Monday 3 February 2014

Young, old or just ‘emerging’? How does age affect language change?

As times change so too do people’s life stages. Traditionally these were thought of as child > adolescent > adult, but this idea is now called into question with the addition of an ‘emerging adult’  stage before adulthood.  As age is such an important sociolinguistic variable, this is a significant development for anyone interested in studying language variation and change, as Douglas S. Bigham explains in detail.

An emerging adult’ is aged 18 – 25, in higher education, unmarried, moves around a lot and has a large, although not necessarily close, social network. Bigham makes it clear that not all 18-25 year old young adults are ‘emerging adults’.  The ‘emerging’ label is dependent on a particular psychological state, defined by the following factors:  identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and feeling that anything is possible. The first two factors challenge sociolinguistic notions of place and social network whilst the last three challenge ideas about social identity.

For example, traditional models of ‘place’ in sociolinguistics rest on the idea that place is geographic and that geographical and political boundaries (e.g. mountains or rivers) create and maintain linguistic variation.  However, emerging adults move around at an unprecedented rate, rarely remaining in the place where they were born and usually moving several times.  They will also live quite intimately with a variety of people from different social classes, cultures, religions etc (think of university halls of residence).   Ironically, as emerging adults move from community to community, they become more detached from any particular one, so they have no strong community bonds. Identity exploration and instability means that emerging adults’ accents seem to be unrelated to their geographical origins.  Rather than seeing their accent as showing that they come from, say, London, they seem to view accent as another facet of their personality: “just part of who you are, y’know?” 

The rise of virtual online networks has contributed to this sense of not belonging to a place or group, or ‘feeling in-between’.  Emerging adults may have friends from all over the globe but may never actually meet them, only interacting with them virtually. Their social boundaries are therefore blurred, as are their gender and sexual boundaries.  Many US university students replied ambivalently to Bigham’s question about their sexuality, responding “straight, I guess” or “mostly straight”. Emerging adults need to be able to negotiate their language across virtual global communities and seem to ‘self-focus’ on their personal identities rather than forming social ones. 

Another problem for traditional sociolinguistic models is that emerging adults view themselves in classless terms.  Over 95% of Bigham’s emerging adults were ‘very sure’ that they would “get to where they want to be in life” and would have a better life than their parents, regardless of their socioeconomic background.  They felt that ‘anything is possible’.

Emerging adulthood is therefore posing a challenge, as age and class have traditionally been such important variables in sociolinguistic research.  It has always been assumed, for example, that the speech of older people = the speech of an older time period; and that we can study language change by comparing older people’s speech with the speech of the young.  However, emerging adults are a completely new phenomenon, only surfacing in the last two decades.  As this new ‘emerging’ life stage surfaces, so too does a new challenge for sociolinguists.


Douglas S. Bigham (2012) Emerging adulthood in sociolinguistics. Language and Linguistics Compass 6 (8): 533-544.

doi. 10.1002/Inc3.350

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

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