Expressive Millennial English.

Rachel Thompson writes for Mashable about that well-worn topic, Millennials and How They Do Things. But she quotes actual linguists, so I thought I’d pass on some excerpts:

Dr Lauren Fonteyn, English Linguistics lecturer at University of Manchester, told Mashable “something exciting” is happening with the way that millennials write, and it goes far, far beyond our proclivity to use acronyms and “like.”

Fonteyn says millennials are “breaking the constraints” of written English to “be as expressive as you can be in spoken language.” This new variant of written English strives to convey what body language, and tone and volume of voice can achieve in spoken English.

Fonteyn says that on a superficial level, we can see millennials stripping anything unnecessary from their writing, like the removal of abbreviation markers in “dont,” “cant,” “im” and in acronyms like tf, ur, bc, idk, and lol. In a world where most of our conversations take place online, millennials are using a number of written devices to convey things that could typically only be communicated by cadence, volume, or even body language.

One such device is “atypical capitalisation” […]

Dr Ruth Page, senior lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Birmingham University, says that frequently the “personal pronoun (‘I’) is in the lower case (‘i’)” which is sometimes used to “play down the person’s sense of self.” […]

Millennials’ use—or rather, misuse—of punctuation is where things really start to get creative. Page says research shows how “non-standard use of punctuation can reflect ‘tone of voice’ or what linguists would call ‘paralinguistic’ meaning.” She says that an example of this is using a period (a.k.a. a full stop) at the end of a sentence to “indicate that you are cross.” […]

For millennials who conduct so many of their conversations online, this creativity with written English allows us to express things that we would have previously only been conveyed through volume, cadence, tone, or body language. But, Fonteyn thinks it “goes beyond that as well,” with things like the trademark symbol.

“When TM is added to a phrase, it ADDS something you can’t do in a regular conversation,” says Fonteyn. “I don’t think this originates in speech, because I don’t think anyone actually says “the point TM.”

Thanks, jack!


  1. Stu Clayton says

    0″Our” proclivity to use acronyms and ‘like’ ? I find nothing exciting or new about youf jargon. Waves of it have been breaking and receding since I can remember, and of course before that. I guess I have a longer attention span than actual linguists.

    One aspect of newspeak commonly overlooked is that it reenforces linguistic isolation. It’s hard enough to keep up with English, thanks to urbandictionary. But this bubble-head gangsta stuff goes down in French, German and Spanish, as I know for a fact and anyone else can know. No way to keep up for furriners. They betray themselves.

    The principle is: baby needs safe special place goo.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    Everyone wants to be with it. As I show in my previous comment, I’m so with it that I can do without it.

  3. Use of “like” among the youth (in America, at least) probably peaked over twenty years ago. It was a real phenomenon among teens (mostly girls at first, but then also lots of boys) when I was in middle and high school. By the time Clueless came out in 1995, “like” usage was a standard stereotype for (white) teen girls.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    The use of capitalization for oft-semi-ironic emphasis and/or ™ to similar effect can’t be millenial-specific tics, because they are things that I do. So there, and harrumph. Let the millenials take credit for the other phenomena reported in the article that I don’t do and that seem gratuitously weird to me.

    Come to think of it you can see that same use of capitalization in that oft-deprecated 2001 Harpers piece by the notorious D. Foster Wallace, who was even older than me — admittedly only three years older although that’s probably just enough to have made him a very very young Goddam Boomer rather than an older-than-the-rest Gen X’er.

  5. @Brett: I haven’t seen anything to indicate a fall in usage. In class discussions when I was in college (within the past ten years), many of my peers made such heavy use of like as a filler word, or even verbal tic, between phrases that I felt embarrassed for them. That aside (and I have no animosity toward the word, mind you), it seems to be well entrenched as a quotative, especially in impressionistic senses, and it’s even filtered into the usage of many Boomers. If it seems less prominent today, it might just be because it’s no longer a flashy identifier for Californianate youth subcultures like it used to be.

  6. Jonathan D says

    Stu, what the article focuses on isn’t so much “newspeak” as the fact that written communication is now so normal that there are well established writing conventions apart from those of traditional/formal writing. In line with JW Brewer’s comment, I think many of the details are not as new/restricted to youf as the tone of the article suggests – it’s just that younger people tend to be less likely to consider the conventions of formal writing relevant to different contexts.

    I’m surprised at the suggestion that noone would say “TM” or something equivalent in speech, though.

  7. I’ve seen people writing this way since at least the 1990s. For me, this style conveys lack of engagement and a certain amount of self-absorption more than anything else.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Jonathan: newspeak was a reference to 1984. It is no surprise that there are well-established writing conventions. No conventions, no communication.

    From the WiPe:

    # Newspeak is a controlled language, of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary … In “The Principles of Newspeak”, the appendix to the novel, George Orwell explains that Newspeak usage follows most of the English grammar, yet is a language characterised by a continually diminishing vocabulary; complete thoughts reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning #

    “Expressive millennial English” is self-controlled by imitation and emulation. By the self-discipline of independence-crazed faddish teenagers and their adult fawners. But that’s the way it’s always been, what me worry ?

    I’m sure this is a fascinating topic for linguists, as the details of Easter hat design are for society gossip columnists.

  9. Are millennials still a thing? Should we let them be and switch our attention to 9/11-ers (people who couldn’t possible see the Twin Towers with unaided eye).

  10. Gen Zers, you mean? They’re still somewhat inchoate in the popular consciousness, I guess.

  11. SFReader says

    Googled the unfamiliar term

    youf – A juvenile black person who commits a serious crime, i.e. rape, murder or armed robbery. ( )

    is it the meaning you had in mind?

  12. Stu Clayton says

    No. For several years now I’ve encountered “youf” used by Brits replicating a streetwise pronunciation of “youth” by lazy (mundfaul) British youf.

    Something I’ve not seen said straight-out, that I have only speculated about, is that this is a feature of (now “hip”) Jamaican pronunciation. I don’t know where I got that idea.

    There’s a 2012 languagehat post where “youf” (and “troof” etc) come up:

    # “F” for final theta occurs in AAVE, but I don’t know if it’s “standard.” Earlier in that verse, Ice Cube pronounces “youth” with what I think is a “th,” but I’m pretty sure Youth has an “f” in Dead Prez’s Behind Enemy Lines and definitely in Zion I’s The Bay. Freddie Gibbs says “boof” in 187 Proof. Jay-z says “troof” in Otis. Boots says “wealf” in The Coup’s The Name Game. Eazy-E says “rufless” in Ruthless Villain. I hope all these are accurate.

    Sorry for the random songs, I’m bad at finding relevant lyrics. And there are a lot of counter-examples, so it’s not a hard and fast rule. It’s also hard to be sure when it’s used in a song because -ooth words are often rhymed with -oof words, like in C.R.E.A.M. “Leave it up to me while I be living proof/To kick the truth/To the young black youth(youf?)” I have the nonscientific impression that it may be more common in certain words (“boof”) than others (never heard “wif,” instead “wit”). #

  13. Stu Clayton says

    Here’s that 2012 post. I left it out of my last comment because it would have put the comment into “moderation”.

  14. mene mene tekel upharsin

  15. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    acronyms like tf, ur, bc, idk,

    What happened to the idea that acronyms differed from abbreviations in being pronounceable? Oh, I know: he got his ideas from the programmers of Internet Explorer. Maybe, in addition, he’s too young to remember telegrams.

  16. It’s common in AAVE to say “birfday”, but i’m not sure it’s only in AAVE.

    “Youf” is something I associate with British publications like The Oldie, though.

    Also, “a muvver was barfing er baiby one night…” (non-rhotic)

  17. Lars (the original one) says

    ‘Arf and youf and like that are part of the “Cockney” stereotype, innit? Older than radio.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Yes, it’s an unconditional merger there (also /ð/ into /v/: “bruvver”). I think the Jamaican/Ja-fake-an merger is instead into /t/.

  19. Stu Clayton says

    # I wear a yout suit jacket with side vents five inches long #

  20. I’m so glad that no one (between/other than) Boomers and Millennials has ever done anything pressworthy.

  21. @ jude

    Or to translate that into Millennial-al: Mene. Mene. Tekel. Upharsin.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Here’s a 2002 description of soccer written in what seems to be a Jamaican or other West Indian creole, with “yute” rather than “yoof”: “See, im give it to de yute on de right wing an de yute ave two man fo beat over deh. Look pon de lef wing, de yute wide open … nobody fo beat but de goal. Im never see im because im was facing de right side when im get de ball an im never bodder look. But when you ave ball sense you know where everybody is pon de fiel, an if you don’t know, you look fas as soon as you know you goin get de ball.”

  23. Jim Doyle says

    “and it’s even filtered into the usage of many Boomers.”

    “Like” has been a feature of “stoner” or “head” speech since the 60s and it was probably current among jazz musicians and their audience in the 50s.

    “I’m so glad that no one (between/other than) Boomers and Millennials has ever done anything pressworthy.”

    Me too. It simplifies things a lot. It helps that those two generations are so much larger than the adjoining ones and thus have so much more cultural and political impact than the others..

  24. When we Boomers are gone you’ll be sorry — it’ll be all Millennials, all the time.

  25. One of my advisors at CCNY in the 1970s spoke entirely Standard English except for final /θ/, which he pronounced [f]. I think this was a matter of hanging on to a distinctive AAVE usage even when all other markers were lost or set aside. I compare it to the “Punjabi” of the Delhi area, which is almost entirely Hindi except for a few distinctively Punjabi particles like the relative pronouns.

    Sam: Johnson on “conquering” the Scottish accent.

  26. @Craig: Well, they aren’t called the Silent Generation for nothing. (Although they did produce a lot of the countercultural pioneers that Boomers idolized.)

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    Probably the first post-Boomer to attract public notoriety for using language in a way The Old People ™ found appalling was Moon Unit Zappa (b. 1967). Her 1982 break-out hit was very like-heavy, with, if my browser is to be trusted and a particular online transcription is reliable, no fewer than 72 instances of “like” in the total discourse. For example:

    I, like
    Love going into, like, clothing stores and stuff
    I, like
    Buy the neatest mini-skirts and stuff
    It’s, like, so bitchin’
    Cause, like, everybody’s like
    Super-super nice
    It’s, like, so bitchin’

  28. Rodger C says
  29. @J.W. Brewer: Bag your face!

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    Note the usage of “wif” in this wikipedia article, which explains that “Despite noticeabwe variation among de accents and diawects of Engwish used in different countries and regions – in terms of phonetics and phonowogy, and sometimes awso vocabuwary, grammar and spewwing – Engwish-speakers from around de worwd are abwe to communicate wif one anoder wif rewative ease.”

  31. I was already going to post a comment to say that Moon Unit was one of the two prototypical Valley Girls. The other one was fictional Cher from Clueless, who is about ten years younger, my age. (The character of Cher is slightly younger than I am, but the actress Alicia Silverstone is slightly older.)

    I think that there really was an increase in usage of like as a filler, as well as quotative like, in the 1980s through the 1990s, after which the uses declined somewhat, settling down at a level that was still elevated relative to what they had been in the 1970s at earlier. At this point, heavier use of like has spread to be a general property of (American) English. I doubt that it is at all characteristic of today’s youth, and the users for whom it really was once a generational signifier are now middle aged.

  32. You can hear beatnik stereotypes using “like” in some Stan Freberg recordings from the 1950s.

  33. Yeah, “like,” like “cool,” is a perennial.

  34. On the original article, I don’t really buy the ‘i’ thing, but I definitely agree with the period-ending thing. There’s a world of difference to me between “hi” [neutral] and “hi.” [ominous, like ‘we have to talk’.] Also of import is the number of exclamation marks used when using an exclamation mark. Just one looks unconvincing, like you’re not really excited.

    Also, how to respond properly with a laugh — the difference between “ha”, “haha”, “hahaha”, etc. — seems pretty subtle.

  35. @elguru
    Oh Mummy Pat My Bum

  36. I should note that my posting lost its [snark][/snark] tags. 🙁

  37. For several years now I’ve encountered “youf” used by Brits replicating a streetwise pronunciation of “youth” by lazy (mundfaul) British youf.

    The canonical spelling is “yoof” (see Cambridge and Collins). The original context is “yoof TV”, a brash irreverent style of youth television in Britain begun in the late 70s, which contrasted with the staid condescension of earlier programs like “Blue Peter”. The name “yoof TV” is because:
    * prime instigator Janet Street-Porter had (and has) a strong cockney accent,
    * (young or adult) presenters and audience members had regional accents — unselfconsciously in many cases, hyperconsciously in others.
    * deriding middle-aged middle-class TV execs’ aspirations to be down wit de yoof as just another kind of condescension, innit?

  38. prime instigator Janet Street-Porter had (and has) a strong cockney accent

    Now Janet Street-Porter, CBE! You can hear her and the Sex Pistols in their 1976 heyday here (where she provides an amazingly sophisticated history and analysis, considering those were the very early days of punk).

    deriding middle-aged middle-class TV execs’ aspirations to be down wit de yoof as just another kind of condescension, innit?

    It’s hard to resist, but yes, it is.

  39. J.W. Brewer says

    Apparently Ms. Street-Porter’s mode of speaking was sufficiently distinctive (at least in the specific context of “someone hosting a tv show”?) as to attract parodies/spoofs.

  40. I laughed!

  41. David Eddyshaw says

    Quotative “like” is obviously calqued from Sanskrit. I blame the Beatles.

  42. Matthew Roth says

    I buy the capitalization one. I go to all caps with someone’s name. when I’m being facetiously outraged, because it’s offensive in a funny way. I will write in all-lower case when it’s clearly a joke and we’re all being ironic, flippant, etc. I know people who insert punctuation between words to emphasise questions and excitement, rather like inserting periods between words.

    The funny part is that my own usage is fairly standard for formal written usage or normal usage, including speech as well. I use lol, haha, and similar abbreviations, and I use more than I used to, alongside emojis. I know that I sometimes write online as I speak. Part of this is that it is clearer to me. I also have a full keyboard, whereas many older Millennials had to hit buttons several times over for far longer than I had to do so. There is good corpus data from 2006 on SMS usage in English, French, Spanish, and German. I hope that the iPhone and emoji usage prompt a follow-up study.

  43. Trond Engen says
  44. J.W. Brewer says

    So here’s a way-way-before-the-Millenials example of that Capitalization Thing, from a profile of the just-deceased Tom Wolfe originally published on May 2, 1965 and with an opening paragraph written in Wolfean pastiche: “Tom Wolfe! Terrific! Here was this studious, shy, conventional boy from Richmond, who went to St. Christopher’s and everything, and suddenly at the age of 34 he is a lion in the streets of literary New York, writing Irreverent Things about established heroes and totems and writing them in this twisting, surging, broken-field prose that goes whooping along in its own little cloud of typographical dust …”

  45. It might even have strains of continuity with the inconsistent capitalization found in earlier modern English.

  46. J.W. Brewer says

    I think a common 20th century understanding of 18th century orthographic practice was that Important Words got Haphazardly Capitalized. Somehow or other by the 20th century doing that struck a mildly jocular note rather than seeming like a conscious archaism? A.A. Milne does it rather a lot in the Pooh books, which were already in print when the late Mr. Wolfe was born in 1930. E.g., “Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”

  47. Ah yes, Milne is very apposite here.

  48. Bathrobe says

    “Yoof”, “muvver”. How come no one has mentioned “bovver”?

  49. And “bruv”.

  50. I always assumed that A. A. Milne was, at least in part, imitating Kenneth Grahame with his use of unusual capitals. (Milne was a huge admirer of The Wind in the Willows and penned its first adaptation, the play Toad of Toad Hall.) However, Grahame’s capitalization was more limited and mostly (but not exclusively) used to indicate that apparently common nouns were actually proper names (the Water Rat, River Bank, etc.).

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