Emma Thompson defends the English language from, like, dumb teenagers (and stuff)

43638, NEW YORK, NEW YORK - Monday August 16, 2010. Emma Thompson, star of the new movie Nanny McPhee Returns , is all smiles after making an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart . Photograph:  PacificCoastNews.com

Yes, I realize that it’s a slow gossip day! That’s why I have the time to write about one of my favorites, Ms. Emma Thompson, and her love of the English language. Emma loves language so much she wants to take it behind the middle school and get it pregnant. She wants to have babies with good diction. She wants to ride literacy into it’s begging her to stop.

Anyhoodles (Emma would hate that), Emma recently went back to her old school and all of the kids were saying things like, “Like, totally, ain’t it, dur?” This angered Emma. And she spoke about her, like, anger in a recent interview, you know, like, totally:

As Nanny McPhee, she had few problems getting wayward children to fall into line. And Emma Thompson no doubt wishes she had a few of her character’s magical powers to tackle her latest bugbear: the sloppy English used by the youth of today.

The Cambridge-educated actress, famed for her plummy tones, said the failure of many children to speak properly drove her ‘insane’. She said: ‘We have to reinvest, I think, in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal human freedom and power. I went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing their “likes” and “innits?” and “it ain’ts”, which drives me insane. I told them, “Just don’t do it. Because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid”.’

She went on: ‘There is the necessity to have two languages – one you use with your mates and the other that you need in an official capacity. Or you’re going to sound like a nob.’

The double Oscar-winner, 51, argued that while it had long been common for teenagers to have their own style and way of speaking among their friends, some were now using the same style of speech regardless of whether it was appropriate for the situation.

The Sense And Sensibility star attended Camden School for Girls in North London, which has a list of alumni that includes Sara Brown, Arabella Weir and Geri Halliwell.

She told Radio Times: ‘There is the necessity to have two languages – one that you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity.’

Research published earlier this year revealed that some teenagers are becoming unemployable because they limit themselves to a working vocabulary of only 800 words.
Although they could often understand thousands of words, they restricted themselves to a linguistic range mainly consisting of made-up words and ‘teenspeak’ – which has developed through modern communication methods such as text messaging and social networking sites.

Communications expert Jean Gross warned: ‘We need to help today’s teenagers understand the difference between their textspeak and the formal language they need to succeed in life – 800 words will not get you a job.’

Tony McEnery, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University, analysed 10million words of transcribed speech and 100,000 words gathered from teenagers’ blogs.

He found that the top 20 words used by teenagers, including ‘yeah’, ‘no’ and ‘but’, account for about a third of all words used. Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy has also raised concerns about the ‘woefully low standard’ in schools, which is a cause for concern for employers.

[From The Daily Mail]

This is, like, a worthy cause. Okay, I’ll stop! I use “like” and “you know” and “I mean” way too much. In my defense, however, I know WAY more than 800 words, and I read and write all the time. I totally understand why Emma is pissed off, though. I hear teenagers sometimes and their conversations give me a headache. Emma should take them on, personally. And then she come to my house and personally give me a beat down for my conversational and writing crutches. You know? Like, I mean, come on!

NEW YORK - AUGUST 16: Actress Emma Thompson attends the Meet The Filmmakers: 'Nanny McPhee Returns' at the Apple Store Soho on August 16, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

NEW YORK - AUGUST 16: Actress Emma Thompson attends the Meet The Filmmakers: 'Nanny McPhee Returns' at the Apple Store Soho on August 16, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

NEW YORK - AUGUST 16: Actress Emma Thompson attends the Meet The Filmmakers: 'Nanny McPhee Returns' at the Apple Store Soho on August 16, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

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40 Responses to “Emma Thompson defends the English language from, like, dumb teenagers (and stuff)”

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  1. Snarf says:

    Couldn’t agree more. If you don’t come across as being particularly articulate (at least initally), people will think your like, totally dumb or some junk, ya know?

  2. Oi says:

    I’m with her all the way. It especially bothers me when 20ish people have no idea how to speak in a professional manner. Colloquialisms have their place, but you have to know where!

  3. Cel says:

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    I have intereviewed teenagers/young adults who think that speaking in this manner is acceptable when interviewing for a job. It’s not, and I find it astonishing that they cannot understand this.

  4. manda says:

    what does “dur” mean? or is that a typo? or onamatopoeia?

  5. lulu says:

    I feel it worthy of notice that in general the standard of writing one encounters on this site is above and beyond that to which one necessarily becomes impervious to in other media forms. In sooth, I know not why Emma is so sad. It wearies me – she says it wearies her (Contemporary Shakespeare…).

    Indeed, Emma, this is the place to come to for all your sundry gossip and bitching needs. (Yet methinks perchance she readeth or writith here already under some witty pseudonym? )

    Yea verily, Celebitchy (and Kaiser), thou rockest.

  6. Ferguson. says:

    I’m with her. Personally, english is not my mother language, and aprox. 40% of my vocabulary is based on ‘teenspeak’, just because I wasnt raised in an english-speaking country and all I have as ‘example’ are blogs, facebook and twitter… so yeah, I learned english from the internet. That’s not a good thing.

    It’s pretty funny actually, cause I may sound dumb when I speak/write in english, but I have a really wide vocabulary in the spanish language (I’m studying to become a journalist). So I couldnt agree more.

  7. Raccoon Princess says:

    This might get me to forgive her for signing the Roman Polanski petition, but only because she did ask her name be removed.

  8. Delta Juliet says:

    Yay for Emma! I am friends with my niece on Facebook and sometimes I read her postings and I worry….does she really think that is how words are pronounced and/or spelled? Skool? Kewl? Luv? AAAAHHHHH! I fear for the future.
    Even curse words. I myself am a big fan of cursing, in the right time and place. In other words, not in front of people I don’t know, not in front of children, not in front of my parents….I cringe when I am standing in line somewhere and from behind me the F-bomb is being dropped repeatedly.

  9. Lindy says:

    This makes me think of the Vicky Pollard character on the Little Britain show:
    “Yeah but no but yeah but see but innit so but yeah!” It’s hilarious. And totally cracked out and disturbing–she’s exactly the target Emma’s going after (god bless her!).

  10. Riley says:

    I hate that I use “you know” as a crutch. This sounds awful, but I became transfixed one morning during the Today Show counting how many times Casey Anthony’s mother said “you know” when she couldn’t make a proper argument. It made me frustrated and I kept saying out loud to the tele,”No, Cindy, I don’t know.” Dina Lohan does the same thing, and so does Sarah Palin. I have noticed to, that when I feel on the defensive, or I can’t form my argument quick enough in my head to say it, I will pull out a “you know” here and “you know” there. When I catch myself doing it, I really try to stop and I have gotten better about thinking before I speak. Eh, Emma is right and props to her for helping young people to have the self confidence to form a thoughtful idea or an answer to a question.

  11. Brittney says:

    My boyfriend’s 25-year-old (male) roommate uses “like” so much in his everyday speech that I’ve started counting its occurrences on my fingers, in front of him. In one conversation I have to start over an average of ten times — that’s ONE HUNDRED “likes” within a few minutes… and he’s a college graduate who deems himself intellectually superior to almost everyone. I DON’T UNDERSTAND IT. I’d like to blame the Internet and reliance on trendy abbreviations or spell-check, but it has a lot to do with ever-decreasing standards of communication… and the fact that no one seems to realize anymore that the words coming out of their mouths define who THEY are to the world. UGH….

  12. Sumodo1 says:

    I taught high school English for awhile. Once the ground rules were clear in my classroom: “Leave ‘like’ and ‘you know’ at the door” and “No playing with your piercings” among them, we were fine with being smart.

    Let someone know you have standards and they will meet them, and if they don’t they will feel left out. So, my kids were free to take on new words, recite poetry, write their term papers, and take on extra assignments.

    This was English III. I didn’t have honors students, mostly average students, jocks and cheerleaders. They loved “Hamlet” because there were curse words and phrases that are still used today. I had them watch a PBS documentary by Robert MacNeil (MacNeil/Lehrer Report guy)about the origins of American speech, and they dug it. Then, they were prepared to really “hear” Shakespearean English.

    I didn’t mean this to be a treatise, however, achievement still has value to young people. Not all young people, but most, in my opinion, want at least a C on their report cards.

    Emma is right, so let’s see how this goes over in England. Nobody liked to be “nannied” into doing the right thing.

  13. Rachel says:

    @ Manda, I think it’s equivalent to “duh”

    @ Lulu, that was hilarious! I love it!

  14. original kate says:

    my pet peeve is when people mix up there, their, they’re; loose and lose; effect and affect, your and you’re, and so on. my other pet peeve is ending a sentence with “at,” as in “where are you at?” no, it is wrong.

    don’t even get me started on sarah palin and her insane anacoluthia.

  15. Riley says:

    I wish her shirt wasn’t so tight, though.

  16. DiMi says:

    I understand and agree with her point, but I think she’s starting to sound a bit crotchety. I don’t like the idea of a wealthy actress who had the privilege of a superb education telling young women, perhaps poor women, that they sound stupid. Has the My Fair Lady gig gone to her head? Does she think she’s Henry Higgins? First Audrey Hepburn, now teen language. I used to love her, but she’s starting to annoy me. (And I’m Ivy-league educated so this is not about me being defensive. I’m just annoyed by the elitism.)

  17. Sumodo1 says:

    Anacoluthia! I just looked it up!

    While anacoluthia generally describes a grammatically garbled sentence, an anacoluthon is a technical term in rhetoric that describes “a construction involving a break in grammatical sequence, as in ‘It makes me so-I just get angry.’”

    That’s so Palin!

  18. guesty says:

    there’s blog speak, text speak (michael jackson started it with pyt before texting ever was), legal-ease, christian-ease & of course the proper use of the english language or any other language for that matter. a time & a place for all of the above imo.

  19. lucy2 says:

    I agree with her completely, but sometimes a “dur” is called for.

  20. hairball says:

    I totally agree! Know when to be professional. For my public speaking class in college (TORTURE), my professor would hold up a red card everytime I said “um” or “like”. It flustered me because that f*cking card was up all the time initially!

    I hated/loathed that class! But I still remember (and use) his great advice: Don’t put ‘like’ or ‘um’ in to fill a dead space between words, it’s ok to have a brief silence.

  21. Jo 'Mama' Besser says:

    Yes, Sarah Palin: The Anacoluthon Don.

    I realise that there’s a gender dissociation, but this has a better ring.

  22. vic says:

    Agree with a, someone is getting old and trying to stay relevant. Reminds me of that old Bye Bye Birdie song, What’s the matter with kids today? Every generation does, says, wears something that irritates the older folks. And how this ended up as yet another bitchfest about Palin??? Like, you know, obsessed much? Dur.

  23. Lucky Charm says:

    I disagree that she’s sounding crotchety or “getting old”. She has a very valid point. The English language IS being corrupted by “teenspeak”.

    @ DiMi – She was at her alma mater, the school that she herself went to, where she made a speech. And yes, people DO sound stupid when they talk like that, and it has absolutely nothing to do with being poor.

    @ Manda – Dur is a word similar to duh but used to convey more irritation.

  24. original kate says:

    “And how this ended up as yet another bitchfest about Palin???”

    when sarah palin stops comparing herself to shakespeare i will stop bitching about her – deal?

  25. TQB says:

    I adore her. (Not Palin, Emma.)

  26. Jo 'Mama' Besser says:

    Perhaps a bitchfest about Dan and the Giant ‘Potatoe’ would be more welcomed?

  27. Mistral says:


    She looks amazing. That hair is great.

  28. paul says:

    I absolutely back Emma 100% the youth of today they sound like idiots,I understand youth culture has to make its mark,But this is just awful, It sounds so annoying even to listen to it,Words like ,Ya git me,Like ,You lot,innit,Sad very sad.

  29. Adrien says:

    Uhm, she’s like gonna teach childrens some English gramer and stuffs like that, innit? Whatever! Emma Thompson’s like totally adorbs, ya know, for reals.

  30. Andrea-2 says:

    How does she feels about the word “twee”? Is that considered some kind of slang?

  31. Emily says:

    I must have an awesome bunch of friends, because most of my friends’ Facebook statuses are, for the most part, spelled correctly and punctuated. And we’re all 18-28 ish.

    Some of my younger cousins and neighbours, though, write appallingly, which I can’t stand. It hurts my eyes trying read anything written in textspeak.

  32. jemshoes says:

    LOVE THIS WOMAN! She’ll always be Elinor Dashwood to me. :)

    And while it’s fun to use language a certain way in certain mediums (eg like on this site / in this kind of forum), I agree that your written and spoken language in a professional capacity should tell others you know how to communicate effectively.

    And now lets get back to LOLs, *eyerolls* #blametweettags, etc and have fun!

  33. Chris says:

    I’m waiting for a teen film to come out called: She’s like, totally, um, you know, whatever.

  34. Tabbyfoof says:

    I don’t think Teenspeak is corrupting the English Language per se, it’s just that if people use it in lieu of more precise and varied vocabulary and grammatical constructions, they’re selling themselves short when they’re in formal situations. That was her message, right? Hairball, that’s a great story about the red card. Doesn’t Toastmasters do something similar?

    By the way, I thought “dur” was simply the way “duh” (cf “uh” and “er”) is spelled in British English. Is there a difference in meaning?

  35. serena says:

    I totally agree with Emma, I just can’t bring myself to use text speak, even when I AM texting! It feels wrong, and I despair of the language that comes out of my niece (who incidentally goes to private school and should know better)
    …I’ve just re-read that last sentence and realised I sound about 70..I’m only 32!

  36. orion70 says:

    I don’t have a problem with teens using that stuff, adults in a professional environment saying “oh my god, that’s like SO retarded”, and people who still can’t grasp the whole your/you’re “would of” stuff..I have a problem with.

    I frequent a couple of music sites that have a wide range of ages, and I’ve seen disdain from teens regarding language, so it’s not right across the board. Plenty of teens are grammar freaks.

  37. Natasha says:

    @Lindy “Yeah but no but yeah but see but innit so but yeah!” is literally a phrase I routinely have to decode when I have a conversation with my 16yo brother. I have to remind him that I don’t know what “so… yeah” means when he ends his sentences with it.