Dialogue: Beware! girlie speak is here

By PENELOPE FROST*

Would somebody like to tell me the point of a degree in English literature if I am unable to understand my 9-year-old daughter?

Even if it has taken an embarrassingly long time to accomplish, it's true - I can find my way around modern fiction, quote Shakespeare and Browning with ease, explain the linear development of the novel, deconstruct postcolonial literature, and even understand poetry.

Latin inscriptions, including those in Asterix the Gaul, now make perfect sense, and one day I hope to go to Europe and see real paintings instead of textbook illustrations.

It did take a history professor, though, to explain to me about postmodernism - which was a great relief since I would feel rather guilty graduating without knowing what that was.

But the fact remains - I am having definite trouble understanding my 9-year-old. At first I thought her new dialect might be an Auckland phenomenon, until I realised it was originating from her cousin in provincial Manawatu.

In my day it was letters written in lemon juice that you held up to the light, or codes tapped out on an old manual typewriter with jumpy keys.

But now they exchange faxes where they call each other by such code names as Disco Diva and Groovy Chick.

I know this because they are left all over my desk. It seems to be a sort of hybrid of text messaging and valley-speak, which could be called girlie-speak. Usually they begin with "Hay Disco Diva ... Waz Disco Diva Groovy Chick 99". I think that might mean "hello". This is followed by "How r u", and then the news of the day - also in code and possibly something to do with boys. Then they sign off with "Luv ya. Gotta go now. Laters Groovy Chick 77".

I suppose I should be pleased that they are communicating and keeping in contact despite the tyranny of distance. This does, after all, beat a six-hour drive to Palmerston North.

The letters are also well constructed grammatically, pleasantly laid out, and even correctly spelled - not to mention illustrated. I comfort myself with the notion that they both have definite writing potential.

Of course, it's hardly intentional - realising that young people have always had the tendency to develop their own lingo and that I belong to an older 1980s era of Duran Duran and psychedelic socks.

Don't get me wrong. I am a great believer in the ability to speak more than one language. But this is not exactly what I had in mind. I had been considering learning Italian in preparation for my own overseas cultural venture. But now there are more pressing matters at hand.

My daughter said to me quite candidly after I questioned her as to what "da bomb" meant that I was just going to have to learn her language, otherwise we would not be able to communicate. She is so totally, you know, like right. Girlfriend.

Although parents should beware of girlie-speak in all its forms, the one benefit when confronted by such a communication difficulty is that you do not need an expensive university degree to understand your children.

But you will have to keep in touch with them. Reading the odd fax or e-mail over their shoulder from time to time may help over the coming years.

In considering this problem I have even come up with a use for my degree. This is just as well because justifying that expensive undertaking has always been a problem in itself.

After emptying my brain onto the last exam paper, one flash of inspiration remained: the world will always need English teachers. Someone still has to teach a captive teenage audience the delights of the language and the wonders of its literature, not to mention how to communicate with those outside their age group.

I'm waiting for Teach New Zealand to offer $10,000 scholarships for the predicted shortage of English teachers. Right now this generosity extends only to the deficit of teachers in maths, physics and Maori - and I did not have the foresight to major in any of these subjects. Aside from history dates, I have trouble with all maths concepts - a common problem among English majors, and somehow 61 per cent in School Certificate physics is unlikely to qualify me for that subject area, either.

I have picked up some Maori language, but certainly not enough to face a classroom with. But the minute Teach NZ places its advertisement on the internet, I'll be first in line - having someone else pay my university fees would indeed be novel.

The trouble is that Groovy Chick may have something to say about the total uncoolness of a parent standing at the front of her class. No doubt she will be in close communication with Disco Diva. But perhaps if I keep up with this new language, I'll be able to understand them. Not to mention the children in my English class.

* Penelope Frost is an Auckland writer.

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