The Dismissive, Exasperated, Sinister Sounds Of Teenagers

Teens can appear distant and moody, unless you speak their language. Linguist James Harbeck speaks with NPR's Scott Simon about his quest to crack the code. (This story first aired June 1, 2013.)

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Teenagers can seem sullen, moody and uncommunicative - unless you know how to listen to them. James Harbeck does. He's an editor and linguist in Canada who's analyzed sounds that can be distinctly annoying to adults. James Harbeck joins us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Thanks so much for being with us.

JAMES HARBECK: Hi. Nice to be here.

SIMON: First, what made you devote any scholarship to this?

HARBECK: I wouldn't say that this is a grand scholarly work, exactly. It's more just an application of undergraduate-level phonetics to things that I hear on the bus on the way home.

SIMON: I want to ask you about a few sounds, and if you could begin by re-creating them. The first is -and I'm going to sign on to your language here - the breathy-voiced, long, low, back, unrounded vowel with advanced tongue root.

HARBECK: Aghhhh!

SIMON: (Laughter)

HARBECK: I can't even do it without rolling my eyes. They automatically go right up to the roof.

SIMON: I'm convinced. You're exasperated. All right. And that means?

HARBECK: Utter exasperation, which can range from a life-threatening imposition to a request to take out the garbage five minutes sooner.

SIMON: (Laughter) OK, very convincing. OK, another one - glottal fricative and breathy-voiced, mid-low, central, unrounded vowel sound, repeated.

HARBECK: Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh.

SIMON: Oh, now this is a sound more commonly heard in young men than young women?

HARBECK: If I heard a young woman make that sound, I think I would get off the bus at the next stop. (Laughing)

SIMON: Yeah, it's not exactly warm and congenial. And it means?

HARBECK: It means dirty.

SIMON: Somebody said something that's a little unsavory?

HARBECK: Or somebody wishes to imply something that's a little unsavory.

SIMON: Now, are these signs, Mr. Harbeck, designed to communicate or not to communicate?

HARBECK: All communication is really behavior designed to cause behavior in another person. And sometimes, that behavior is a pull or a push and sometimes, it's a block.

SIMON: Do you - do you have a favorite?

HARBECK: Well, there's one that I still use...

SIMON: Yes.

HARBECK: ...Which is tsk-ahh...

SIMON: (Laughter)

HARBECK: ...Which people might think is a very sort of girly kind of sound. But - I mean, I have no defense for that.

SIMON: What's the linguistic translation of that?

HARBECK: You mean the phonetic description?

SIMON: Yes.

HARBECK: That was an alveolar click with unreleased, velar co-articulation followed by a glottal stop, reduced, mid-central, unrounded vowel - which in my case, I just about left out - and a long glottal fricative. So the click - tsk - it's just that. You know, we spell it T-S-K. And then glottal stop - the vowel, the fricative is just ahh.

SIMON: (Laughter) OK. I'm sorry. What did I say? What did I - oh, I'm sorry. Well, you got me to react, didn't you? It works. James Harbeck, writer and editor - and interpreter of teenage sounds - joining us from the CBC in Toronto. Duh! Thanks so much.

HARBECK: Thanks.

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