Why Both Teenagers & Expats Develop Slang
I don’t take the premise that teenagers necessarily create or appropriate words much more often as a part of teenagerness. I would argue that, just like adults who develop jargon as professional short-hand, teenagers do the same with slang to match their unique situations. The difference is, as mid-career adults, we’ve already developed and integrated most of the vocabulary we need. Our jobs don’t change that much from year to year, and neither do our personalities or social identities. Grownups use standardized language to talk about their smoothly progressing lives and lessons.
Teenagers, on the other hand, live in a world which is in constant flux. The states of being 11 years old and those of being 13… versus 15… versus 17 are completely different. A 15-year-old in 2012 is much more inured to cultural propaganda than a 15-year-old in 1980 was, so they use different lexical touchstones, but both struggle to live in a world that gets more socially complex for them every new semester.
Like professionals do, teenagers develop verbal shorthand that helps them cope by saying more with less, and to identify others in their circles using the same shibboleths. If adults don’t pass this jargon test, then they can’t fully enter that world any more than an Arts major can be “one of the guys” among a group of programmers. But if adults can appropriate that jargon perfectly, then it’s possible they’ll be welcomed in; just like the same Arts major *can* be one of the guys if he starts talking about why RoR is too opinionated for enterprise level development.
In other words, whether we’re talking about the choppy worlds of teenagers or the smoother world of adults, slang is simply jargon that can divide just as well as it connects, but that is necessary for making complex thoughts & feelings into easily transmissible messages.
But for the messages to go through, the recipient has to speak the same language. The lives of adults at 26 versus 28 or 46 versus 48 are rarely prone to the massive fluctuations experienced earlier on, so after adults enter a profession and learn the associated slangy shorthand, there’s not much more language left to learn. Mostly, we’re all on equal footing, but expats are an exception.
Newcomers to Korea endeavor to learn the phrasebook hellos-thank yous-and-goodbyes, but they do even better to learn words like Ajumma, Ajossi, bballi, etc. Why don’t we simply translate these words into English when we use them within English sentences?
Like teenage slang, we have an expat slang that we use to connect members of our in-group, and gauge how distant members of the out-group really are. No matter our ages, there’s a dividing line of enormous change between our pre-expat lives and our post-expat lives, and that flux generates the same kind of jargon/slang that teenagers discover.
In this way, for our first years in Korea, we are nervous teenagers picking up and creating new expressions, my chingus. Teenagers do it all the time because they’re like expats in their own families, schools, and cities. Plus, every couple of years as they pass into a new life stage, they become fresh expats once again.
Luckily, just as for long-time expats, eventually the road smooths out and the new expressions needed to make sense of complexity trickle down to a minimum. Teenagers grow up and expats grow up, and when the strangeness of the world becomes easier to penetrate, so does the language used to describe it.