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Teen speak and fogeyism

October 20, 2013

If you live in the UK, you must have caught the news about the school (not the first of its kind, I might add) that is banning teenage slang from their schools.

This  problem with people who bang on about improving kids’ speech is that they aren’t talking about improving kid’s speech, because they aren’t talking about all kids. Some commenter on this were bold enough as to directly say so, highlighting that private school kids don’t talk this way and usually do better leaving school, which must of course be because they are naturally better speakers. They don’t have people interfering in the way they express themselves because they do so in the standardised manner. It is only the people who are already quite low down the pile who have to suffer this intrusion.

People don’t speak the way they do to be purposefully dense. Indeed, if you think dropping the occasional unnecessary “like” into a sentence makes someone an inarticulate cretin, you’re a fool. It gives no indication of your vocabulary – every generation has its linguistic quirks, that’s ours. It isn’t chosen, it’s a product of what goes on around us. Deliberate attempts to break that and change it, counter to the culture these kids are used to at home and on the streets where they spend their weekends, sends one message and a very clear one; what comes naturally to you and your culture is not good enough.

Speaking like Boris Johnson is not a skill, not a needed feature of our working environment. People up in his echelons are the ones who make the rules, and in their snobbery and their human aversion to change, decide that the way they remember things is the best way forward. This happens every fucking generation. It’s like no one remembers when they were the teenagers and their parents thought their peers were a symbol of all that was wrong in the world. Those parents, and these ones, are equally wrong. We all forget about this stage in our lives except when we are idly reminiscing. I hope however old I get, I will at least remember that whatever I recall about “my day” is likely to fantastically inaccurate. I also hope I will remember that no one cares to hear about it.

Teenagers are naturally awkward in speech and manner, perhaps partly because in your teenage years about half your brain dies off and all the channels shut down, preparing for the glorious limitations of adult thinking. Very little has changed from decade to decade; you can’t understand teenagers, not because they are losing their grip on the power of speech, but primarily because they don’t want you to understand. They go out of their way to forge their own identities and break away from the chains of the generation above, to the extent that they make a new language for themselves. Any attempt to adopt their style by adults is observed (often justifiably) with contempt.

This is a subculture, a group that creates a sense of identity and security away from the standard; in this case, a suddenly foreign children’s’ world and an impenetrable adults’ one. It serves a distinct purpose and teens will hold onto it only for as long as they have to. It’s extraordinarily condescending to suggest that working class kids don’t know dumb from smart well enough to develop their own linguistic skills later in life. If you are so inclined, then at some point you just wake up and realise (albeit at the back of your mind) that you aren’t expressing yourself very well. After that, you naturally open yourself up to better vocabulary and you improve. You don’t end up as a walking dictionary, but you don’t need to be one to get a job.

This is particularly true at university. Personally, I think it’s completely natural for this kind of development to happen at that point, rather than when high school teachers would like it to happen. Once you develop your own sense of identity far from the madding crowd, you decide what kinds of people interest you. If you are intelligent or knowledgeable or studious, you will gravitate towards the like-minded, who with their various (and let’s not forget, likely middle class) backgrounds will influence your mannerisms slightly. Following that, you will naturally adopt a wider vocabulary of your own accord and in your own time without noticing. You may lose parts of your dialect. You probably won’t lose you accent, or at least not for a while. Accent, of course, is another hotbed of major snobbery.

What will happen, do you think, in the high schools that ban “urban” language? I’m sure that the most rebellious age group in the world will happily and unthinkingly subscribe to some arbitrary rule made up by well-meaning but clueless office dwellers. I know we all did. No one ever chewed gum, ran in the halls, smoked in toilets, snogged behind the bike sheds, stole pens from teachers’ desk drawers, played with lighters, “forgot” their P.E. kit and homework, trespassed in restricted areas… You get the idea.

If you ban something, you should be prepared to enforce it so that the whole establishment doesn’t look weak at the foundations. But, if you enforce a rule that is clearly stupid to our under-estimated and very astute youth, you will find that the effectiveness of the whole punitive system is stripped away. Detention for not going to class is much the same as detention for going to class and refusing to stop using the word “basically”, so if the teacher pisses you off once to often with pedantic needling, you might just as well not go to class.

A similar debate over language occurred when someone made it their policy to allow kids to learn Shakespeare as hip-hop. Of course, there was outcry. Never mind the fact that when I was a teenager, no one batted an eyelid about showing a version of Romeo and Juliet set on Venice Beach with guns and transvestites, so long as it used Shakespeare’s original language. Apparently, messing with the Bard’s words is a no-no (though I see no reason why you couldn’t rap Early Modern English, too; “flibbertigibbet” probably sounds great with a funky beat) even if it helps kids understand and engage with great literature – of course, it’s debatable that Shakespeare is good literature without the language, in which case it’s a wonder why we set such store in it in the first place. Other counties seem to do perfectly well without the original text. Has anyone examined the effect of dropping it from the syllabus? Of course not, that would be sacrilege, an insult to our heritage or something.

Then, there’s the other side; the same people who are complaining about hip-hop with its purportedly damaging messages and representations are also complaining about this. Rapping Shakespeare, and understanding that putting words to a beat does not necessarily mean you have to talk about other people in ways that would make a public toilet wall blush, would potentially improve the genre and thus set a better example to people who follow it. Unless you want to claim that its witlessness is its appeal, in which case you’ll be onto a loser whatever you do, since it has that in common with many other genres. I still think Shakespearean rap would be better than Christian Rock.

Once again, we just don’t get teenagers. Show me a teen who genuinely loves Shakespeare, and understands Shakespearian English, and I’ll show you a true rarity. Most of us throughout history have felt everything from apathy to outright dislike towards it during our pubescent years, no matter how enthused our teachers were. I’ll let you in on a secret, too; it isn’t exposure that changes that, it’s years. I put down King Lear, fairly unaffected, at the age of 16 having struggled my way through it laboriously in class. I didn’t go near Shake again until I was about 22, when a version of Othello came on the radio.

I understood every word without a problem and enjoyed it, and then formed the hindsight and language appreciation to realise that Lear and Macbeth (which I covered at the tender age of 13) were actually quite poetic and interesting. Unless it takes six years for information to permeate (a permissible theory, I suppose), it took a developed brain and an understanding of language and discourse brought only by years of adult experience, to make Shakespeare comprehensible.

A teenage brain may simply not be equipped to handle it, but at least if kids enjoy learning it for whatever reason, they won’t develop a lifelong aversion and they might remember it well enough to want to follow it up later in life when they are more boring and sensible. I say constantly that To Kill a Mockingbird was a terrible choice for a GCSE set text, because no one I know who read it then, no matter how intelligent they were, enjoyed it. Now in adulthood, they are convinced they don’t like it and refuse to go near it. I read it just last year for the first time and consider it one of the best books I’ve ever read.

To say that it’s condescending to teach kids in this way misunderstands what condescension is. Attempting to adapt lessons to fit what teens already like is not dumbing down. You will only think so if you consider that what they engage with outside of school is inferior to what they learn in the classroom. In short, you have to already think there’s something inherently wrong with hip-hop in order to object to Shakespearean hip-hop – and indeed, many people do think it. They do not know about the wide variety of (admittedly under-represented) hip-hop that deals in serious social commentary and weighty emotional issues. There are several ways to teach kids about that sort of stuff, and it is generally better not to suggest to them that the way they most enjoy isn’t good enough because it isn’t rich, white and old.

If someone never does stop using what I will call teenage language, the first question our heroic reformers must ask themselves is why. If we are considering that using words like “innit” is a form of arrested development, there must be a reason for it. Perhaps it is exactly because of the continued prevalence of language and culture snobbery, that shoulders out people who do not already have the privilege of having been raised in an environment that happens to be the correct one for fitting in with the educate status quo. I couldn’t blame someone for feeling disenfranchised and alienated by this, even if they don’t know why. When it gets right down to it, if employers didn’t assume that there was automatically something wrong with speaking in this way, it wouldn’t be the travesty traditionalists make it out to be. They are confusing cause and affect.

There is no reason on Earth why you should have to talk like the woman from the train announcements who puts unreasonable emphasis on the word Park [Raynes PaAHHhk, Motspur PaAHHhk, Worcester PaAHHhk!] in order to be a whiz with computers. It is entirely the fault of employers if they prefer to judge non-verbal jobs on articulateness and presentation. All that does is force everyone, regardless of their talents, into the same skill set. It’s quite a lazy way of selecting candidates which will prove itself to be ineffectual later down the line, when people get their shit together and finally realise that people speaking differently is not the end of the world.

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