Martha Robinson: Teenspeak is not for adults

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The Independent Online

Bait, feen, whack, yam, gantin, tidy, T-Dizzle, elvin. You may not know what any of these words mean, and I'm not going to tell you. Mostly because I reckon if you're old enough to need to ask then you don't need to know, but also because I don't have a clue about some of them myself.

Some seem out of date (has anyone actually said "whack" since the 1990s?), some may be made up, and others are clearly after my time (with my 19th birthday rapidly approaching I am beginning to lose touch with teen speak).

However, if you do have a burning desire to ape a 14-year-old, you're in luck. The national charity Parentline Plus has created an online "teenglish" dictionary at to "help break down the language barrier" between teenagers and their parents.

There is an assumption here that being able to understand "teenglish" (a word that I pray never finds its way into any dictionary) will somehow make connecting with teenagers easier. Is this really the case? The image of a paunchy, balding, middle-aged geography teacher trying to break up a fight by imploring his students to "dead them talks" seems unlikely to aid communication.

Rather, the special brand of comedy gold produced when someone old enough to know better tries to be "down with the kids" is so patronising that it is likely to alienate teenagers further from their elders. Interactions between "adults" and "teenagers" should be stimulating and natural conversations between people – not a desperate attempt to translate adult ideas into something relevant with the help of some choice gobbledygook.

Parents and teachers don't need to understand teenage slang, because they don't need to use it. Anyone who can speak "teenglish" can also speak "English" and, if I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, their conversations with adults should take place in "grown-up" language – adultese, to coin one ridiculous word to fight another.

It is in having mature conversations with mature individuals that teenagers become mature themselves and make the difficult transition between child and adult. By attempting to "connect with the yoof", all Parentline Plus are really doing is denying us the chance to grow up.

There is also an assumption in the creation of this jargon-buster that it's possible to talk like a "teenager" – as though everyone between the ages of 12 and 20 form some homogeneous mass culture. We like the same music, think the same thoughts and babble away to each other in our secret language, as we loiter on street corners in our menacing hoddies.

Unfortunately for those who would like to make "young people" a separate social group, we're not all the same. Cliques and interest groups of every kind dwarf any effect that being the same age might have. I know people who would happily describe themselves as "young Conservatives", people who spend every waking moment playing basketball, or World of Warcraft, or fencing. I know girls who only read Heat, and those whose idea of heaven is a Thomas Hardy novel and a can of Coke. Yes, I even know a couple of people who could conceivably use "rago" in a sentence.

"Teenglish" is not a language. It is a collection of slang that may or may not be used by some people too young to stand for Parliament. Any barriers that may exist between young and old are not linguistic: you don't need to speak like a teenager to speak to one, but you'd better respect them enough to talk to them like a grown-up.