Monday Motivation: The dialect of teenagers

unnamed-Richard Beynon

Adam Gopnik, staffwriter on the New Yorker, has written an article about teenage dialect, and argues that the dialogue uttered by your typical 14-year-old, peppered with ‘ums’ and ‘likes’, is as subtle a medium of communication as anything ever written by Henry James.

He writes:

‘If, for instance, a fourteen-year-old girl says, “So we, like, um, went to the pizza place, but the, uh, you know—the guy?—said, like, no, so we were, like, O.K., so we, uh, decided that we’d go to, like, a coffee shop, but, uh, Colette can’t—she has, like, a gluten thing. You know what I mean? So that’s, like, why we came home, and, um, you know, would you, like, make us eggs?”

‘To a sensitized listener, who recognizes the meaning of the circumlocutions, the nuanced space between language and event, the sentence really means: “So we tried, as it were, to go and enjoy a pizza, but the, so to speak, maître d’ of the establishment claimed—a statement that we were in no social position to dispute—that there was, so to speak, ‘no room for us at the inn.’ And then Colette insisted— and far be it for me either to contest or endorse her self-diagnosis—that she could not eat wheat-based food, so, knowing full well that it is likely to be irksome and ill-timed, could you feed us with scrambled eggs?”

‘The point of the “likes”s and other tics is to supply the information that there is a lot more information not being offered, and that the whole thing is held at a certain circumspect remove. It didn’t happen exactly this way, and, of course, one might quibble with a detail here or there, but this is the gist of what happened. Each “like” is a Jamesian “as it were.”’

I think Gopnik’s right. I think that we – and by “we” I mean, like, those of us of a certain age – can be hugely dismissive of the coding systems of other sub-groups, insisting that only orthodox English, spoken in an orthodox manner, will do.

But the big trick, in our writing, is to convey the feel of dialogue, rather than transcribe it literally from her lips to my page. The fact is that bare and unaccommodated dialogue depends hugely on context. Standing at the butcher’s counter, I’m aware of the butcher’s casual hand reference encompassing the shoulder of pork that he’s prepared for me. I don’t need him to say, ‘The shoulder of pork you ordered on Monday is ready – do you want anything else?” All he need do is wave at the cut, and say, ‘Anything else?’

(Butchers, in my experience, seldom resort to the ‘likes’ and ‘kindas’ of teenagers – but then my experience is admittedly limited.)

Elmore Leonard is the master of cut-to-the-bone dialogue, of course – but he has plenty of devotees. I’m betting that Ace Atkins, writer of the Quinn Colsen series, set in a remote county of Mississippi, has devoured Elmore Leonard. Take this sequence from the first book in the series (which I’m busy reading). The conversation is between Colsen himself, recently back from stints in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the mistress of his uncle, recently dead apparently by his own hand:

‘You see this comin’?’ Quinn asked.

‘No, sir, I did not.’

‘Was he drinking again?’

‘I didn’t know he’d stopped,’ she said. ‘That man sure liked his whiskey.’

‘But it hadn’t gotten any worse?’

She shook her head. ‘What he done shocked me probably about as much as it shocked y’all. Did you know he promised to take me on a cruise to Mexico? We used to go down to Biloxi and Tunica all the time.’

‘He hadn’t mentioned any troubles?’

‘We didn’t talk about private matters,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘We just had sex.’

‘Not while cohabitating?’

‘We helped each other along.’

Sparse, laconic, economical. Exactly the words I’d’ve used of Elmore Leonard’s dialogue. Not a wasted word. And sly humour lurking in what’s unsaid. ‘We didn’t talk about private matters,’ says the waitress (no spring chicken, either, as it happens), ‘We just had sex.’

So if you were writing the dialogue of a louche teenager, you’d sneak in the odd ‘like’ and ‘um’ – but more important, you’d try to convey the urgency and rhythm (and wit) of teenager conversationalists.

Take a snatch of dialogue from a John Green novel (Paper Towns), for instance:

‘I figure that you guys probably know Marcus better than anyone,’ she said…

‘It’s a shitty job, but someone’s got to do it,’ Ben answered, smiling.

‘Do you think he’s, like, embarrassed of me?’

Ben laughed. ‘What? No,’ he said.

‘Technically,’ I added, you should be embarrassed of him.’

She rolled her eyes, smiling. A girl accustomed to compliments. ‘But he’s never, like, invited me to hang out with you, though.’

‘Ohhhh,’ I said, getting it finally, ‘That’s because he’s embarrassed of us.’

She laughed. ‘You seem pretty normal.’

‘You’ve never seen Ben snort Sprite up his nose and then spit it out of his mouth,’ I said…

And so on. There are a couple of ‘likes’ in there – but they don’t overwhelm us, as they can in real-life. But it feels like teenage-speak, even though it’s much less authentic than the piece that Adam Gopnik quoted. (What I don’t get is the ‘embarrassed of’ – it must be an Americanism.)

But I’ll give the last word to Adam Gopnik, since it was he who got me going today. Don’t condemn teenagers, he says…

‘Far from being banished from polite or public dialogue, their discourse markers should mark our own—they should be imported as a sign of a meticulous grasp of the truth that there is no settled truth, that all narration is subjective, that every account must always be qualified.’

I couldn’t, like, have said that better myself.

Happy writing,


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