For Christmas, my brother gave me a book entitled #millennialproblems: Everyday Struggles of a Generation. The book documents, through a series of tweets over around 160 pages, various cliched aspects of millennial life: ‘gramming food, being scared of adulting, being fascinated by animals etc. Of course, it includes nearly twenty pages filled with tweets of people talking about avocados. (Do we really like avocados that much?!) But it also highlights what is perhaps the most essential aspect of millennialism (yes, I know that means something else, but I’m appropriating it): language.
There’s an age-old argument in linguistics between two groups of academics: the prescriptivists and the descriptivists. The former argue that language is a sacred old mansion that needs to be preserved in its true, original form. The latter argue language is a process, changing all the time, and that no one ‘version’ of a language is better or worse than another. Millennials, whether they want to be or not, are descriptivists: toying with grammar, spelling and punctuation to convey moods, emotions and even things like sarcasm. We love sarcasm.
So how are millennials changing language, and what does it mean? Mostly, they’re just making things shorter. Whether it’s acronyms like IMHO or YOLO, shortening words to create new ones like jel and perf, millennials’ language reflects the nature of the fast-paced, digital society in which we live. Everything is becoming—some would argue has already become—on demand, instantaneous, and online, and our language is developing to keep up with that change. And this isn’t new—the Berlinerisch accent of Germany, a combination of French, Slavic and German, partly gained popularity because of its tough ‘ch’ sounds and dropping of certain consonants and words, making it faster and more efficient. This change reflected the industrialised, efficiency-obsessed nature of life at the time, and ‘millennialese’ is no different. (You heard that term here first.)
But the argument between descriptivists and prescriptivists is as much political (liberal vs. conservative) as it is linguistic, and millennials are using language to make political statements. There are the obvious ways: hashtags like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter that have spawned whole movements and ideologies just from being spread on Twitter, or #JeSuisCharlie which was essentially marketed by millennials in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.
But there’s more to it than just this, a subtlety that isn’t easily figured out. Take the acronym FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), initially thought up as a way of expressing your sadness that your friends were doing something without you. In a culture where you can easily see, via Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook or even Yik Yak (remember that? Me neither) where your mates are, FOMO is an essential part of the millennial vocabulary. But FOMO also implies something else going on under the surface. Millennials are the most anxious and depressed generation ever, and FOMO hints at this—in a single acronym, a whole host of anxious, neglected feelings are conveyed, and in a humorous fashion.
What does this all mean? Why are millennials doing this? Perhaps most importantly, to convey their identity. Digital expression is one of the most important means millennials have of communicating their identity, and toying with language is one of the easiest ways of expressing it and feeling a part of the wider community. Where the hippies had LSD and the punks had, well, punk, millennials have (aside from Beyoncé) the capitalisation of certain words in a sentence to highlight The Point, abbreviations, and emojis. More than this, because millennials spend so much time typing rather than talking, they’ve discovered ways of expressing things that can usually only be conveyed through body language, tone or volume.
Interestingly, most of these changes follow English grammar rules, or at least the phonetic rules of English. Take the abbreviations millennials use, like totes (though I don’t actually know anyone who uses that) or caj/cahj/cazh for casual. Both of these words end their abbreviation on the stressed syllable—that being, the to in TO-tally and the ca in CA-sual. This follows the tradition of ending the word on the stressed syllable—take legit, for instance, which isn’t a millennial invention and ends after the stressed second syllable: le-GIT-im-ate. Simple, really.
So millennials aren’t ruining the English language. At the same time, they aren’t making it better. They’re simply using it differently. For them, it’s a way of preserving and expressing their identity—and anyway, by the time you’re out of your twenties, you start to speak standard English again as adulthood sets. By 25, social pressure dictates the way you should behave and speak. Eventually, millennials will stop speaking like this, and the parts of millennialese that stick will remain, for a time, in the English language, and the rest will die out. As that happens, we’ll have to pay attention to Generation Z, and whatever comes after them, to see just how the young are changing language—for neither better nor worse.