Slang. On. Fleek.

Oh, that elusive teenager voice. Sometimes it seems impossible to get it right. We don’t often hear them speaking in their natural habitat. Ok, some of you are parents or teachers of teenagers, and will be like, Heather, I hear those bananas conversations every single day. Fair. But I maintain that when teenagers are aware they’re being heard by adults, the voice changes. I remember a thing from an early Linguistics class: As soon as a subject knows they’re voice/style/intonation/vocabulary is being studied, it changes. The things we notice are the things that stick out to us because they aren’t a part of our own speech. Slang, y’all.

Obviously teenagers speak only in slang and to make the voice sound real in a manuscript, it needs to be littered with all the latest phrases, right? I see many writers take the “extrapolation” approach. They troll Urban Dictionary and then double down. (And they may or may not be using slang correctly. I think about rolling my eyes at my own mother for trying to pull off totally tubular back in the day.)

This method can be fun to write, because it shows off how in-touch with contemporary youth culture the author is. But when there’s too much all at once, it’s tough to read. Very tough. It’s the equivalent of meeting a British person, and immediately busting out “Cheerio, guv-nah! Blimey! I say, good show! Fancy a spot of tea, mate? Bloody hell! Move yer bloomin’ arse!” I think we can all agree that this is cartoonish and not at all realistic sounding, and likely offensive to the person being imitated. So why then, do we have teenagers in novels saying “O.M.G. Your eyebrows are on. Fleek. Let’s chillax at my crib or whatever. My mom has some ancient movie about some guy named like Forrest Gump or something? I literally can’t even. Adorkable.” (Translation: “Your eyebrows look good. Let’s watch a movie.”)

If I actually heard a teenager speaking that way, I’d rush her to the hospital. Not only is it annoying to read, it gets in the way of the actual storytelling. My advice is to comb your manuscript and take out all the “like”s and “whatever”s and all the other slang you can spare. Be brutal. Then, when you’re done, go back and sprinkle it in like a seasoning, where it’s needed. Every dish needs salt, but too much will ruin the meal.

I have other things to say about voice and slang, but will save them for future posts.

Leave your comments below or whatever. IDK. As if.

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2 comments

  1. kristinrusso · December 14, 2015

    I love it when my students give me vocab lessons. One told me that I “geeked him out.” When my face registered confusion, he explained that he had given me a compliment. A joke I told made him willing to laugh in front of his friends, thus revealing his inner geek. In a recent class discussion, another student described a political injustice as “shade,” which, apparently, is not something that covers a window.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Beyond the Great Whatever | interrobangs

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