The Main Generational Differences in Language

August 30, 2020Klein E

You can find the associated video here (which I recommend you watch):

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. But it must be noted that 'stupid' is very subjective and context dependent. It's also vital to understand the notion of 'covert prestige' as it links intrinsically to slang usage: "Covert prestige: Non-standard varieties are often said to have covert prestige ascribed to them by their speakers. A specific, small group of speakers shows a positive evaluation of an orientation towards a certain linguistic variety, usually without the speakers' awareness. The variety is usually not accepted in all social groups (e.g. youth language)."

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

Can you think of any that your 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.


Some may think this generation of Millennials is destroying the English language with every word that comes out of their mouth, but Melbourne University linguist Rosey Billington says it’s quite the opposite.

“When you are able to use language in a creative way, you show you are linguistically savvy because you know the language rules well enough to use words in a different way,” she said.
The linguist believes the emergence of technology has changed language because people are looking for words that are convenient and take less time to type.

But that online language, which started with things like LOL (laugh out loud) and GTG (got to go), is actually starting to seep into everyday, face-to-face conversation.

“With words like FOMO, people are definitely saying that out loud because it’s quicker to say that ‘fear of missing out’,” Ms Billington said.

“I think some of these words will stick around and rub off on the older generation but it’s the young people who are introducing new words and implementing changes to the language.

“They are at the forefront of change and young people are driving it, partly because they are digital natives.”

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)”. Much like slang, intensification goes through a frequent renewal process to ensure its effectiveness and powerfulness is kept.


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

Firstly, let’s focus on HRT, otherwise known as the ‘high rising terminal’. This can be defined as an upward inflexion at the end of an utterance so that every utterance made by a speaker sounds like a question. This is a 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 diphthongisation: 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 of 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!

I will be running the most comprehensive revision workshop for VCE English Language 3/4 these coming Spring holidays. To find out more, please go here or here

Don't miss out - my workshops always sell out every holiday - and I have got so much planned for you. Revise as you've never revised before!

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Klein E

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