Living words

Our language carries the imprint of our individual lives, even in this digital age, writes Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch 

Published 2 years ago on Jul 27, 2019 4 minutes Read

Does it ever feel like your family or friend group speaks its very own dialect? This was the premise of a book called Kitchen Table Lingo, which collected examples from what the linguist David Crystal called familects: “The private and personal word-creations that are found in every household and in every social group, but which never get into the dictionary” (or onto dialect maps). The book’s initial appeal for “familect” words attracted thousands of submissions from around the world, with stories of misheard song lyrics, onomatopoeia, children’s coinages, and no less than fifty-seven words for the TV remote control. Dialect maps are just the beginning of our linguistic differences: every time we talk with some people more than others, we have the chance to develop a shared vocabulary, whether that’s families, friends, schools, workplaces, hobbies, or other organizations. Family dialects are often inspired by a cute word that comes out of a kid’s mouth (Queen Elizabeth II was apparently nicknamed “Gary” by a young Prince William, who was unable to say “Granny” yet), but the peak importance of in-group language happens at a later life stage: teenagehood.

High school is a place where people really notice small social details, whether that’s the cool brand of jeans, who’s now going out with who, or vowels. The linguist Penelope Eckert embedded at a high school in the Detroit suburbs in the 1980s to study the correlation between language and high school cliques. She found two main groups: jocks, who participated in the power structure of the school through activities like varsity sports and student council, and burnouts, who rejected the school’s authority. In Detroit, along with many other American cities around the Great Lakes, there’s a vowel change going on, where some speakers say “the busses with the antennas on top” in a way that sounds to people outside the area like “the bosses with the antennas on tap.” For Eckert’s students, the “bosses” pronunciation had a connotation of “street smarts,” so the burnouts were more likely to use it than the jocks—despite the fact that they all lived in the same neighborhood and attended the same school, and irrespective of the social class of their parents. You could arrange the students into more subtle cliques, from “burned-out burnouts” to “jock-jocks,” and their vowels would follow suit. To put it in the terms of classic high school movie characters, if Eckert’s high school was Rydell High from Grease, we’d expect Sandy to say “bus,” Rizzo to say “boss,” and Frenchy to be somewhere in between.

Further studies at other high schools show other groups with other linguistic attitudes. A group of girls in California identified as nerds, and rejected the jock-burnout dichotomy altogether: linguistically, they avoided the slang and cool vowels developing among their peers (such as pronouncing the word “friend” as “frand”), because they didn’t want to be heard as caring about high school popularity. Instead, they adopted linguistic features linked to intellectualism, such as hypercareful articulation, long words, and puns. A study of Latinas at another California high school found a linguistic distinction between Norteñas, who identified as American or Chicana and generally spoke English, and Sureñas, who identified as Mexicana and generally spoke Spanish. We could keep going, but let’s pause and think about how we develop our senses of what’s cool in the first place.

Remember how you learned about swearing? It was probably from a kid around your age, maybe an older sibling, and not from an educator or authority figure. And you were probably in early adolescence: the stage when linguistic influence tends to shift from caregivers to peers. Linguistic innovation follows a similar pattern, and the linguist who first noticed it was Henrietta Cedergren. She was doing a study in Panama City, where younger people had begun pronouncing “ch” as “sh”—saying chica (girl) as shica. When she drew a graph of which ages were using the new “sh” pronunciation, Cedergren noticed that sixteen-year-olds were the most likely to use the new version—more likely than the twelve-year-olds were. So did that mean that “sh” wasn’t the trendy new linguistic innovation after all, since the youngest age group wasn’t really adopting it? Cedergren returned to Panama a decade later to find out. The formerly untrendy twelve-year-olds had grown up into hyperinnovative twenty-two-year-olds. They now had the new “sh” pronunciation at even higher levels than the original trendy cohort of sixteen-year-olds, now twenty-six-year-olds, who sounded the same as they had a decade earlier. What’s more, the new group of sixteen-year-olds were even further advanced, and the new twelve-year-olds still looked a bit behind. Cedergren figured out that twelve-year-olds still have some linguistic growth to do: they keep imitating and building on the linguistic habits of their slightly older, cooler peers as they go through their teens, and then plateau in their twenties.


This is an extract from Gretchen McCulloch's Because Internet published by Riverhead Books