If you think that terms like “YOLO” and “fleek” are poisoning the English language, then fret not: The way Western teenagers speak is in fact not ruining the world’s lingua franca. According to linguistics research published by the American Dialect Society, teenagers do not stand out from several other age brackets when it comes to influencing the evolution of English.
Claims that teenagers are negatively influencing the English language with slang and acrimonious terms are often made in the media. Kansas State University’s assistant professor of english, Mary Kohn, decided to investigate the validity of this claim by conducting a linguistics study on the same individuals as they grew up from fourth-graders (aged 8-9) to young adults (aged 20).
To do this, she used an existing database, the Frank Porter Graham project, which was exclusively designed to follow the development of 67 children, including their linguistic evolution. Kohn analyzed 20 of these children, picking apart the audio recordings made at almost every year of their lives.
Apart from listening out for the emergence of new terms, and the frequency in which they are used, Koch looked into the sound waves behind their speech patterns, giving her a quantitative insight into precisely how words or phrases were pronounced. As the 20 individuals in question had a wide range of accents and English dialects, mostly within North Carolina, the analysis could trace a potentially large number of pathways their linguistic evolution could have taken.
One of the primary findings of the research was that, although the changes in vocalizations are definitely related to the social structures the individuals move through, there was no distinct change noted as they passed between school grades. Changes in accents occurred incrementally, not suddenly, with no particular time period matching up with any such peaks.
This included all the teenage years, meaning that the way teenagers speak comes about gradually, not all at once. Significantly, the distinct vocalizations that we often associate with teenagers did not have any more or less an effect on the evolution of that individual’s language than any other age group’s vocalizations.
“The teenager subgroup did not stand out as a group from the rest of the subgroups, meaning there was nothing special about being a teenager,” Kohn said in a statement. “Just because you are a teenager doesn't mean you will change your language.” She hypothesizes that our stereotypes about teenagers are based on specific subgroups that stand out, whose bold accents and phrases capture our attention, distorting our opinion on teenage linguistics as a whole.
In fact, the most important age group at which individual children’s linguistic evolutionary paths change is perhaps three to four, when children first start school – an age group not included in this study. It is at this point that adult influence begins to lose ground to the influence of other children from different backgrounds. This, Kohn believes, is when the crucial language shift begins.
Either way, it seems that teenagers are not ruining the English language. Languages constantly evolve, so there’s no point in resisting change too steadfastly. “As long as there are people who are living and breathing and speaking, we're going to invent new words,” noted Kohn.