Life&Style Writer Zoë Maddock offers an opinion on the debate surrounding TikTok’s effect on Gen Z ‘slang’

Written by Zoe Maddock
Images by Milad Fakurian

Content warning: this article contains discussions of racism

The language associated with Generation Z tends to be a never-ending cycle of ‘new’ buzzwords and slang. The term ‘brain rot’ is used to describe how excessive consumption of TikTok content leads to decreased attention spans and mental fatigue. As we enter this new era of social-media-induced ‘brain rot’, the language that once primarily occupied online spaces is finding its way into other, less welcoming ones.

‘Code-switching’ is paramount to breaking down generational language barriers

As younger generations spend more time online, the language they use is likely to become increasingly influenced by this digital space, rather than real world interactions. We are incorporating more niche slang words, phrases, and gestures into our everyday lexicon due to their online popularity. However, this can alienate those who are not ‘chronically online’. Adapting the type of language that we use depending on the situational context, known as ‘code-switching’, is paramount to breaking down generational language barriers. Situations like speaking to older family members, job interviews, or even talking to those outside our own friendship group require us to adapt our speech to accommodate others.

In 2020, our social interaction moved primarily online. Not being able to interact in school or work made people turn to the internet to find community, so it is understandable how a new-age internet language was able to form so quickly and gain such popularity. However, as we transition into post-lockdown life, some aspects of social media speech may not translate into in-person conversations.

The lines are being blurred between how we socialise online versus in the real world

Online phenomena like ‘Stan Twitter’ and a rise in celebrities marketing themselves as ‘relatable’ have glamorised parasocial and overly-familial behaviour. The lines are being blurred between how we socialise online versus in the real world. Being able to read the room and adapt linguistically is a skill that Gen Z may be losing. Research suggests that 71% of employees believe that ‘Gen Z is changing the formality of language’ due to the invasive nature of TikTok slang and trends. Subsequently, young employees have been penalised in the workplace for their use of ‘unprofessional’ language.

Interestingly, while ‘professionalism’ is still regarded as integral to the workplace, there has been an uptick in brands using their online presence in a more colloquial, ‘trendy’ way. It is not uncommon to see verified and established companies using their TikTok accounts to post using terms popular with Gen Z.  The Duolingo bird has set an example to companies trying to market to Gen Z. Curating a brand personality based solely on TikTok trends has given them over 11 million followers. A paradox has arisen within the workplace environment, with some workplaces punishing language deemed ‘colloquial’ and ‘trendy’, while others capitalise on the younger generation’s interests.

Much of the language being used by Gen Z is derived from African American Vernacular English

It is impossible to ignore how much of the language being used by Gen Z is derived from African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Terms like ‘slay’, ‘periodt’, and ‘sis’ have been staples in AAVE for decades, becoming more mainstream through shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. TikTok has been criticised for ‘watering down AAVE until it becomes just another pop culture fad’, as non-black users can excessively misuse these terms to the point in which they losing their original, cultured meanings. AAVE speakers have been forced to code-switch to accommodate others for years due to racism. Arguably, appropriating this language for internet kudos disregards the rich history of the vernacular.

So, perhaps concerns surrounding generational ‘brain rot’ are not with the language itself, but more so its use in inappropriate situations. Having a community-specific vernacular is not a new concept. However, it is arguably the ability to code-switch that has minimised miscommunication between communities. Knowing the cultural ties that certain vernaculars have can inform the way we speak, eliminating the chances of linguistic appropriation.

Our world is rapidly changing, and with that comes language change. Having self-awareness in how we use our language is important. However, there needs to be cooperation from both younger and older generations in order to find a linguistic middle ground. Many young people missed years of social interaction, so their knowledge of speech will be different. Guidance from older generations could be beneficial.

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