Codifying "Boomerspeak" and debating the ethics of poking fun at it

Gretchen McCulloch is the internet's favorite linguist, whose outstanding 2019 book Because Internet explores how statistical methods can, for the first time, be applied to large amounts of informal communications, because for the first time, a huge volume of those communications are a) written and b) digital.

In a new op-ed for Wired, McCulloch discusses the 2019 man-bites-dog phenomenon of young people making fun of how old people talk (normally, the quirks of younger peoples' speech are relentlessly mocked, stereotyped and weaponized by their elders — this is especially true of the speech of young women, see also: vocal fry, nasal talking, and upspeak).

A central tenet of McCulloch's work is that your written discourse is largely determined by when you got on the internet (and this is strongly correlated with how old you are), and there are several characteristic (or, possibly, stereotypical) elements of "Boomerspeak" that form the basis of several online communities in which young people mock their elders.

The three most obvious Boomerspeak markers are "the dot dot dot, repeated commas, and the period at the end of a text message," which are joined by "random mid-sentence capitalization, typing in all caps, double-spacing after a period, signing your name at the end of a text message, and confusion between the face with tears of joy emoji and the loudly crying emoji." I'm a Gen Xer, but I sometimes sign my text messages, but only because I frequently end up texting with near-strangers (I fucking hate texting, so when I do, it's because there's someone I need to communicate with who prefers it, and those people are generally not in my age cohort), so I don't assume I'm in their address book.

As McCulloch writes, the emergence of a codified theory of Boomerspeak is an example of "enregisterment," through which a dialect is codified into a "register" ("a particular socially identifiable variety of a language").

Whether you think of boomerspeak parodies as punching up or punching down depends on whether you think older people are being disadvantaged. When it comes to tech hiring, the data suggests yes; when it comes to political influence, the data suggests no.

Personally, I see it as fighting back. After all, the linguistic style of younger people has long been enregistered and available for parody. Exaggerated, morally panicked versions of youth internet styles have appeared everywhere from media hyperbole about emoji in the 2010s (most notably, Seattle's Q13 local FOX News affiliate claiming hilariously false things about the fox and hibiscus emoji) to media hyperbole about internet acronyms and plain-text emoticons in the 2000s—so much a media staple of the time that an academic paper was written analyzing 101 of them. A year of boomerspeak parodies on social media pales in comparison to several decades of exaggerated representations of youthspeak in mainstream media. In a better world, we wouldn't mock accents at all, but in the imperfect world we live in, perhaps a half-measure on the way there is to make the mockery slightly more evenly distributed.

'Boomerspeak' Is Now Available for Your Parodying Pleasure [Gretchen McCulloch/Wired]