Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Youth speak

Several years ago my mother emailed me, "What does 'cuz' mean?" She'd been trying to decipher the letters of my teenage cousin Audrie, who regularly used the slang term for "because". Actually, I'm surprised Audrie didn't take it down a level when writing to my mother. Perhaps this is because her own parents speak slightly better English, or maybe she just doesn't practice this in general. But it reminded me how incomprehensible "youth speak" can be to an adult who speaks English as a second language. Even adults who speak English as a native language can get trapped by its rapid evolution; it's happened, albeit rarely, that I've heard a fourteen-year-old use words completely unfamiliar to me.

I've been exchanging email with our sixteen-year-old German exchange student who will arrive in a few weeks, and in her last missive she directed me to her personal web page. The link was accompanied by what I thought was a rather perceptive warning, "It's all in German but maybe it interests you and I hope you will understand the most, even I used more the German spoken youth language. It can be a bit difficult." Indeed I was able to understand the majority of her writings, which were peppered with strange little words like "ne" and "nen" and "ner". It didn't take me too long to figure out that these were all forms of the indefinite article, which of course changes endings in German: "eine", "einen", and "einer". This, apparently, is one equivalent of "cuz". I'm still trying to figure out "ma" and "vllt".

Although I engaged in a fair amount of youth speak in my younger days, I rarely did any "youth writing"; I wrote "'cause" instead of "cuz", and didn't modify any words much beyond "wanna" and "gonna". As text messaging, IMing, and online chat become more and more common, however, and the lines between the spoken and written word blur even further, I expect we old folks will need to stay on our toes to keep up.

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