.
Technology has also entirely changed how slang is spread. Whereas in the past, words usually had slow, convoluted paths into pop culture, today a single TikTok can launch a phrase into virality. One of the most commonly cited examples of this is “on fleek,” a phrase that went from a single short video posted on the app Vine by elder Zoomer Kayla Newman to national news coverage. This was a somewhat extreme case, but the interconnectedness of youths does allow for slang to move very differently than it did before. That’s why an inside joke between some teens calling things “cheugy” can lead to a New York Times article.
While technology matters in the way people use language, Zoomers aren’t really doing anything different from the generations that preceded them. When they make fun of millennials for responding to a joke with the crying laughing emoji (😂) instead of the skull emoji (💀), they’re gatekeeping “cool” the same as the youths before them did. The medium is different, but the message is essentially the same.