In 2019, young people learned how to talk like boomers. It showed up in tweets (“why do boomers all have such a strange relationship with capitalization and punctuation”), on Reddit (“On my first ever Facebook post to a friend’s wall, I signed my name like some kind of boomer”), and people who type “ok boomer” as “O.K., Boomer.” There’s a Facebook group where people pretend to be boomers, which consists of typing things like “say hi to Joe and the kids for me,,, love! You.” There are even memes, like this take on the Distracted Boyfriend meme.
Many of these pieces had been around before, but as boomerspeak, they crystallized into a genre ripe for parody. Boomerspeak’s canonical features include the dot dot dot, repeated commas, and the period at the end of a text message. It can also involve random mid-sentence capitalization, typing in all caps, double-spacing after a period, signing your name at the end of a text message, and confusion between the face with tears of joy emoji and the loudly crying emoji. But it’s not just a question of intergenerational strife. Watching boomerspeak distill and crystalize into a distinct genre this year can help us understand a bigger phenomenon: how distinctive ways of speaking bubble up into the popular consciousness and become available for commentary or imitation, a linguistic process known as enregisterment.
A register is a particular socially identifiable variety of a language, whether that’s texting like a boomer or the prestigious British linguistic register known as Received Pronunciation. This social identification doesn’t exist permanently. Instead, it develops over time, a process that the linguist Asif Agha named enregisterment. Agha wrote a classic paper introducing the term in 2003, where he used the well-documented history of Received Pronunciation as a case study. It might feel obvious to a modern-day English speaker that of course there’s a fancy register associated with the Queen and the upper classes and the media, but Agha points out that this wasn’t the case before the 18th century, when the nobility tended to have a regional accent associated with their lands. Received Pronunciation was gradually constructed in the minds of the public, from grammarians and other language pundits of the 18th century who expressed a desire for a unified national English accent, to 19th-century etiquette manuals aimed at a growing middle class, fictional representations of speech by authors like Charles Dickens, and increasing codification through boarding schools and the BBC into the 20th century.
The idea of enregisterment has been applied to many other linguistic varieties. One particularly vivid example comes from linguist Barbara Johnstone, who spent 11 years collecting “Pittsburghese” T-shirts and other memorabilia (mugs, bumper stickers) with characteristic Pittsburgh words, phrases, and folk respellings on them, such as “yinz” and “dahntahn” (downtown) and “needs washed.” Johnstone makes the point that linguistic features becoming characteristic of Pittsburgh in the popular imagination is a distinct step from them existing at all, which they did for decades before they started getting noticed and put on T-shirts. What’s more, the words and sounds on a Pittsburghese T-shirt aren’t necessarily representative of all and only Pittsburghers—many of these features are also found in the speech of surrounding areas, and many residents of Pittsburgh use only some of them, or even none at all, as this style is linked especially to a white, working-class identity. Accuracy aside, an imagined Pittsburghese lexicon makes the T-shirts more valuable at a very practical level—they sell in souvenir shops at a healthy markup over their production cost.
Enregisterment is often partially, rather than completely, true, sort of like an accent viewed through a funhouse mirror. It’s like how many Americans can do a sort of accent that’s recognizably “British” even though it sounds like no actual real British person ever, a confusing jumble sliding around between Cockney and the Queen. Similarly, many Brits can do an “American” accent that sounds like no American I’ve ever met (but possibly like a cowboy in an old-school Western movie and/or Hollywood’s version of a Valley Girl). Or it’s like how most English speakers can put on a recognizable Dracula voice to say, “I vant to suck your bloood,” with only the vaguest awareness that this accent was originally an imitation of Bela Lugosi, who played the iconic 1931 Dracula using his native Hungarian accent (and technically never said that line). “I vant to suck your bloood” isn’t enregistered as Hungarian; it’s enregistered as Dracula.
It’s with this distortion in mind that we can turn back to the growing popular conception of “boomerspeak”—it’s only loosely related to the actual communicative practices of boomers, but that’s par for the course when it comes to enregisterment. For one thing, these punctuation styles are much older. In my research for Because Internet, I found evidence of the dot dot dot in casual writing ranging from handwritten Beatles postcards to recipe cards written on a real typewriter. For another thing, #NotAllBoomers—this writing style is actually more characteristic of one generation older than the Baby Boom, but there’s just not a lot of social media discourse to be had about members of the Silent Generation. ‾_(ツ)_/‾
As with the Wikipedia battles over “ok boomer”, we might ask ourselves whether boomerspeak parodies are a case of harmless joshing or cruel mockery. It depends.
Enregisterment tends to inherit the power dynamics of the people that it’s associated with—since the US and UK are on reasonably equal terms, an American doing a fake British accent might get mocked for doing so poorly, but the attempt itself is unlikely to bother anyone. On the other hand, given the history of systemic racism, white people doing verbal imitations of African American English have been called out for “verbal blackface.” Linguistic styles can also be sensitive to in-group dynamics—Pittsburghers, former Pittsburghers, and even tourists visiting Pittsburgh may enjoy buying and wearing “yinzer” T-shirts, but as I’ve never been there, it might be strange if I started doing so for no apparent reason.
Whether you think of boomerspeak parodies as punching up or punching down depends on whether you think older people are being disadvantaged. When it comes to tech hiring, the data suggests yes; when it comes to political influence, the data suggests no.
Personally, I see it as fighting back. After all, the linguistic style of younger people has long been enregistered and available for parody. Exaggerated, morally panicked versions of youth internet styles have appeared everywhere from media hyperbole about emoji in the 2010s (most notably, Seattle’s Q13 local FOX News affiliate claiming hilariously false things about the fox and hibiscus emoji) to media hyperbole about internet acronyms and plain-text emoticons in the 2000s—so much a media staple of the time that an academic paper was written analyzing 101 of them. A year of boomerspeak parodies on social media pales in comparison to several decades of exaggerated representations of youthspeak in mainstream media. In a better world, we wouldn’t mock accents at all, but in the imperfect world we live in, perhaps a half-measure on the way there is to make the mockery slightly more evenly distributed.
Regardless of your stance on boomerspeak parodies, it’s a golden opportunity to watch a linguistic variety enter the popular imagination in real time. Writing Because Internet has placed me on the front lines—this whole year, I’ve been seeing a constant stream of tweets along the lines of “why is it that my dad/mom/boss/Neil Gaiman texts that way?” because other people keep tagging me in the replies.
In a small, bizarre way, I’ve even been participating directly in the enregisterment of boomerspeak myself. Remember that boomerspeak variant on the Distracted Boyfriend meme?
I came across the meme while working on this article and immediately filed it to use. A few hours later, though, I thought, hold on a sec, why does this meme look kinda familiar? And why had the memeist used the more noncommittal “older people” rather than the zeitgeisty “boomers”? I searched back through my own Twitter feed and sure enough … I actually created this particular image myself over a year ago, released it into the wilds of the internet, and forgot about it entirely a week later. As one does.
Now my creation was proving a point in spite of me. I hadn’t created the meme as a boomer meme—I’d just written a chapter about the history of the dot dot dot, so I knew very well that this punctuation mark dated back to older styles of casual writing—but The Discourse cared not, and the meme came back to me like, I suppose we could say, a boomerang.
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