Even when everybody in a room is speaking standard English, there are subtle cues that let us know about who they are and where they’re from.
If you’re ever in the vicinity of Boston, Mass, people will be able to tell right away that you’re just visiting if you phonetically pronounce the city of Worcester. That’s because people round there call it “Wooster”.
Here in Toronto, it’s a good indication that someone’s a tourist if they pronounce the second “t” in the city’s name. People who grew up here or nearby pronounce it as “Torawno”, because that second t really makes the word drag.
More generally speaking, we often make inferences about a person’s socioeconomic upbringing and education according to their word choices and how prone they are to malapropisms. There’s something about my pronunciation or word choice that makes people think I have an English accent, despite the fact that I only spent about three days in England nine years ago.
These are all examples of shibboleths, words or ways of speaking that indicate someone is a member of a certain in-group. The two most famous examples of shibboleths are fantastically violent. One comes from the Bible, in the book of Judges, where soldiers are trying to sneak past an invading force by crossing a stream. The invaders ask them to pronounce “shibboleth” (the word for stream) because they, the invaders, pronounce the first syllable as “sib” instead of “shib”. Anyone who said “shibb-oleth” instead of “sib-oleth” was put to death.
The second comes from 1937, when the president of the Dominican Republic ordered the execution of all Haitian immigrants living along the country’ border. Soldiers determined whether someone was Dominican or Haitian by demanding they say the Spanish word for parsley (perejil). The Spanish-speaking Dominicans trilled the r sound, whereas the French-speaking Haitians gave themselves away with their softer r and were summarily killed.
This topic came to mind not because I was ruminating on historical atrocities, but because I work at a university filled with young people. While talking with a colleague (who’s in her early 30s), she was amazed at how much slang the students she encounters use. She knew all about words like bae and slay but cautiously, carefully asked, “… do you know what ‘lit’ means? They keep saying ‘that’s lit’, but it’s not what I think, right?”
She went on to explain that when she was there age, when someone was “lit”, it meant they were blackout drunk, whereas today it basically means something is very good. Lit is newest member in a group that includes dope, sick, radical, choice, and even groovy, if we reach far enough back.
The dilemma for those of us rapidly leaving our youth is whether to stick with the language as it changes, adopting youth slang like lit or slay, or keep our regular patterns, even as they go out of style. The answer, for me, comes down to the fact that we even have to decide at all, because it means we aren’t a natural part of the group anymore. Each forced slang term would be like a linguistic forgery, pretending to be something it’s not. Because we’d be borrowers instead of natural speakers, it would sound unnatural, serving as a dead giveaway that we’re just pretending to that language and thus that group identity. Instead, I think it’s best to use the language that feels natural to you, and is likely what you grew up with, even if it’s becoming dated.
This way, if you speak with a broad cross-section of ages, you’d have a sort of sedimentary record of language change, and could see how one phrase superseded another in the cultural vernacular. You could guess at why sick replaced choice, and that kind of game is just radical.