English Language

The main linguistic differences between the generations

Lisa Tran

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Go ahead and tilt your mobile the right way (portrait). The kool kids don't use landscape...

Differences between the generations can be marked variously by numerous linguistic features, which collectively function as in-group recognition devices. In fact, according to Professor Clive Upton from the University of Leeds in the UK, "it [teen language] is quite clearly the way they get along, the way that they signal they belong in a group, the way that they fit in".

This notion of social inclusion is precisely the reason many adults not part of the younger generation get offended when slang or other generational linguistic choices are used outside of the social group. This notion of social exclusion can be proven by actress Emma Thompson who stated that young people make themselves sound stupid by speaking slang outside of school.

To make your lives easier as English Language students, I have decided to conveniently categorise some of the main lingustic choices employed by younger generations into the common subsystems of language. Please note that this list is my no means complete, rather it is intended to be a summary to allow you research further!


The most prominent lexical choice employed by younger generations would be 'slang'. For starters, let's define what slang means. Slang is:

  • Often spoken, not written (though this is rapidly changing with technology)
  • Informal and nonstandard
  • Short-lived and transient
  • Marks boundaries in a social group (not just generations!)
  • Often amuses, startles and captivates due to its playfulness (e.g. bae, on fleek)

Some current 2015 slang terms that I've personally heard of include 'bae' (babe or before anyone else), 'on fleek' (on point, or perfect) and 'chat' (disgusting). Can you think of any that you social group may use?

As I had stated before, according to Professor Clive Upton from the University of Leeds in the UK, "it [teen language] is quite clearly the way they get along, the way that they signal they belong in a group, the way that they fit in". This is the simplest explanation I can give as to why teenagers use slang.

Another key lexical choice peculiar to the younger generations also include hyperbole (or exaggeration). Humans are natural exaggerators and so certain intensifiers must be constantly created to fulfil this vital function in our society. However, it must also be noted that often forms of exaggeration will intersect with gender differences in language (i.e. females are generally more likely to use hyperbole in comparison to men).

In fact, according to Sali Tagliamonte of the University of Toronto, "young people are notorious for an overabundance of intensification in general (Stenstrom, 2000). Moreover, intensifiers are thought to be increasing in frequency in recent times (e.g., Ito and Tagliamonte, 2003). Further, intensifiers are associated with rapid turnover and lexical renewal and thus are thought to present an excellent means to track language change as well as to tap into current trends in contemporary English (Ito and Tagliamonte, 2003; Stenstrom, 2000)".


Another distinct linguistic feature of younger people is the use of HRT, diphthongisation and the Australian accents.

Firstly, let's focus on HRT, otherwise known as the 'high rising terminal'. This can be defined as an upward inflection at the end of an utterance, so that every utterance made by a speaker sounds like a question. This is peculiar feature of Australian English. While being used mainly in younger female speakers, in this article I will examine this striking phonological feature from a generational viewpoint.

In fact, in 1991, Cynthia McLemore had been a postgraduate student in Austin at the University of Texas, working on a PhD thesis about intonation in the speech of a university sorority. Two years later she was a world authority on uptalk (albeit Gorman's coinage). What she noted, she says, was that her seminar class used a rising intonation "to signal identity and group affiliation" - in other words, to establish what might be called a linguistic micro-community.

Another distinct phonological choice is dipthongisation: the process by which a single vowel sound (monophthong) shifts to a two-vowel vocalisation (diphthong). In particular, this can be seen in the auxiliary verb 'do', which nowadays would more likely be pronounced by younger people as 'dooo', so that the original monophthong 'ʊ' becomes extended and elongated.

Moreover, another striking feature is the increasing usage of the General Australian accent in younger people. Why? As we learnt in Unit 4 AOS 1, this has much to do with the perception of the Australian identity, as how Australians are becoming more comfortable with their identity, and therefore no longer have a need for those 'sorts of extreme sounds' (Bruce Moore, lexicographer). This would also explain the gradual disappearance of the Cultivated accent too, and according to linguist Felicity Cox, is evidence of 'sociocultural changes and republicanism'.


In terms of spoken discourse, one of the most common features is the use of discourse markers as a means of indicating group solidarity. “Like”, in particular, is prevalent in teenspeak as a marker of social groups, and therefore, subconsciously used by speakers to build social cohesion with other group members. Of course, there are other functions of discourse markers, such as holding the floor and indicating emphasis, however for this article, I'll only be focusing on the solidarity function.

This notion of solidarity can be proven by language specialist, Professor Clive Upton, who stated that using like “is about signalling membership of a club”.

Actress Emma Thompson (from Harry Potter, not Emma Watson!) says young people make themselves sound stupid by speaking slang outside of school. But while the use of the word "like" might annoy her, it fulfils a useful role in everyday speech.

Well, there you have it! These are the main linguistic differences between the generations! I sincerely hope this helps you out!




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