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Youth language and identity

Vilnius Adolescents’ Social Categories and Language: An Outsider’s Look Inside

AURYTĖ ČEKUOLYTĖDoctoral student, Department of Sociolinguistics
There are different attitudes to adolescents, most of them are, however, negative. Most probably, many have heard the saying “back in the old days adolescents were better”. Youth speech is also often criticized for being incorrect, harsh and full of obscene swearwords and words from foreign languages. Even though youth language and culture differs from adults’ language and culture in many aspects, it doesn’t mean that it is any inferior. Youth language and culture is an important part of our society which can be analysed in its own terms.
This study is one the first cross-disciplinary studies on the social dynamics of Vilnius youth – their social groups and language. The study also gives an opportunity to hear adolescents’ opinions about themselves which are often forgotten in the discussions about the youth.
The study is based on ethnographic fieldwork, conducted in a secondary school in Vilnius. The ethnographic method not only enables the researcher to get to know adolescents better, to understand what it is important to them, but is also very useful in collecting authentic data. Thus for eight months three classes of eighth graders have been observed daily, and the researcher also participated in the social life of the school. During the course of the fieldwork, the researcher kept the dairy where she noted what pupils were doing during the lessons and the breaks. Pupils’ verbal expressions had also been noted whenever possible. Besides the diary, the researcher took 75 interviews with pupils, collected approximately 50 hours of adolescents’ spontaneous speech and conducted an online questionnaire survey in order to find out how pupils assess Russian and English swearwords in youth speech.
According to the results of the preliminary data analysis, there are two main adolescents’ social categories: adolescents who conform to school and adults’ norms, and adolescents who reject these norms and orient their practices towards street. (In this case, the terms school and street should be perceived in a broader sense as the terms which symbolize two different standpoints.)
Adolescents, who conform to school norms, participate actively in the lessons as well as in the extracurricular activities, such as school plays or sport matches. These pupils as a rule don’t smoke or drink alcohol. Besides, these pupils are often perceived as popular by other pupils. Those adolescents, who orient their practices towards street, smoke and drink alcohol, skip classes etc. However, these two categories differ not only in their social behavior, but also in language use: street-oriented pupils use a lot more Russian swearwords in their speech. Besides, according to the results of additional online survey, the pupils themselves identify the kind of speech full of Russian swearwords as a speech of streetwise adolescents.