Does teenagers’ frequent use of ‘like’ or ‘so’ tell us anything more about language than how not to use it? Teen talk is commonly dismissed as faddish and unworthy of study, but according to University of Toronto at Mississauga linguistics professor Sali Tagliamonte, a 15-year-old girl’s comment that “he’s so not cool” can tell us a lot about the person who’s speaking it, including their gender and age.

In a study published online in the Journal of Pragmatics in June, Tagliamonte found that, depending on our gender andathe generation we are a part of, we will choose different intensifiers to express our feelings. She was initially interested in finding out why teens, particularly girls, tended to frequently use the words like, just, and so in their conversations.

While elderly people frequently use ‘very’ as an intensifier, often saying “that’s very nice” or “she’s very good,” the mid-generation uses ‘really,’ as in “its really ok” or “that’s really great” and teenagers tend to use ‘so’, as in “he’s so cute” or “she’s so mean.” Consequently, language reveals our age, reflects our generation, our social standing, and who we are in relation to others. Sociolinguists like Tagliamonte try to analyze these patterns of usage.

“One of the most pervasive findings of sociolinguistics is that when you have language changing, women tend to lead the change. They pick up the new form and they carry it forward probably about a generation ahead of the guys,” said Tagliamonte.

Tagliamonte has been leading a team of second year university students at U of T in conducting research on how these characteristics originate, particularly in adolescents, and whether they constitute new features of Canadian English that are here to stay. Researchers interviewed their own family members living in Toronto, who came from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds.

According to Tagliamonte’s research, use of these words among adolescents is extremely frequent. Use of the term ‘like’ begins gradually at around the ages of ten to 12 years old, intensifies around 15 to 16 and then returns to comparatively conservative usage once students reach university age. In fact, some adolescents use the term ‘like’ more than they use the word ‘and.’

Generally, Tagliamonte has found that girls lead linguistic change. Tagliamonte’s research reveals that girls tend to lead the change in usage of the word ‘so’ in the mid-teens but the intensifier is used more frequently by boys in older age groups.

This research is innovative because Tagliamonte is taking a long-term approach to this study, not only monitoring developments over time among adolescents of specific age groups, generally between ages ten to 17, but also the transformation that occurs in the language used by adolescents as they mature and as usage trends change through time.

The word ‘like’ is more frequently used during the mid-teens. The repeated usage of ‘like’ among teenagers may seem completely random, but the term is used as a distinctive placeholder in teen language, usually positioned before nouns, full sentences, and verbs. The usage of the words ‘just’ and ‘so’ seem to continue at a consistent frequency beyond the adolescent age range, which may signify the influx of a new feature in commonly used English.

The research also recognizes the integral role that adolescents play in language trends and development. Previous research of adolescent speech has been infrequent due to the common belief that teens’ language is not completely developed and a pattern of speech is less detectable. Moreover, Tagliamonte’s research appreciates that people in these age ranges converse very differently amongst each other than they do with their parents or people of other age groups.