Get your swag on with Germany′s youth | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 13.12.2013
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Get your swag on with Germany's youth

From YOLO to Yallah, Germany's teens borrow words from other languages to make sure their parents and teachers don't understand. Now they're going beyond English and adapting terms from Arabic and Turkish.

"Yo, dude, you totally got a swag going on!" If you're a German teenager, that would be a compliment. Needless to say, teachers and parents have long given up the attempt to translate expressions like these.

Words with English roots - current favorites are Swag, Selfie (a self portrait snapped with a smart phone) or YOLO (you only live once) - have always been popular among young people in German. But more recently, Turkish and Arabic words, like Yallah ("hurry up"), are being reincarnated.

The German dictionary publisher Langenscheidt recently announced the youth word of the year 2013, which was determined through a long online voting process: Babo. The word derives from Turkish and means boss or chief. It was inspired by the German rapper Haftbefehl who kept using it (among other, less G-rated words) in his songs.

But apart from star rappers, how do foreign-inspired words make it into the vocabulary of German youngsters?

Slang instead of Mohawks

"Teenagers want to speak another language in order to distinguish themselves. That's what makes them feel much cooler than adults or their teachers," Eva Neuland, a linguist at the University of Wuppertal, told DW.

Silhouette of a person with a Mohawk, Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

In every generation, youth find ways to distinguish themselves

The whole process happens rather subconsciously. In the past, the youthful need to be different was expressed in outward appearances. Remember Mohawks from the 1970s and 1980s.

These days, identity seems to be defined more subtly. "The youth language is based on a feeling of belonging to a group. The language is a means of clearly defining who belongs to which group," Neuland explained.

The tendency was confirmed during an informal survey at the Friedrich-Ebert High School in Bonn, which revealed that each age group has its own language. YOLO, for example, is apparently only used by 12-year-olds.

"We don't say things like that. We're too old for that," said 14-year-old Yasmina.

Language diversity has a large impact

Whether 12-year-olds, 14-year-olds or 16-year-olds, today's buzz words reflect the cultural diversity of each group. Young immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Arab World and Africa integrate words from their native languages in their everyday speech. Their German peers pick up on the new vocabulary and start adapting, according to Neuland.

"If you're sitting next to a Turkish kid in school then you'll start recognizing words that sound interesting," she said. "Then you want to understand and use these words yourself in order to belong to the same group."

And that's why teachers and parents often don't understand what their children are talking about - which is exactly what the kids are after. At the high school in Bonn, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, and English words in particular are shared and adapted in the schoolyard.

Trends from Turkey

Words from Turkish and Arabic could gain as much traction in today's youth language as English has in the past. Language experts, however, can't predict whether - and when - that might happen.

The backs of two students at the Friedrich-Ebert-Gymnasiums in Bonn, Photo: DW/K. Kaminski

Students in Bonn explained that 12- and 14-year-olds don't use the same words

"My prediction is that [these languages] will represent a small percentage," said Neuland. At the moment, they are more of a linguistic trend used to express a certain prestige.

"Boys like to show off in these languages and live out a macho image, like many rappers do in their songs. But I predict with relatively high likelihood that when the youths enter the working world or just become adults that they won't use these words anymore," according to the linguist.

Words like Kiosk, from the Turkish şk, are examples of how a number of terms from the region have long been integrated into the everyday German language - by adults. But it's unlikely that Yallah and Babo will stick around for very much longer, according to Neuland.

But it's not only foreign languages that have an influence on youth culture. The Internet and current affairs also provides lots of material for creating new words.

"Creations like wulffen, refering to the scandal surrounding Germany's former President Christian Wulff, or griechen, a derivative from "Greece" meaning poverty, are prime examples of turns of phrases closely linked to the media.

"These words are more common among university students than among high school students," explained Neuland. "If younger students were to use them, I would hope that their parents and teachers would talk with them about the political context so that they would understand it better."

At the same time, young people in Germany have a responsibility to explain their own syllabic combinations to the older people around them who aren't fluent in "youth speak."

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