Wednesday 5 April 2006

YA Voice: Slang and Teen Vernacular

Scott Westerfeld likes the idea of language so much that, as a child, he learned Braille, the tactile code used by blind people, as well as Esperanto, the artificial language based as far as possible on words common to all the European languages.

Language is the reason why Scott writes young adult (YA) novels. “When you are a teenager you are still in the act of acquiring language ,” he says. “One of the reasons I really like YA is that teenagers are more interested in voice than adults.”

Teenagers, he says, write more poetry per capita. They play more word games. They memorise more song lyrics. They like to spell things creatively. And a high percentage are in fact learning a language in school.

Slang is necessary to capture the teenage voice – in the teen domain, slang is often a factor that determines acceptance or exclusion, “you talk like me, you are like me”.

Slang as euphemism can turn embarrassment into amusement – why mention sex when you can describe two people “banging boots”? And admitting to playing “tonsil hockey” doesn’t sound as gross as saying you “tongue kissed” someone. Slang can define the previously undefined – a chubby girl wearing a midriff exposes her “muffin roll”.

“Teens are saying: I care about language, I am having fun with language; (slang) is pure emphasis on the joy and expansiveness of language. And that’s a perfectly good reason for slang.”

But YA writers beware. Today’s slang can be tomorrow’s embarrassment.

“Slang is like a fish,” Scott says. “Good when its fresh or when its old, a fossil. But in between is a nasty period, something you don’t want at all. I would never use anything from this year’s slang dictionary, your writing will be passé before it goes into print. Don’t listen to your teenager and reproduce what they say – and don’t try to talk like them either, that’s the worst mistake in the world.”

But slang is necessary to YA literature. “One of the most important things you need to know is that YA is voice and a voice is good when you get the feeling of being inside a world and being inside someone’s head. When you are a kid, there is less caution about verbal hygiene than in adult literature.”

What the YA author must do is generate his or her own slang – “Slang from 20 minutes in the future from the next town over; slang that’s a little bit off but hangs together.”

How to Generate Slang

Use the classics – “cool” and “lame”, believe it or not, have become classics, they’ve been around for so long. “You cannot go wrong if you use the classics,” says Scott.

Steal it from really far away. For a book set 300 years in the future, Scott used slang from 1920s Evelyn Waugh to create “future slang”. “Bogus” began life in the 1700s to refer to counterfeit coins before Waugh used it to mean “no good”, a meaning that persists to this century which Scott used to good effect through the mouths of his teenagers of the future.

Make it up yourself. In his Uglies trilogy (Uglies, Pretties, Specials), Scott describes a future world where everyone has to have an operation when they turn sixteen to become supermodel beautiful. Everybody is beautiful therefore everybody is equal. Except of course for the Uglies, a bunch of radical teens who want to keep their own faces. In the series, a “new surge” is someone who’s just had the operation. If you “surge”, you’re getting something fixed.

How to Make It Stick

Allan Metcalf wrote Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success, chronicling the origins of a fascinating list of words and phrases. In the process he developed the FUDGE factor – a way to measure the potential success of a word. Scott subverts the FUDGE paradigm into a means for authors to create convincing slang for YA readers.

F stands for Frequency of use. “You have to use something more than once. Use it in context and then define it three paragraphs later.”

U is for unobtrusiveness. “It might look familiar, but it doesn’t stand out. It’s so unobtrusive that when you see it the Microsoft spell checker in the brain takes less time to reload.”

D is for diversity of use and situations. And G is for Generate other forms and meanings. “Don’t just use something one way, use it as a verb or noun. Meanings will start to support each other in the text. That’s the way language works.” Eg. “Did you surge last week?” “He was a new surge.” “Surgeless” “Resurgent”.

E is for the endurance of the concept. Can you make it stick? At the end of the day, says Scott, “Slang is like reading Shakespeare – you eventually figure out what they are saying.”

Slang Mechanisms

Just substituting words for words will not convince your reader. “More interesting is to produce slang out of familiar language.”

Retronyms are “words you didn’t have to say, but you have to say now.” You didn’t have to say acoustic guitar in the 1920s because all guitars were acoustic. You didn’t have to say broadcast TV, optical telescopes, pocket watch, biological parent, heterosexual parent, first wife, World War I – “all these imply huge change”.

So if your story is set in the future, and a character complains, “Dad was late picking me up in the ground car” implies that cars can fly. It creates a feeling of anticipation in the reader. What should one expect?

“A retronym can indicate a lot about the character. You learn a whole bunch of things about how that character moves … ‘I don’t know, she wants to hang out with me in meetspace’ indicates that we are not in cyberspace. The character is someone who hangs out a lot online.”

You can divine rules in slang just by trawling through synonyms in a dictionary. Notice for example how certain suffixes – eg. head – are associated with stupidity. Bakehead, ballooonhead, chucklehead. There is also a preponderence of food – bananahead, chowderhead, melonhead, cabbage head. This frees you to create your own: nappyhead, turniphead. The suffix –oid indicates something geeky, scientific – mathoid, cretinoid, humanoid. Then there’s –land as in Disneyland or Wonderland – ditherland, slumberland, wankerland. Fake high culture can be evoked by du jour – boy du jour, pain du jour, failure du jour.

Ungrammar and backformations can fill an idiom dictionary:

“It wasn’t much fun?” “No, it was much fun.”
“How much fun is this?” “Lots of much.”
Teenagers are often uncomfortable with things which is why they like generating euphemisms – an “unboyfriend” could be someone you hang out with but don’t have sex with; or maybe someone you have sex with but don’t hang out with.

“Build yourself a grid of the prefixes and the suffixes and you will end up with something you like,” Scott says. “You are gaining your reader’s trust – something that doesn’t happen when you are using your reader’s slang because you look like you are trying too hard. Make it up as you go along – if you make it up it will never go out of date”

Scott Westerfeld was speaking on ‘Slanguage: Teen Voices and Teen Vernaculars’ at the SCBWI Before Bologna Conference in Bologna, Italy on 25 March 2006


  1. Interesting, cool and definitely not bogus material, Candoid.
    See you at the fest.

  2. Im a 13 year old girl who has read almost all of Scott Westerfeld's books, and let me tell you that he is definately right about the slang. Its one of my favorite things about his books other than the amazing plot. But he defintaly is amazing when it comes to making up words *for reference, see his collected works, midnighters, uglies, and so yesterday, specifically*

  3. thanks, korbe. after hearing scott's talk i rushed out to order his books which sound really amazing. all the wannabe writers at that talk learned a lot!

  4. I love how Scott Westerfeld includes his own custom slang in his books. Slang is total pop culture, here today and gone tomorrow. So when Westerfeld creates a new slang and uses it a ton (as teens often do with "in" phrases) then adds something else later it makes it feel real, and totally normal.
    This definately helps a new writer like myself.

  5. i have a couple of nieces from the philippines staying with me for easter(btw philippine slang, if only it didn't transfer in translation, is absolutely HILARIOUS!). overheard them comparing jetlag with my 15 year old son's penchant for staying in bed until noon. their vedict: he's got BEDLAG!

  6. Its really funny, after I read one of Scotts books, i find myself using the slang. For instance, after i read pretties, i said bubbly alot, and started adding wa's and la's to my friends names (katy-wa, ally-la). Its so much fun to get into books like that, and its really easy to feel at home in Scotts books, It creates an atmosphere for the reader to hide in, its really peaceful.

  7. Yeah the slang is really cool. Like Korbe said, I use some of the slang all the time. Like now I say 'That was so bubbly!' and stuff like that. It's interesting, the slang we use, and the futuristic slang is, in my opinion, totally bubbly. I love Scott's books!

  8. these books are AMAZING!!! i love them so much and the language in them is so much fun...but my friends get annoyed with me because i say them all the time and they cant remember what they mean and when to say them.
    so i will continue to say my words and make up my own!!!luv ya bookworms!


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