Why millennial language is nothing to be alarmed about

Image credit: State Farm

“Stop saying ‘like’ so much” is one of my parents’ all-time favourite lines. “It’s unnecessary and makes you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about,” they frequently add. To them, and many others of their generation, the infiltration of such “millennial” terms into the vernacular is a sign of cultural, generational decline – through laziness or ignorance, we have shortened words to “totes” and “whatevs”, appropriated existing words like “salty” and “shade”, and peppered our speech with hedges including the ever-popular “like”.

But is this really anything for them to be disturbed by? The introduction of anything into something long-established will naturally raise some alarms, especially if it appears here to be symptomatic of the wider – and oft-expounded – change that millennials represent. However, what older critics of recent linguistic changes are forgetting is that English, and any other language at that, inevitably changes through time. Having had to study literature from the Middle Ages to the present day only illuminates this, if nothing else; the formal conventions that my parents set up as a standard are only the result of generations of evolution.

So what is to say that our own linguistic additions are breaking the rules? Expression, after all, is what language is about, and by challenging some conventions we are, in the larger picture, complying to a more natural rule. As a generation, we are finding new nuances to convey different shades of emotion, thought and opinion, in ways that are novel and might therefore appear frivolous to someone from a previous generation. What we might call creative, they might label as improper.

A discussion amongst friends about the millennial use of “like” as hedging, for instance, revealed that some use it to soften the expression of their opinion, to imply a subjectivity of experience to their point. At times it is used to convey the uncertainty that my parents rail against, but who is to say that such uncertainty is invalid? It does not make an argument illogical, it is only a different way of expressing a point. Saying “I will be there at like 4”, for example, implies a certain ambiguity or uncertainty about the time, and for most of our generation, will incite an understanding from the other person.

This argument aside, Adrienne LaFrance points out in an article for The Atlantic that “teens don’t actually influence language as much as is often claimed”: “More often…words and expressions shift in and out of popular use gradually, without much notice.” She cites 1990s slang like “phat” and “psyche” which have since gone out of fashion. This trend might seem less apparent in today’s world, where social media allows the quick proliferation of certain terms, but I can still recall a time when Justin Bieber was soulfully belting out “shawty” and “swag”. These two phrases – thankfully – have made rare appearances in my life in recent years.

Geoff Nunberg suggests in Opinion the larger reason then for criticism of the millennial language: “In fact, the point of these jeremiads isn’t to understand the language or manners of the younger generation. It’s to assuage the narcissistic injuries of the generations that are being pushed aside.” As tempting as it is to imagine oneself as a bulwark against the decline of language, it might be better to simply accept that language never quite stagnates. Who knows which words or phrases might ultimately stick it out and assimilate into the vernacular, but in the meantime, let’s all just chill.

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