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Wed, 13 Nov 2019 16:47 GMT

So, You Think You Speak English?

Media & Culture

Dr Deborah Swallow - 7Dnews London

Tue, 11 Jun 2019 10:24 GMT

For all those who have struggled to learn English, I have some bad news. There’s another English language for you to learn. While some people call it London’s 21st century slang, ‘road talk’ or Jafaican, the official term is Multicultural London English (MLE). A derivative of Jamaican patois and its slang, mixed with African, South American and South Asian vocabulary, but firmly embedded in east London English, MLE has replaced cockney as the main street vernacular in the ‘big smoke’, aka London. And, it is very different to the Mary Poppins cockney that most Americans imagine they will hear on London’s streets.

The term MLE describes a ‘social dialect’ (sociolect), an informal spoken style of UK English used initially by ‘younger’ speakers and first identified and associated with London in the 80s. However, experts say it may be better called Urban British English, a “multiethnolect”, as even young people far away from London are often familiar with some of the core terms or even speak it fluently. Undoubtedly, MLE has the potential to change English forever, even outside of “yoof culture”.  

“This can already be seen not just in young white and Asian people consciously imitating the sound of Jamaican, but in a new rhythm and emphasis in everyday speech,” says Anthony Thorne, a linguistics researcher at King’s College London. “If you hear but can’t see the speaker, it’s impossible to determine their ethnicity”. Currently, MLE is used almost identically among ethnicities and genders in urban areas and has started to spread further afield to areas like Manchester and Birmingham, and to white ‘middle class’ youth. 

Thorne notes that not all the slang in MLE comes from patois as there are influences on vocabulary, syntax (grammar) and intonation from many of the minority languages brought to the UK by immigrants, notably Turkish and Polish. With more than 270 nationalities make up its fabric, London has the largest non-white population of any European city. It is this “super diversity” of London which has shaped the development of speech patterns evolving in MLE.  

MLE depends on migrants and social movement. It is a British stew that each migrant community has added to. The effects of post-war large-scale immigration from former British colonies, in the 1960s and 1970s, meant that Caribbean English was carried into common parlance through music like reggae and its absorption by popular culture. However, by the 1980s, speech patterns that were predominantly associated with ethnic minorities began to gain prestige on playgrounds, streets and clubs in parts of London. Language from gang culture and word of mouth in combination with these previous influences, along with the UK grime scene and US hip hop, have enabled MLE to become a driving force in linguistic change today. So much so that, in plain English, MLE became cool and has transitioned into the main language of the youth of London; and, increasingly, of other parts of the UK.

Certain sections of society (predominantly white and middle class) have started to become concerned. Arguably, these and other critics of MLE demonstrate a racist overtone as they assert its users will be disadvantaged later in life, in job interviews and career promotions, because of their use of ‘deviations’ from traditionally ‘correct’ taught forms and the prestige dialects of ‘standard’ English and received pronunciation.  

The way we speak in the UK not only matters so much in our lives but is also very political. It is said that you only have to open your mouth for someone to judge you. Our speech says so much about us that many people learn to neutralise their accents to ‘standard’ English so that they can ‘get on’ in life. 

However, in a study of linguistic diversity of inner London schools, researchers Harold Rosen and Tony Burgess found that many children could switch the way they spoke depending to whom they were speaking. It seems that there are generational differences in every family, with grandparents often complaining they cannot understand their grandchildren. But what is an essential part of the development of MLE, nowadays, is a form of ‘layering’.  

The density of diversity within families in London means that children have grown up hearing lots of different Englishes, never hearing one specific coherent language. They go to school, sitting next to another child who has experienced a completely different set of languages as part of their background. And, children being children, they create a way to talk to each other, adapting by making their own language – as do twins. Hence, MLE is enriched through layers being added from disparate influences. 

Historian David Starkey faced a backlash when, in 2011, he commented, “The whites have become black... Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together. This language which is wholly false is a Jamaican patois, that’s been intruded in England and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.” 

So, when you arrive in this foreign country, how do you actually converse?

Many are familiar with the expression “innit” tacked on to the end of a sentence and means ‘isn’t it’ or ‘yes, I agree and understand’. As a greeting, rather like in French or German, ‘ça va?’ or ‘wie gehts?’, you will ask your bruv or bro (close friend), “wagwan?” meaning ‘what’s going on?’ Or, ‘how’s it going?’  

The replacement of ‘man’ as the pronoun for I, as in “man’s hanging!” (I’ve got a hangover!) harks back to old English, which took the form of language that still exists in German today.  

A ‘rude boy’ is a bad man, hardened by the street and a ‘wasteman’ is a loser, whilst a ‘side man’ is just someone who is useless or incompetent. For something that is good looking or nice, you use the term ‘peng’. Things and food can be ‘peng’, and if you say someone is ‘peng’ it implies they are pretty fit. For more instances of MLE, look see this article. 

Linguistic change is as natural as language itself: it’s a fundamental part of how languages are actually formed throughout the world. English has always evolved, changing with the growth of immigrant communities, while many English words are bastardisations of words from other European or colonial tongues.  

Cities around the world with similar African-Caribbean diasporas, such as Toronto, have also seen the growth of patois-influenced slang in the youth lexicon. But English is not the only language that is being changed at the ‘street level’. Similar trends have been experienced in all kinds of global urban environments where immigration is prevalent, such as “Turken-Deutsch”, Turkish influenced slang used by teenagers in Berlin, or “straattaal” in the Netherlands.