Urban Youth Linguistic Practices?

by Jacomine · 0 comments

Urban linguistic youth practices?

By Jacomine Nortier
Photo credit: Arthur Pennant

In this article I will tell you about language use of young people in ethnically mixed peer groups. They are skilled and creative language mixers.

In-group language

In our family a table-mat is called a vudding, which is derived from the word our oldest daughter used as a toddler. Nobody else would understand what it means. I am sure you all know such examples. Every family or peer group is familiar with the use of specific words that have a different meaning outside that particular group.

It is a natural and universal thing that groups have their own words, their own ways of speaking and their own language. This distinguishes them from other groups while strengthening their own identity as a group at the same time. People can be very creative in inventing new words. It is not always clear where the new words come from; sometimes they are invented on the spot (such as vudding) but often other languages or dialects are used, including other accents.

Urban Youth Speech Styles

Among young people in ethnically mixed groups, the use of words or accents from each other’s languages has gained popularity. Since the city is the place where many ethnic groups live together, this is a typical urban phenomenon, encountered in school yards, on street corners and squares, in parks, and all other places where young people meet.

For outsiders, this urban youth vernacular is not always easy to understand: it can even be used as a kind of secret code, to talk about things that are not meant for other people’s ears. Let’s call it UYSS (Urban Youth Speech Style) from now on.

UYSS is being been studied in European larger cities (and outside Europe as well) and there seem to be a remarkable lot of similarities between these vernaculars: usually the national standard language is the base language in which elements from other languages are inserted. Usually these other languages are ethnic minority languages brought to Europe by former guest workers, refugees and by inhabitants from former colonies. Examples of such languages in the Netherlands are Arabic, Surinamese or other creole languages from the West-Indies. Outside the English speaking world, (American) English words and expressions are mixed into UYSSs as well.


Although it is sometimes believed that a UYSS basically is a form of an imperfectly learned target language, it seems to be more complex than that. It is not just a matter of ‘They- haven’t-learned-the-language-well-enough-and-with-some-extra-effort-it-will-disappear’.

As always, my examples come from the Netherlands: I studied the way Moroccans, who learned Dutch as (young) adults, use Dutch and I compared it to the way their children, born in the Netherlands, speak Dutch. The older generation had a lot of trouble with the many different (long) vowels we have in Dutch, and sometimes they were hard to understand. The younger generation, however, speak Dutch without any vowels-problem. Their Dutch is marked by the way they pronounce their consonants but that does not cause any trouble for their understandability.

It looks as if the way young people speak is somehow marked, but definitely not by the same type of errors that characterize a learner’s variety. What is remarkable, is that this accent is used not only by young people with a Moroccan background but it is also observed among young people with a Dutch, Turkish, Greek, Afghan or any kind of background! It is very popluar and cool and it seems to be part of a tough identity.

What parts of the languages are involved?

So far, a little bit has been said about vocabulary, a little bit more about pronunciation, but what is it, linguistically, that distinguishes UYSS from other ways (or styles) of speaking a language?

The problem (or is it the charm?) of UYSS is that there is no standard. The way young people speak differs from community to community. Geographical, ethnic and social factors all play their role. Let us take a look at the different forms an UYSS in the Netherlands may take, as an illustration of the scope or range of possible variation. Of course, speakers of other languages may recognize things from their own languages.

A diversity of linguistic expressions

In the Netherlands, there is not just one UYSS. There are several forms, and they are more or less related. Although they are distinct, they also share characteristics. UYSS most likely consists of a continuum with, on the one end, a style commonly referred to as Straattaal (street language) with words from foreign languages. On the other end there is a style characterised by the use of a Moroccan accent. Often there is a mix between the two and deliberate grammatical violations of Dutch grammar, in which incorrect Dutch is imitated, somehow plays a role, too. Below I will give some examples.

Among the shared characteristics are the following:

  • UYSSs are used by young people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. The use of a form of UYSS is an essential part of their subculture. There are many subcultures in a society but not all are associated with UYSS. For example, heavy metal fans or gothics do not use the kind of UYSS that we focus on here. The teenagers and adolescents who use UYSS are associated with rap, hip-hop and related scenes.
  • Young people use elements from languages other than Dutch –  most notably English, Surinamese, Arabic, Berber, and (to a lesser extent) Turkish and Papiamentu (from Aruba and the Dutch Antilles). Sometimes Dutch origin words have been given an alternative meaning. The basic language is Dutch and all forms of UYSS are recognizable as such.
  • UYSSs are used more or less deliberately, and under specific circumstances, i.e. in informal encounters among peers, like when they talk about going out, chasing after the other gender, and sometimes doing things that are not allowed. Speakers have a choice (not) to use it. It is nobody’s mother tongue. They all know that you have to talk ‘decently’ in a job interview!
  • There is no rule or standard as to how many foreign elements are used. In some cases, one or two words, or a deviant pronunciation here or there, are enough to mark a certain stretch or part of speech as UYSS. In other cases, full sentences or larger stretches/parts of speech contain several words and other features that mark them as an UYSS.

The differences between several forms of UYSS can be found on linguistic levels but also on the level of context, usage, function, etc. Some forms of UYSS have a characteristic lexicon, others (only) have a characteristic pronunciation, or grammatical features.

Mixed forms are more common. The words may or may not have their origins in the ethnic background of the speakers. Speakers with a Surinamese background will tend to use more Surinamese than the Moroccan languages Berber or Arabic, and Moroccan background people will use more Arabic or Berber than Surinamese. But many speakers who are neither Moroccan or Surinamese will use words from both (as well as other) languages.

On the level of pronunciation there is a strong preference for Moroccan (Arabic and Beber). There is no space here to go into the reasons why, but please contact me if you want to know more!

As promised, here are some examples. We found them on the Internet, as comments on youtube videos. The way language is used resembles oral language use. The comments seem to be written in a hurry, without long considerations, and (therefore) include a lot of typos:

(1)  ewa                     met wie            heb je              fittie?
(Well (Arabic)    with whom       have you          fight (Surinamese))

(2)  tfoee          jullie hebben    cker nog nooit       in jilla                         gezeten he?
(shit (Berber)    you have              certainly never        in jail (Surinamese)  been huh?)

In the two examples above, the UYSS character is expressed by the choice of Berber, Arabic and/or Surinamese words (underlined).

In the following example (3), a deviant pronunciation is expressed. For Dutch people, the sharp /z/ is typical for Moroccans who speak Dutch. Normally, one /z/ would suffice but the way it is written in (3) shows a Moroccan pronunciation:

(3)  (…) de zzieke ramkrakers (…)  (zz illustrates the extra voiced pronunciation of /z/)
(the sssick ram-raiders)

The last example (4) illustrates not only the use of a foreign expression but also a (deliberate) grammatical error to highlight its UYSS character:

(4) gatarste                               muziek van de jaar a sahbi!
(most dangerous (‘coolest’) music of the year my friend)

The first word is a creative invention: gatar is Arabic and it means ‘dangerous’. Just like in English, Dutch -st makes a word superlative (longest, shortest, nicest, etc). These two are fused into a new word: gatarste. De jaar has the wrong article (should have been: het jaar).

It happens everywhere!

What I described above may sound extraordinary but it happens all over the world. Cecelia Cutler, for example, described language use in peer groups in New York City where young Ukrainian immigrants would speak English with a (cool!) Spanish accent.


I would like to know whether you are familiar with this phenomenon? I hope to receive many examples! Please share your examples below in the comments section.

References / Resources:

Some references from the ever increasing list of publications on this topic:


Pia Quist and Bente Ailin Svendsen (Eds.): Multilingual Urban Scandinavia. Bristol: Multilingual Matters, 2010.
(This book contains 16 articles about language practices among multiethnic groups in the Scandinavian cities.)

Europe and US:

Leonie Cornips and Jacomine Nortier (Eds.): International Journal of Bilingualism, 12-1 & 2, (Special Double Issue), 2008.
(Contributions about New York City, California, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium.)


In the Netherlands, the concept of Straattaal is well-known. It is even used in a commercial where two old ladies, who don’t seem to have anything to do with youth cultures use Straattaal. Take a look at it below. They use both the words and the intonation that Straattaal is associated with.

Another example is that a part of the Bible has been translated into (a form of) Straattaal recently. More in http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/bible-translated-dutch-slang. Of course, pronunciation does not play a role in this Straattaal Bible. Vocabulary is the most salient aspect of UYSS here.

Jacomine Nortier is associate professor in multilingualism and sociolinguistics at the Utrecht Institute of Linguistics, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She teaches at all university levels. According to European norms she is a monolingual, i.e., she grew up with Dutch as her only language, but like all Dutch children she learned English, German and French at school and she communicates in all three of them. As a university student she learned the Scandinavian languages Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, and later she learned Moroccan Arabic as well. Her PhD thesis (1989) was about code-switching between Dutch and Moroccan Arabic. More recent publications are about code-switching and increasingly about urban youth languages, multi-ethnolects and multilingual internet forums. Over the course of the next few months she will be writing columns for Multilingual Living about how academic knowledge helps us understand our daily multilingual lives.

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