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Language and Age

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English

Think of your own social groups for a moment. In your mind, you might have listed your family, your school friends, friends you've made during sports or hobbies, and people you know from your neighbourhood or other places in your community. You'll probably find that many of these groups that spring to mind have something in common: age. This won't be the case every time (my family members certainly aren't all the same age!) however there will be many groups in your life that naturally separate according to age groups.

Now think about how your language use might vary between each of these social groups. You might speak more casually and colloquially with your friends than you do when you speak to your neighbours. You might use more formal or prestige language forms when addressing older family members than you do when talking to your siblings.

Based on the age of the people you interact with, different linguistic patterns will emerge, and you'll also find that people of different ages might use different language forms themselves when they speak to you.

This in itself is an excellent demonstration of how age is a key factor in sociolinguistics.

Different age groups use language in different ways and for different reasons, Pixabay

Relationship between language and age

The relationship between language and age can be broken down into several parts. Firstly, there's the concept that groups of people of different ages will acquire and use language in different ways. Then there is the link between age and how an individual's language use develops over time.

There is a variety of factors that contribute to each of these language and age branches, and we'll be exploring these factors in this article. We'll also take a brief look at how speech and language therapy can help people of different ages to communicate more effectively.

Without further ado, let's dive in!

Difference in language use across age cohorts

Regardless of what age group you fall into, you will likely have a solid idea of the type of language that you tend to use. You might speak in quite an informal or colloquial manner, and use language that falls into a more non-standard category. Alternatively, you might speak using Standard British English in Received Pronunciation.

Your personal linguistic style could fall anywhere on the prestige scale, and the factors that make up your identity will impact this. Your occupation, ethnicity, gender, interests and many other contributors will inform the kind of language that you generally use.

One of these key factors is age.

Adolescent language use

Whether you use them or not, you're probably familiar with some slang terms and different figures of speech commonly used by teenagers. To teenagers, these language features tend to come as standard, and are constantly evolving. Adolescents will most likely also be able to recognise that older generations and children younger use language forms that are different to the ones they use.

This is a perfect example of how language use changes across different age groups in society. Adolescents make up a key cohort when tracking language use across different ages, and there are many distinct features often present in adolescent speech that may be less frequent in other groups. For instance, after interviewing 63 17-year olds in West Yorkshire 1, Gary Ives theorised that teenager-specific language includes:

  • frequent slang

  • colloquial word choices/ non-standard forms of English

  • taboo words and subjects

  • dialect words

According to Ives, these features would be a lot less common in younger and older age groups than in adolescence. Teenagers also use language to create and support a sense of social identity that will inevitably change as new experiences, hobbies, and friendship groups circulate. In many ways, non-standard forms of language provide more freedom for expression than standard morphological patterns.

The word morphology refers to the study of the form of things so can be applied to many different subjects, however, in linguistics, it relates to the form of language features (such as words and syntax). A morphological pattern is a series of associations or functions that make up the different forms of a unit of meaning or lexeme. The lexeme 'eat', for example, comprises of the forms 'ate', 'eating', 'eaten', 'eats' etc, so the morphological pattern relating to the 'eat' lexeme is essentially the collection of other forms that the word can take.

Language and Age + Adolescents Socialising + StudySmarter

Teenagers use more slang than other age groups, Pixabay

So, how does linguistic use vary across other age ranges?

Language use in children

Whilst adolescence provides opportunities for teenagers to develop their own linguistic nuances, young children will acquire and use language in different ways as well.

They might make up their own words (or even their own language amongst their friends!) and it's only natural that their pronunciation of words might not be as clear as older generations. Children also use language in order to communicate their needs so that the adults around them can provide effective assistance.

Critical age for learning language

Younger children are also blessed with the increased ability (generally speaking) to acquire new language very quickly and easily. You might have heard that learning a second language is much easier in childhood than in adulthood, and in many cases this is true. Most people who are bilingual learned a second language alongside their native language at a younger age.

Learning a second language at an early age is significantly easier than later in life due to the fact that young children experience rapid neural formation and development that results in an explosion of new learning potential. As we age, the rate at which we form new neural pathways slows down, and this in turn makes learning new languages more difficult.

It is still very possible to learn a second language as a teenager or adult, but the likelihood of being able to speak the new language to a native level is much smaller than if one starts learning the language in childhood.

Language and Age + Child Communication + StudySmarter

Children learn second languages much more quickly than adolescents and adults, Pixabay

Language use in adults

When comparing adults to children and teenagers, there are some distinctions in language use that become immediately obvious. Because adults have had more life experiences and are more experienced speakers in general, they are able to use language with more purpose and autonomy than younger people. Adults tend to also exhibit more morphological awareness than younger generations, which allows them to use language with more nuance, and achieve different purposes more effectively.

Morphological awareness refers to an individual's ability to comprehend the ways in which words and other linguistic structures can be broken down into their constituent parts (for example, words can be broken down into prefixes, roots, and suffixes).

As adults get older, the ability to remember certain words begins to diminish which can eventually lead to issues with fluency and clarity. Elderly people, in particular, tend to struggle with communicative fluency as their memories deteriorate. This can lead to increased pauses whilst talking and the introduction of more filler words such as 'umm' and 'err', as Susan Kemper's 1992 study into the distribution of adult sentence fragments concluded.2

According to research by Deborah Burke and Meredith Shafto, as well as testimonies from their informants themselves, older adults experience a decline in the ability to recall and produce verbal forms of familiar words.3 Young adults do not often have this same difficulty and consistently outperformed older participants in Burke and Shafto's experiment where participants had to name pictures of objects.

How language use changes over time

There are several sociolinguistic schools of thought when it comes to how an individual's language use evolves over time, and many sociolinguists have investigated this concept. Some of the key considerations within this branch of the language and age topic include:

  • Measuring age across different societies

  • The relationship between age and gender

  • Age-grading

Measuring age

A sociolinguist's interpretations of time and age are important factors in determining how language variation throughout a person's life stages is significant.

In her book The Handbook of Sociolinguistics (1997), Penelope Eckert divided the concept of age into three categories, they are:

  • chronological age - the number of years a person has been alive

  • biological age - the level of physical maturity reached by a person

  • social age - a person's age as determined by their social standing and life experiences

Examining age-specific language use can be tricky across other cultures as well, as different cultures may place more significance on different measures of time and age than others. This could be because different cultural groups will have different life experiences that will subsequently provide a variety of new opportunities for communication.

Whilst many Western cultures focus mainly on chronological age as a beacon for exploring age-specific linguistics, some African cultures (for example, within rural Xhosa tribes) might prioritise social age instead. It is therefore very important to understand cultural ties to language when investigating how language use develops over a person's lifespan.

Gender and age in language

Gender will also have an effect on language use across different cultures as many cultures place alternative responsibilities and expectations on different genders, regardless of age4. Some gender-centric expectations are fairly universal, such as placing a lot of importance on marriage and having a family. These factors are tied in with gender as well as with age.

In her paper Sex and the Power of Speech (2010), Deborah Cameron talks about how the majority of western cultures assume female language use to be less direct and more cooperative and supportive than male language use. In other parts of the world, however, Cameron says that the roles may be reversed, and it might be men who pride themselves on diplomacy whilst women are seen as more assertive.

She also references how it is an almost universally held belief that women talk significantly more than men. This stereotype has basically no research-based evidence, and experiments have actually shown that in informal situations, there is very little difference between the amount spoken by men and women. In formal situations, men generally talk significantly more than women, again showing how tenuous this commonly accepted generalisation is.

Age-grading

Age-grading refers to how behaviours and linguistic habits tend to predictably recur over several generations.

These behaviours are generally limited to age-specific periods that are present over several generations, and do not continue past these age-specific periods4.

For example, nursery rhymes and other childhood songs may be passed from generation to generation, but do not normally extend into other age groups. As children grow older, they stop singing these songs and rhymes and move on to other patterns, such as teenagers using slang terms that will later be dropped in adulthood.

Language and Age Age Grading StudySmarterNursery rhymes are often passed on from generation to generation, Pixabay

Language and Age - Key Takeaways

  • Age is a significant factor to take into account when considering language use in society.
  • Different age cohorts use language in different ways and for different purposes.
  • Language use develops and changes over time, even within one individual's life.
  • Cultural differences across societies will affect how these societies use language, and gender and social experience are often important factors.
  • Age-grading looks at how certain linguistic functions are adopted generation after generation, yet are often confined by particular age-specific periods.

1. E.Gray, A-Level English Language: A Guide to the “Age Theories”, 2020

2. Susan Kemper, Adults' Sentence Fragments: Who, What, When, Where, and Why, 1992

3. Deborah Burke and Meredith Shafto, Aging and Language Production, 2004

4. Jenny Cheshire, Age and Generation-Specific Use of Language, 2005

Language and Age

Older people tend to be more conservative in their language use, and may begin having trouble with word-finding and fluency as time goes on.

In adolescence, people begin using language more to express themselves and develop a sense of identity. Jobs and lifestyle changes can also lead to age-related language variation. 

The elderly may have trouble finding the words they want to say, diminished verbal clarity, and more frequent pauses and fillers when speaking.

Children acquire language much more quickly than adults, however, adults learn more autonomously and are quicker to learn new vocabulary words. 

Young children experience rapid neural development where new synapses are continually forming, resulting in a period of fast learning. 

Final Language and Age Quiz

Question

What is accent?

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Answer

Accent is the way sounds are produced where there can be variation. A person's accent is usually determined by their region but other social factors can affect it too.

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Question

What is dialect?

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Answer

Dialect refers to the variation in words that can occur in different people's speech depending on region or social group.

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What is accent or dialect levelling?

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Answer

Levelling occurs when features from one accent or dialect spread and are adopted into other accents and dialects, causing standardised forms.

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Question

What is overt prestige?

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Answer

Someone exhibits overt prestige when they take pride in using standard and prestigious forms of language.

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What is covert prestige?

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Answer

Covert prestige is when someone takes pride in using non-standard forms of language.

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Question

What is convergence?

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Answer

A speaker converges when they adapt their language to be more similar to that of the person they're speaking to.

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What is divergence?

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Answer

Divergence is when someone adapts their language to be more different to who they're speaking to, usually through emphasising their accent or dialect features.

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Question

Who theorised convergence and divergence in relation to linguistic study?

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Answer

Howard Giles

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Question

What did Labov's Martha's Vineyard study look at?

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Answer

Accent change in the residents of Martha's Vineyard.

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Question

What occupation was the accent change on Martha's Vineyard most common in?

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Answer

Fishing

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Question

What age group initiated accent change on Martha's Vineyard?

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Answer

30 - 50

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Question

What feature of spoken language did Labov investigate for accent change?

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Answer

The diphthong vowels /ai/ and /au/.

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Question

Why did year-round Martha's Vineyard residents change their accents?

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Answer

To subconsciously diverge from the accent of the incoming summer residents and tourists.

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Question

According to Gary Ives, what are the four key features of adolescent speech?

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Answer

  • slang
  • taboo words
  • non-standard forms
  • dialect words

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Question

What do teenagers commonly use language for?

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Answer

  • building relationships/ nurturing social groups
  • expressing themselves
  • building self identity
  • supporting hobbies and activities

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Question

True or False: Young children are generally able to learn a second language much more easily than adults.

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Answer

True

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Question

What happens to young children during their development that makes them so good at learning language?

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Answer

Young children experience significant rapid neural formation and development which creates new pathways in the brain.

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Question

What is another term for 'standard forms' in sociolinguistics?

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Answer

Prestige forms

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Question

What happens to elderly people's speech when they start experiencing memory deterioration?

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Answer

They might have trouble finding the words they want to say, might pause more, and use more fillers. They will become less communicatively fluent. 

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Question

What is a filler word?

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Answer

A word or sound that has no meaning and is used to fill space in a sentence while the speaker thinks.

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Question

Define "chronological age".

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Answer

The number of years a person has been alive.

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Define "biological age".

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The level of physical maturity a person has reached.

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Define "social age".

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A person's age as determined by their life experiences and place in society.

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What is age-grading?

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Answer

A way of exploring how age-specific linguistic habits and behaviours carry from generation to generation.

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What are the three components in Eckert's definition of age?

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Answer

  • Chronological age 
  • Biological age 
  • Social age

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What two social factors was Eckert concerned with during her 2003 sociolinguistic investigation?

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  • age
  • gender

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What kind of language are adolescent boys generally conditioned to use?

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Answer

Overtly masculine and heterosexual language.

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What two kinds of compliments are often utilised by adolescent girls, and to what effects?

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  • sincere compliments - adding value to the receiver as well as showing the giver has social and cultural awareness.
  • insincere/sarcastic compliments - used to establish social hierarchies and boundaries. 

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Question

In Jenny Cheshire's Reading study, which gender used more non-standard/vernacular language forms?

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Answer

Boys tended to use more non-standard/vernacular forms than girls.

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Question

What is homogenization?

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Answer

The process by which several entities are made similar or the same. 

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What is reification?

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When someone takes an abstract thing such as an idea and tries to assign a concrete or material value to it.

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What is essentialism?

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The idea that things are comprised of or determined by a set of specific characteristics.

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Does Eckert support or reject the essentialistic approach to exploring language use and variation across different social groups?

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She rejects the essentialistic approach.

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What was Eckert's aim during the Jocks and Burnouts study?

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To find out how groups involved in different social practices use language.

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What is a social practice?

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A social practice is any activity that people can do together that requires communicative interaction.

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List four examples of social practices.

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Answer

  • sports
  • hobbies
  • classes
  • clubs

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Why did the burnouts use more urban speech forms than the jocks?

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Answer

The burnouts made more friends from outside the school, giving them access to more language variation which they then assimilated. 

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Why did the jocks use more standard language forms?

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Answer

The jocks were generally respectful of authority and used more language that mimicked that used by authority figures. 

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What factors can affect how different genders use language?

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Answer

  • individual differences
  • environmental factors
  • societal attitudes

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Question

In what ways was Genie deprived of language as she grew up?

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Answer

  • she was kept in an isolated room on her own without any stimulation.
  • her mother and brother would rarely interact with her.
  • her father would only bark and growl at her, not speak.
  • she was beaten if she made any noise.
  • she never went outside.

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What crucial stage did Genie miss in her development?

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Answer

Genie missed the critical period for language acquisition.

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What is the critical period for language acquisition?

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Answer

The critical period for language acquisition is the time before puberty when a child is most ready for language learning. After this period passes, it becomes much more difficult to acquire language to any significant proficiency.

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What linguistic aspect was Genie never able to acquire?

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Answer

Grammar

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Who was the linguist who worked particularly closely with Genie and thought she might be able to acquire language more fully?

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Answer

Susan Curtiss

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What age was Genie when she was eventually discovered?

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Answer

13 years old

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How was Genie eventually discovered?

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Answer

Her mother who was almost blind was seeking medical attention and had Genie with her, but she walked into the wrong building and a social worker found Genie. 

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What was the aim of Genie's case study?

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To test whether the concept of a critical period for language learning was significant, or whether nurturing and rehabilitation would help Genie to fully acquire language.

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What did the study find?

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Genie was never able to progress past the stage of stringing a few words together to make longer utterances and she never learned grammar. This supported the idea of the critical period of language acquisition.

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Question

Define lateralisation in terms of cognition.

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Answer

Lateralisation is the process in the brain of organising different cognitive functions into different areas of the brain.

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Question

True or false: Genie's inability to give or withdraw consent during the study was a serious ethical issue.

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Answer

True

Show question

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