In Germany, the Jugendwort 2016 is now being voted on. As may be expected, the offerings („wähle jetzt“) include some taken over from English. Unlikely ones listed are Overcut (Halbglatze), Swaggernaut (extrem coole Person) and Swagphone (Smartphone zum Angeben). You never know, one of these might even win (there is clearly a social media overlap). Yet the real key in English street talk is the social uncertainty it often expresses.
It may be a response to authorities demanding proper behaviour, that young people should show respect, follow procedures, comply with requirements – while of course in parallel condemning antisocial behaviour. But where do we place this? The social commentator Nigel Burke noted (2009) a „sinister use of language to control and manipulate“ – as in the way right-wing political circles now use terms like workshy, shirkers and wasters to describe people in welfare ghettos who rely on handouts. Even (I quote from a piece by Phil McDuff in The Guardian, 25.10.16) calling them skiving thickos milking the system. And they regularly refer to young people who don’t fit in as lout or yob (boy in reverse).
The big question: how do young people respond to this? To start with, not at the level of language, but more directly. Of a violent demonstration in London involving students and schoolchildren, to which police responded with hours of kettling (einkesseln), social analyst Robert McCrum (Observer 28.10.10) wrote, it was „the Harry Potter generation turned into a band of rebels“. But what young people have also been doing is to respond to their sense of social exclusion by developing a personalised „teenglish“, the significance (indeed intention) of which is that adults often don’t understand it. Hence the use of crazy bits of pseudo-language: sort of, like, it ain’t, above all innit (displacing isn’t it). So you get statements like „I didn’t do nuffink, like, innit“. It’s a linguistic assertiveness that leaves many adults wondering just what’s going on. Which of course is the whole point! To get more on this, have a look at a guide (2015) for UK parents on „Teenage slang words and language“.
But here we should note oddities in modern adult English, e.g. its use of phrases which mean the opposite of what the unaware listener might suppose. For instance, if an idea is described as „quite good – very interesting – worth bearing in mind“, that may actually mean that it’s disappointing nonsense which deserved to be ignored! The opposite, in fact, of the phrase „not bad“, which in reality may mean „pretty good“! Or of course the sequence of escapist phrases used when something has gone completely wrong. For instance, to say „I’m sure it’s all my fault, but you must come round to dinner one evening“, may in reality mean: „Of course it’s your fault, and I must ask you to kindly keep out of my way!“ And then of course the „sorry“ sequence: „Oh sorry, awfully sorry, terribly sorry“, and so on, by which you imply it was your opposite number who had blundered and got it all wrong. Although „sorry“ can of course be genuine sometimes! As in the ways it is often used these days in German.
In comparison, „youth street talk“ might almost appear simple and straightforward!
Note: I have drawn here on pieces written by myself for Praxis Fremdsprachenunterricht
Image: Foto „The Corn Exchange Gang“ by Jon Pinder (The youth of Leeds hanging outside The Corn Exchange. It’s a meeting place for the young goths/metalers/emo’s etc.) c/o Creative Commons