Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Speak of the devil and he doth appear: language and the rise of teen culture

Modern science will tell us that the teenage phenomenon is neurologically and biologically attestable. It is a fact of brain development and hormones. Studies have indicated that teenagers use the prefrontal cortex differently than we do and there may be evidence of synaptic pruning during the teen years. If it is a biological fact it should be universal for teenagers across the globe and teenagers throughout time. If we were to look to language, however, we find a different story.

Google’s Ngram viewer is a helpful tool when looking at the how vocabulary has changed and been used over time. It simply searches for the word or phrase frequency in their database of books to give an idea of how popular they were during that time. For someone that is fascinated with words and their impact it’s like a child’s playground.

Graph showing frequency of terms "teenage rebellion" and "teenage angst"
If you were to search “teenage rebellion, teenage angst” you would get a graph that would suggest neither existed before 1955. Before the likes of James Dean and the influence of Hollywood, teenagers went through life trouble free. Teenagers did not feel the need to be antisocial, commit crimes and behave recklessly; or at least it wasn’t written about. As the 1950s drew to a close, the phenomenon of teenage rebellion rose exponentially and teen angst shortly followed. People may put this down to some social factor that arose during that post war decade; I’d probably put it down to the fact that teenagers did not exist before 1941. The words “teen” and “age” was first combined in approximately 1810, but it was used in the way that we would use the term “the over twenties” or “in your thirties”. It was a way of describing those of a certain age, not a developmental stage. It may be because “teenager” is a modern word to describe an old phenomenon so we could look at some other words to describe this life stage. The word “adolescent” first appeared as the adjective in 1785, which suggests that the phenomenon is around 250 years old. Even then, however, it never really took off until the 1890s. 

Other languages hold clues as to the nature of adolescence. Alice Schlegel and Herbert Barry III found that many pre-industrialised societies do not have a word for “adolescence” and there was very little antisocial behaviour from male teens within these cultures. As both the words “teenage” and “adolescent” arose after the industrial revolution, it seems that industrialisation is the key to the teenage phenomenon. The teenager is the curse of a developed nation.

It may seem that this link between language and how the teenage phenomenon arose is just a quirk of interest and has no further implications in the discussion. Yet, this link between vocabulary and social behaviour may not only help us to understand the teen, but may impact our the vocabulary we use within our discourse.

It is surprising that it less than twenty years, after the word teenager entered the English language, for teenage rebellion to begin. It not just appeared, but exponentially rose; teenage angst had a later but even sharper rise. For a relatively new word, teenage is already a heavily loaded term. Drop the word “teen” in front of normally neutral or positive words such as “mother”, “pregnancy”, “literature”, “fashion” or “love” it becomes imbued with negativity. A teenage mother is seen as irresponsible and incapable, while teen literature is substandard and superficial.
Normally neutral or positive words become negative when associated with teenagers

Research in 2009, by Women in Journalism, discovered that over half of all newspaper stories about teenage boys the previous year were about crime. Words used in the media to describe teenagers included “yobs”, “thugs” and “monsters”. Positive terms, such as “angel” and “model student” we “reserved for teenage boys who had met a violent and untimely death” (quoted in ‘Hoodies, louts, scum’, 2009). Any discussion about teenagers, then, tend to be negative.

There may be a stronger relationship, then, between the teenage phenomenon and vocabulary used to describe it. As teen antisocial behaviour began, the negative vocabulary of “teenage rebellion” would have entered the English language, enforcing the cultural idea of this behaviour. As teenage rebellion was discussed more (and therefore was written about more, providing my evidence) it would have happened more. This certainly accounts for the exponential curve. It may be a case of speak of the devil, and he doth appear: by allowing the negative vocabulary of the rebellious teen to enter discourse we have only created the a culture that perpetuates the problem. It is worth noting, however, that such analysis will never prove a causal relationship between two variables, no matter how much sense it makes.

We do know, however, that Western media does play a massive role in the creation of teen culture. Dr Robert Epstein tells as a rather insightful instance of the introduction of Western influences and a rise in troublesome teen behaviour:
Delinquency was not an issue among the Inuit people of Victoria Island, Canada, for example, until TV arrived in 1980. By 1988 the Inuit had created their first permanent police station to try to cope with the new problem.
Western media, along with its vocabulary of the troublesome teens, had a remarkable influence on teenage behaviour.

Western society, and its media, is responsible for the troublesome teen. In a society where a teenager has to die tragically in order to receive praise, it is no wonder that they seek to rebel against it. When the expectations are this low, it isn't a great achievement to surpass them.

Being involved in both secular education and Christian youth-work, I believe that this has implications in how we continue discussions about teenagers and how we treat the teens themselves. The Bible tells us
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
Ephesians 4:29

When we talk about teens, we need to do so in a way that is wholesome, helpful and edifying. Rather than vilifying them, we need to speak of their merits, their potential and their successes. It is high time that we championed the discourse of the “remarkable teenager” in the hope that we see their exponential growth.

References for etymology of teenager
Dr Robert Epstein (2007) Myth of the teenage brain. Scientific American Mind
Richard Garner (March 2009) 'Hoodies, louts, scum': how media demonises teenagers. The Independent
Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith (1999) ‘The problem of “youth” for youth work’, Youth and Policy 62, pages 45 – 66. Also available in the informal education archives,

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