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Teenagers, Variation, and Young Peoples Culture

E Neuland and D Schubert, Wuppertal University,
Wuppertal, Germany
2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Youth Language as a Linguistic

Before linguists became interested in them, youth
languages were generally consigned to the field of
special language research or critique, where they
were viewed above, all under the aspect of lexicography. However, under the influence of the so-called
pragmatic revolution in communication studies, this
focus has widened since the 1980s to embrace a manyfaceted interest in the linguistic habits and usages
of young people and a methodological pluralism in
assembling and classifying empirical data.
Research into this field is currently focused on
the following areas: the lexicography of youth
languages the compilation of dictionaries based on
the assumption of homogeneous usage; the pragmatics
of youth languages forms of greeting and address,
particles, forms of intensification; the ethnography of
youth languages expressive and functional modes
of group-specific communication based on concrete
examples; oral style analysis stylistic features and
pick-n-mix techniques in young peoples communication; cultural analysis functional aspects such
as generation-specific delimitation and social identity

formation, and sociohistorical aspects of the relation

between youth languages and standard languages; and
comparative study of youth languages comparison
of code-immanent and code-transcending forms and
Far from viewing and classifying youth languages
as a homogeneous phenomenon, interdisciplinary
research reveals a number of different theoretical

Theoretical Concepts Applied to

Youth Language

Structurally oriented research generally describes

youth languages in the German-speaking area as
a variety of German (Standard German). Berruto
(1987) saw such varieties as characterized by the
cooccurrence of linguistic and extralinguistic features,
with situational aspects of language use (social as
well as functional) impacting on its concrete forms.
Accordingly, how a language is spoken depends
on the specific social context in which it is spoken
(Berruto, 1987; Neuland, 2003c). Research into French
(Scherfer, 2003; Zimmermann, 2003) and to some extent into German youth languages (Heinemann, 1987;
Ehmann, 1992; Androutsopoulos, 1998) employs a
definition based on the concept of linguistic varieties,
defining youth language as a secondary variety viz.,

542 Teenagers, Variation, and Young Peoples Culture

as a secondary system modeled on the primary variety

and acquired in the course of secondary socialization
(cf. Androutsopoulos, 1998). In contrast to primary
varieties, secondary varieties derive from a conscious
process of selection and depend on individual factors
like lifestyle, interests, and images of the self. Consequently, they differ both in the timing and in the
underlying intentionality of their acquisition, and
their use is generally restricted to contexts in which,
or close to which, they were initially used. As a descriptive parameter, linguistic variety can only grasp
some of the relevant features of youth languages: it
has difficulties not only with the phenomenon of
situational and subcultural variation but also with
concepts of communicative process.

Research in the United Kingdom and North America

and to some extent also in eastern Europe tends
to define youth languages as slang (Eble, 2003;
Freimane, 2003), thereby assimilating them again to
objects of special language research. This is problematic in its consequences, for it inevitably presents
young people as a homogeneous group (cf. Menis,
2003), whereas in reality they and their languages
manifest the same sociocultural heterogeneity as the
adult world (cf. Henne, 1986).
Oral Style

The sociolinguistic concept of oral style (cf. Dittmar,

1997; Hinnenkamp and Selting, 1989; Kallmeyer,
2000) is also used to describe expressive patterns
and structures typical of young people. Neulands
suggestion (1987, 2003c) to apply the concept
developed by Birmingham Universitys Centre for
Contemporary Cultural Studies of subcultural
style as a complex group-specific phenomenon has
been taken up on several occasions (Schlobinski
et al., 1993; Chovan, 2003), with the emphasis on
situationally anchored style in a broadly ethnographic sense (cf. Schlobinski et al., 1993: 40). Style is
understood here as a holistic category covering a
large number of coexistent and cooccurrent features
(cf. Augenstein, 1998; Kallmeyer, 2000), an approach
that convincingly reflects the dynamics of young
peoples communication.
The diversity of youth language is also addressed in
the concepts of bricolage, reflection, and counterreflection formulated by Clarke (1979) and Neuland
(1987). Bricolage refers to the pick-n-mix technique
of young speakers, who select individual elements
from the standard speech matrix, decontextualize
them and recontextualize them in a youth language
framework. While bricolage is an important factor

in the ongoing regeneration and subcultural differentiation of youth languages, the principles of reflection and counterreflection apply to the sociocultural
contexts of youth language, in particular its relations
to standard language.

Youth Language and Standard Language

Dynamics of Style Formation and Distribution

The cultural-analytic approach to youth language

research enables statements to be made about the
influence of youth languages on standard language.
With regard to the formation of youth language
styles, Neuland (2003c), following Clarke (1979),
distinguishes three stages that together form a reflexive loop. Style formation refers to the typical
changes in particular pick n mix introduced by
young people into their language. Style distribution
refers to the continuous dilution of these sociostylistic
usages, especially by commercialization, and their
consequent loss in terms of specific sociocultural connotations. This dilution leads to style deletion as the
final phase of the loop. Being a loop, however, the
process of style dilution and deletion provokes new
style formation and the spiral starts up anew.
Nonstandard Language Formation Tendencies

The constantly changing dynamics of youth language

also have a discernible innovatory influence on
standard language, especially on its lexis. Random
samplings of new or extended entries in standard
modern dictionaries (e.g., Dudens Universalwo rterbuch) indicate a significant growth in the material
derived from this sector (Neuland et al., 2003). The
ongoing codification of typical youth lexis reveals
both expansion and differentiation in the standard
vocabulary. In contrast to institutionally instigated
change from above, this change from below leads to
the development of nonstandard language codes. The
process is supported by the idealized social image of
youth and the covert prestige accorded to their code
as a manifestation of the linguistic substandard (cf.
Trudgill, 1972).

Common Features of Youth Languages

Despite the variation and heterogeneity of young
peoples language, common features can be discerned, including specific features recurring in
different languages e.g., forms of greeting and address, stereotypical phrases and particles, metaphorical and hyperbolical structures, prosodic play
(clipping and weakening), neologisms and semantic
displacements (cf. Schlobinski and Heins, 1998).

Teenagers, Variation, and Young Peoples Culture 543

At the morphological level an intensive use of

phrasal lexemes and productive word formation patterns is evident, leading especially via creative affix
formation to the development of word sequences
and nests as well as neologisms. As far as lexical
development is concerned, this maximizing tendency
within youth languages can be observed not only in
German (cf. Androutsopoulos, 1998; Bachofer, 2003)
but also in British, American, and Australian English
(Eble, 2003; Menis, 2003) as well as Latvian
(Ernstsone, 2003; Freimane, 2003), Chinese (Zhu,
2003), and Thai (Watananguhn, 2003). The verlan
used by young French speakers (cf. Gadet, 2003;
Hefrich, 2003; Scherfer, 2003) stands out from these
in its lexical creativity, with semantic displacement
adding new connotations to standard lexemes, as well
as neologisms (Zimmermann, 2003).
A further apparently universal feature is borrowing. Here two factors govern selection from the
source language(s): linguistic contact and social prestige. German and Latvian youth languages have a
predilection for anglicisms, and Saari (2003) demonstrated borrowings from Finnish in the language of
young Swedes. GermanTurkish code mixing (Keim
and Cindark, 2003) and switching (Hinnenkamp,
2003) have been observed in the language of young
migrants. In creating their own variants, especially
style mixing, young people also exploit the innate
multilingualism of standard languages. Dialect
usages, for example, have been recorded not only in
European (Ehmann, 1992) but also in some Asian
youth languages (Zhu, 2003).
Typical syntactic features of young peoples language have also been described, but their tendency
to parallel the oral vernacular of their respective
codes suggests that they are less specific to the group
concerned. In this context, German youth languages
tend to intensify adjectival phrases, increase the use
of qualifying particles, and collapse accusative
nominative use of the indefinite article (Bachofer,
2003). Gadet (2003) observed intransitive usage
of transitive verbs as well as a high incidence of
unconjugated verb forms in French youth languages.

Written and Spoken Forms of Youth

Current research into youth language is increasingly
focused on describing written as well as spoken usage.
Print media are represented in examinations of fanzines (Androutsopoulos, 1998; Watzlawik, 2000),
and increasing Internet use has brought analyses
of e-mail, chat room and guest book languages
(Androutsopoulos, 2003). A predominantly textual
linguistic approach is evident, with contrastive

description providing insights into stylistic differences

in both written and oral youth subcultures.
In addition to classical lexical features, discourse
analysis focuses in this context above all on the
conversational strategies used by young people,
pinpointing and describing a number of typical
communicative techniques with (at times overlapping) genres such as taunting, dissing, and backbiting.
These are analyzed functionally with regard to their
potential for socialization and identity formation
(Androutsopoulos and Georgakopoulou, 2003).
Distinctive Features of Written Youth Language

A characteristic of such texts is the transfer of primarily oral characteristics to the written language. These
include the use of expressive idioms, the explicit naming or direct address of interlocutors, and introductory discourse particles. Another popular technique
is graphic representation of sound variation by means
of vowel or consonant doubling or the use of spoken
acronyms, which Androutsopoulos (1998) called
graphemic marking. The fictional orality which this
induces creates an informal, personal atmosphere between writer and reader. Particularly in informal
e-media communication, the tendency towards graphic representation of orality is so pronounced that a
strict differentiation of spoken from written linguistic
features can no longer be consistently maintained.
Distinctive Features of Oral Youth Language

Analysis of oral peer group usage focuses primarily

on typical conversational patterns among young people and their function in processes of socialization
and (group) identity formation. The bulk of youth
language research in German lies in this field. Thus,
Chovan (2003) described how the collective associative speech of young people incorporates positive face
work and at the same time creates group identity;
Branner (2003) investigated provocative activities
such as teasing and taunting in groups of girls; Deppermann and Schmidt (2001a) analyzed dissing as
an interactive practice for establishing status relations within male peer groups, and the same writers
(2001b), along with Hartung (2001), demonstrated
the overall cultural divergence of youth discourse
from accepted norms of adult conversation. In communication between young people, universal principles of politeness and thematic focus tend to give way
to less rigid norms of interaction or to disappear
temporarily altogether without this necessarily
being taken as a sign of uncooperativeness. Thus,
in contrast, to intergenerational discourse, its intragenerational counterpart operates within a sort of
free space where the scope and limits of interactive

544 Teenagers, Variation, and Young Peoples Culture

transgression can be tested and defined without fear

of automatic sanction.

Functional Aspects of Youth Language

The socializing function of youth language described
above has been further subdivided to meet the
requirements of various different theoretical and research emphases. Early work in German concentrated
on the linguistic features cultivated by young people
to distinguish themselves from the adult generation
and their representative prototypes teachers, officials, and politicians whose linguistic norms were
seen as standing for cultural values that young people
often totally rejected. More recent eastern European
(Ernstsone, 2003; Freimane, 2003) and Asian
(Watananguhn, 2003; Zhu, 2003) studies reveal the
same focus. Current western European research highlights the heterogeneity of youth subculture (hip-hop,
punk, heavy metal, etc.) and the resulting need for
distinctive group markers that provide an inwardlooking principle of diversity reflecting the outwardlooking one. The argument at this point becomes a
matter of the aesthetics of reception, and in this light
western European youth languages are frequently
seen as indicating not only general boundary-defining
strategies but also a wealth of group-specific language
games, as well as a tendency to exoticize the trivial
(Androutsopoulos, 1998).

influence of the media, the question arises whether

the current heterogeneity of cultural and linguistic
phenomena will remain or be supplanted by a growing homogeneity caused, for instance, by preferential
borrowing from a single source, such as English, that
is commonly endowed by young people with superior
prestige. Two features common to all youth languages, however, speak against such an internationalizing tendency: their creativity and their identity
(both inward and outward looking). In addition, a
glance at the development of youth languages in eastern Europe shows that increasing social liberalization
can underpin the development of nationally typical,
identity-building linguistic structures among young
people. The answer to this question, however, is no
clearer than the ongoing development of youth languages themselves, and remains a matter for future
interdisciplinary research.
See also: Age: Apparent Time and Real Time; Code

Switching and Mixing; Code Switching; French; German;

Germany: Language Situation; Identity in Sociocultural
Anthropology and Language; Language Change and Cultural Change; Language Development in School-Age Children, Adolescents, and Adults; Latvia: Language
Situation; Latvian; Politeness Strategies as Linguistic
Variables; Reflexivity in Sociolinguistics; Researching
Naturally Occurring Speech; Slang, Argot and Ingroup
Codes; Slang Dictionaries, English; Social-Cognitive
Basis of Language Development; Socialization; Style
and Style Shifting; Turkish.

No single perspective can adequately describe youth
languages and their functions in all their heterogeneity, for these languages are not only a contemporary
but also a historical phenomenon, and their impact
on their respective standard languages requires diachronic treatment. Youth languages are not confined
to certain linguistic systems; they are an international
phenomenon existing in many different languages
(Androutsopoulos and Scholz, 1998), and as such
they can be analyzed contrastively. Their use is always
linked to the intention of the speaker and has distinctive functions, among them the formation of individual and group identities. In this respect they must
also be viewed as developmental as well as group
phenomena. And in a world where youth culture
and subcultures increasingly depend on the media
and its commercializing tendencies, youth languages
are ultimately also a media phenomenon.

Against the background of a globalized world, where
the spread of youth languages is supported by the

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