SLANG, ‘PATOIS’ AND – ONCE AGAIN – THE CASE OF ‘MLE’

 

Image result for multiethnic London youth

 

To coincide with this year’s Notting Hill Carnival I was interviewed by Sanjana Varghese and her excellent article in the New Statesman is here: 

http://www.newstatesman.com/2017/08/big-mle-origins-londons-21st-century-slang

Developing further some of the ideas in Sanjana’s article, and based on our exchanges, here are some more thoughts on the subject of multiethnic language, in a ‘question-and-answer’ format:

 

1.  What exactly is ‘MLE’?

 

The term MLE, coined in connection with Paul Kerswill and Jenny Cheshire’s research on dialect in 2004, describes a ‘social dialect’, ‘sociolect’ or informal spoken style of UK English used initially by ‘younger’ speakers and first identified in and first associated with London. This way of speaking is characterised by a vocabulary reflecting a high degree of ‘black’ (Caribbean English, terms possibly coined by afrocaribbean speakers in the UK, to a lesser extent US black ‘street’ language and hip hop terminology) influences and by intonation patterns and certain pronunciations which differ markedly from standard UK English and differ also from ‘traditional white working class’ accents although they retain some features such as glottal stops and ‘f’ instead of ‘th’. In lay terms, MLE appears to have a ‘lilting’, more regular intonation, resembling Caribbean and also South Asian speech, with some noticeable ‘cockney’ elements too. Its structure and syntax (‘grammar’) may display ‘deviations’ from traditionally ‘correct’ taught forms and the prestige dialects of ‘standard’ English and RP (received pronunciation). In terms of vocabulary, samples I have collected can contain up to 80% of Caribbean (so-called ‘patois’, but this is a slightly contentious term; it can be used dismissively by whites, though is happily employed by Jamaicans themselves) or other BAME lexis such as Somali, South Asian and in some isolated cases a few Turkish and Polish terms.

 

The designation MLE is well-known and widely used but, especially since this kind of speech (it is still largely a spoken variety of language, though increasingly appearing in writing in music lyrics and TV scripts and online forums and messaging) is no longer restricted to London and the core vocabulary in particular has spread to speakers all across the UK, some linguists prefer to call it Urban British English (UBE) or Urban Vernacular(s) or refer to it as a ‘multiethnolect’. It is now understood that mixed varieties of the same type have appeared in other European centres, and those in Germany (influenced by Turkish), France (influenced by North African and Arabic language)  and Scandinavia (Turkish, Arabic, Somali) in particular are the subject of research. These forms of language tend to include a high level of what can also be termed ‘slang’, ie very informal and deliberately opaque codes generated by peer groups, gangs and ‘microniches’ such as gamers, skaters, cosplayers.

 

2. How has it managed to pervade British youth culture?

 

In the 60s and 70s Caribbean English was only encountered in subcultures and popular culture via Calypso and Ska and Reggae music. Younger black speakers tended to be ‘ghettoised’ and tended to reinforce their own exclusivity by not mixing much with other subcultures – even the mods and skinheads who admired their music, so there was little spreading of black language. This began to change with the Two-Tone movement of the early 1980s, while in school playgrounds, on the street and in clubs, black speech began to gain social – at least subcultural – prestige, with young black males seen as the most resistant to the dominant culture. By the 1990s this tendency had combined with the rise of breakdancing, rap and its associated style displays (headgear, footwear, ‘bling’, etc.) USA to make it an overriding fashionable ‘wave’ carrying with it its own terminology. At street level in London I recorded white working class schoolkids in the 1990s using more and more ‘Jafaican’ (horrible pejorative term though it is) – crossing and codeswitching with what teachers called ‘creole’, ‘recreolised lexis’ or ‘patois’ in their conversations. By the later 1990s Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G was satirising this speech and the poses and style affectations that went with it. In the 2000s the ascent of UK Grime music along with influences and buzzwords from US hip hop reinforced the same tendencies, while in subsequent years social media and showbiz played a part, though the essential language was still coming from the street, particularly in London from gang culture and spreading by word of mouth. Although the tabloid press and broadcast has picked up on the phenomena they have not contributed significantly to actually propagating MLE.

 

3. Why has MLE attracted so much attention when other kinds of dialect change are common?

 

MLE is associated with social unrest, crime and what in the 60s was called transgression and ‘deviancy’, therefore lends itself to sensationalising  (and mockery too) by the media and displays of staged disapproval by representatives of the status quo (see for instance statements – and prohibitions – by educationalists, politicians, conservative journalists). ‘MLE’ is also much more important and pervasive in bestowing subcultural capital than any other instances of dialect change (which tend to operate in the regional margins and away from the attention of metropolitans), so in its own milieux and nationally it has overwhelmed other – relatively minor – changes in the lexicon or in phonology. Other forms of language change which are significant are the abbreviated codes (YOLO, FOMO, smh, obvs, etc.) and US slang (‘slay’, ‘woke’, ‘lit’, ‘(on) fleek’) used by young people on social media, and the faux-fashionable journalese use of jargon (‘Brexit’, ‘yummy-mummy’, ‘silver surfers’, etc.)

 

4. Is MLE unique to London and to English?

 

As noted above the same language phenomena are being observed in all global urban environments, most similarly in other diverse European capitals. In the UK MLE-like language is being studied particularly in Manchester (see e.g the work of Dr Rob Drummond and the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies) and Birmingham, but even in rural villages many kids are now familiar with the core terms (‘bare’, ‘peng’, ‘allow it’, ‘hench’ etc). Sadly, too, many entirely innocent British teenagers are familiar with the latest slang names of knives, guns and drugs.

 

5. Why are the borrowings in MLE overwhelmingly from Jamaica?

 

The Ali G persona was satirising what were then derided on the street as ‘wannabes’ or ‘wiggas’ (white niggas), pretending to be black, therefore cool. Gautam Malkani’s novel ‘Londonstani’ drew upon hybridity to mock a white boy pretending to be a cool Asian – actually a much rarer occurrence. Although Bhangra and Bhangramuffin music were briefly popular, as were musicians such as Apache Indian,  Asian Dub Foundation and  Jazzy B, South Asian pop culture, music and language has not challenged the domination of Afrocaribbean influence on MLE, hasn’t really crossed over despite Malkani.

The South Asian and Chinese and Japanese communities, Turkish and Somali and Polish communities for example just don’t have the same subcultural glamour and image of resistance and transgression, and therefore linguistic prestige as those with links to the Caribbean. It’s also very important that Caribbean speech is a variety of English, not a ‘foreign’ language, therefore very accessible and closely related, albeit with a very different sound.

 

6. Can the growth of this kind of multiethnolect be attributed solely to immigration?

 

The emergence of this type of mixed code, with accompanying informal lexicon and novel pronunciations is also about the dwindling within the UK of traditional social, cultural and linguistic authorities, the conditions of superdiversity in which people live and a new assertion of ‘minority’ identities, new access to media and communication. There are no longer power-groups within society or cultural influencers who have the capability of stemming or proscribing language change or enforcing disapproval of informal, provocative behaviour. Even when particular schools ban the use of slang, they are only momentarily affecting a very small segment of society.

 

7. Should we be worried by this particular aspect of language change?

 

From a purely objective linguistic perspective, language change, variation and innovation is not worrying. It’s a natural process, indeed a fascinating process and worthy of study. For someone like me, a lexicographer collecting slang and new language, new forms and new usages, as in the very dynamic and complex MLE matrix, are illustrations of the established workings of the language – the technical potential of English to create novel forms and combinations, also managing the well-known functions of language – to judge, to categorise, to help bonding and reinforce identities; the stylistic performance of language in terms of rhetoric, irony, poetics, etc.

BUT anything that is seen as part of a culture of crime, violence, drug abuse, family breakdown, even if it is more a product than a cause, will worry many people. Any significant changes in language will disturb and destabilise many people for whom their grasp of and usage of language is a fundamental part of their identity (often seen as something essential and unchanging, even if it isn’t really). For these reasons it’s not enough for linguists (or any liberals, ‘progressives’, descriptivists, etc.) simply to dismiss the concerns of traditionalists and conservatives – and ordinary worried parents, teachers and others.  Given that you can’t legislate against such language, it’s important to study it, debate and discuss it and see it for what it is.

One possible reassurance is that MLE has been seen as a temporary, developmental, transitional practice, just as youth slang has been assumed to be something that young people grow out of once they enter the adult world of work, family and other responsibilities. I have written that the vocabulary of multiethnic slang is inherently unlikely to persist into adulthood, dealing as it does with adolescent concerns: dating, sex, experimentation, illicit practices and managing prestige and competition within teenage gangs for instance. My colleague at King’s College London, sociolinguist and discourse specialist Professor Ben Rampton has, however, shown in small-scale studies that some of the features of MLE, in particular the practice of ‘crossing’ or code-switching between languages in mid conversation, may not be confined to ‘youth’ and may not be discarded in that way*. For me, this possibility most obviously relates to its intonation and pronunciation which I think may well come to have a pervasive influence in many circles in the UK, possibly changing ‘mainstream’ English in years to come. 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 which is shared by a wide variety of young adults, so that if you hear but can’t see the speaker, it’s impossible to determine their ethnicity. This was nicely satirised by the TV comedy series PhoneShop but is now really the case in diverse communities like Croydon, the fictional setting for the show, and a few elements of which are showing up in reality TV abominations like Love Island.

For most linguists the yardsticks by which we judge language are not ‘correctness’ or association with prestige – ‘poshness’ in other words, but just two criteria: ‘intelligibility’ (is it mutually comprehensible?) and more importantly ‘appropriacy’ (is it the right kind of language to fit the social context?). If you apply the notion of appropriacy there’s nothing inherently bad about MLE, or slang, providing it is used in a suitable setting, such as a school playground, club, on the street, in private banter, and not in school essays, exams, job interviews, formal encounters, in front of your Gran, etc.

 

*Some sociolinguists think that focusing on ‘youth language’ itself is discriminatory and is creating false categories. I have been criticised myself, both by conservatives for celebrating ‘ghetto language’ and one or two linguists who accused me of labelling the young and their behaviour. All I can say is that young people I have interviewed have very often referred to multi-ethnic slang as ‘our language’, the language of ‘the youth’.

 

Image result for youth at Notting Hill carnival

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EMOJI – a source list

Image result for emoji evolution

 

I have been asked by students and colleagues to write, very belatedly perhaps, about emoji. While searching for something novel and meaningful to say about the phenomenon, and looking for a stance to adopt in the (sometimes tedious) ‘is/are emoji a language?’ debate, I thought I would share this list of references (a personal selection from the mass of material recently published), to provide a shortcut for anyone else studying the subject…

(…I think I’m most intrigued by the ‘instabilities’ in emoji meaning and the fact that ’emoji dialects’ have been discerned:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3196583/Can-decipher-emoji-messages-Translators-11-regions-misunderstand-universal-symbols-hilarious-results.html

…and by such insights as these, from a feminist perspective, from Debbie Cameron:

https://debuk.wordpress.com/2017/09/10/are-women-over-emojinal/

…any new thoughts on these or other aspects of emoji interpretation, or additional links would be gratefully received!)

 

http://ounews.co/arts-social-sciences/art-literature-music/what-emoji-can-teach-us-about-human-civilization/?utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=SocialSignIn&utm_source=Twitter

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/books/review/wordplay-emoji-slang-puns-language.html?emc=edit_tnt_20170825&nlid=67701160&tntemail0=y

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tTXLuZHYf4&t=4s

 

 

http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2015/11/emoji-language/?__prclt=S8d1uceQ

 

 

https://www.languagemagazine.com/emojis-and-the-language-of-the-internet/

 

 

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-merperson-comes-to-emoji-1495808225

 

 

https://stronglang.wordpress.com/2017/03/14/the-whimsical-world-of-emoji-swearing/

 

 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/emoji-taking-world/

 

 

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/tes-talks-vyvyan-evans

 

 

https://theconversation.com/why-decisions-on-emoji-design-should-be-made-more-inclusive-80912?utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Twitter#link_time=1500025713

 

 No automatic alt text available.

 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/audio/2017/jun/23/emoji-dr-vyvyan-evans-language-tech-podcast?CMP=share_btn_tw

 

 

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4545752/The-different-factors-influence-emoji-choice.html

 

 

https://phys.org/news/2017-05-linguistic-emojis.html

 

 

 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-07/how-emojis-can-help-children-learn-and-communicate/8425482?pfmredir=sm

 

 

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/fashion/grindr-gay-emoji-gaymoji-digital.html?_r=0

 

 

http://www.nowherethis.org/story/emoji-linguistics/

 

 

https://theconversation.com/signs-of-our-times-why-emoji-can-be-even-more-powerful-than-words-50893

 

 

 

https://rightsinfo.org/emoji-global-language-cultures-left/

 

 

 

 

 

emoji pillows

 

A footnote. Ben Zimmer’s son claims that this, the suspension railway, is the least used emoji:

🚟🚟🚟🚟🚟🚟

THE ART OF BUSINESS JARGON

 

reinvent the wheel illustrated

 

Business jargon – the buzzwords, catchphrasesclichés and mantras of corporate life – manages to be perennially fascinating and endlessly irritating. Many of the better-known expressions have an air of novelty despite being in existence for many years, and survey after survey lists the same serial offenders as the triggers of office rage, headdesking and facepalming. The very latest take on this subject, visualising the metaphors we take for granted, is provided here, courtesy of Citrix ShareFile‘s illustrator David Doran, writer Kevin Hill and by kind permission of Search Laboratory’s Senior Media Specialist Jennie Lindehoff…

 

https://www.sharefile.com/blog/illustrated-business-jargon-by-david-doran/

 

REAL TALK – ‘SLANG’

 

 

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Of the TV series that have featured Urban Slang (or so-called MLE, ‘Multiethnic London English’) for me none surpassed, in authenticity, ingenuity and hilarity, the sitcom PhoneShop*, broadcast on Channel 4 between 2010 and 2013. Writer and producer of the series, Phil Bowker tells me  ‘Like you, slang’s something that has fascinated me since I was a kid growing up in Liverpool.’  It’s a great privilege to be able to print here, with Phil’s blessing, the script of this sequence intended for his follow-up satire on multicultural Britain for BBC2 The Javone Prince Show**, but never broadcast. Phil explains, ‘I wanted to spoof the kind of BBC London style of hack news reporting but instead of the usual fayre of drugs and knives, I wanted to make it about slang.’ Relish now for the first time this exposé of …Real Talk ‘Slang’…

 

EXT. URBAN STREET

Andrew Milligan (Jason Barnett) is on a walk and talk.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

Why is my man Parrin’ me?” “Dat Gyal is pengalicious” “Watcha me come and lick off a ya headtop”            Words and phrases that you wouldn’t particularly want to hear coming out of your child’s mouth. But this is an everyday reality for thousands of parents across the Country as unscrupulous dealers are targeting our children at the very place where they’re most vulnerable: The school gate.

We cut to a School sign and then back down to Andrew as he crouches down outside the entrance. The floor is littered with discarded pieces of paper the size of christmas cracker jokes. There are lots of ‘capsules’ around too. He reads a couple of them – sickened at what he sees.

ANDREW

Pagan, Sideman, Sket…. (earnestly) Lovely isn’t it?

CUT TO:

INT.KITCHEN.

A mum (Debra Baker) Is interviewed in her spotless kitchen.

 

CONTINUED:

MUM

My 10 year old comes home, he calls his little brother a beg, calls me a slosher and tells me he’s goin his drum to blaze…’ What can I do about that? I ain’t got a clue what he’s talkin about….

 

Andrew Walk and Talk.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

We’ve all seen them plying their vile trade in pubs and car parks the length and breadth of the Country. The So called slang hawkers. You yourself may have even enjoyed using some casual slang at a dinner party. I’m ashamed to say, I have. I had bare laughs. But where does this slang come from? Who’s selling it, and what is the real cost? To find out, I took to the streets.

 

EXT.STREET. NIGHT

 

CUT TO:

 

 

Shot from a first floor window, we see Andrew making a call from a phonebox.

 

DEALER

(Voice Disguised) What you after?

ANDREW MILLIGAN

I’m looking for a, uh maybe a five pound deal?

 

 

DEALER

Fuck off. (Bleeped) You couldn’t even get a noun for that, you mug.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

What would, say £20 or £25 buy me?

DEALER

A small bag of verbs. Proper, good verbs, I don’t fuck (bleeped) around.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

Sounds good my man, but how can I guarantee the quality of your slang?

DEALER

You heard of swag?

ANDREW MILLIGAN

Yes, Swag. I think I’ve heard Louis Walsh say it.

DEALER

That’s one of mine.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

 

Wow.

Wide shot of Andrew waiting by the telephone box.

ANDREW (V.O)

In less than five minutes one of the dealer’s word soldiers rode by on a stolen mountain bike.

We see a kid riding past on a bike throwing at book at him. Andrew bends down to pick it up (It’s a dictionary) He opens it up to reveal a hollowed out centre with a small baggy in it.     He furtively looks around and then opens the bag, looking at the tiny pieces of paper with words written on them.

 

ANDREW MILLIGAN

(slightly out of breath) The dealer wasn’t lying. There is a potency to this slang that I haven’t seen before. I have to admit, it’s quite thrilling.

 

INT. A STUDY

Talking head of Professor EB Black.

PROFESSOR

This is a massive problem we are sleepwalking into. Slang has been around for ever, but it was always kept at an acceptable level. It was fine for criminals, the working classes and immigrants but what we’re seeing now is a huge middle class uptake – it’s extremely frightening and this government needs to do something about it very quickly.                                I’m reluctant to use the word, but what we’re facing, is an epidemic.

Andrew swings round to camera.

ANDREW MILLIGAN

But what the chickenclart can be done?

 

CUT TO:

 

Hard cut to archive. Police raid on property. Shot of battering ram hitting door.

POLICE

Police!! Put the pens down! Drop the Quills! I repeat, Drop the Quills…

 

We cut to people coming out with their hands on their heads. They are all wearing glasses or visors. They look disorientated.

 

GANG LEADER

I’ll be back out on the streets in half an hour. You fucking rats.

He looks at the camera.

Penelope, get the bail money! It’s in the study underneath Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage….

ANDREW MILLIGAN (V.O.)

This slangmaster is facing a long “sentence” in a “pen” of his own making. But there is a way out. If not fi him, fi someone else.

CUT TO:

 

Talking head of reformed slang dealer Christian Gibbs.

CHRISTIAN GIBBS

I was always interested in language. The etymology, the syntax. Other kids would be out kicking a ball against a wall. I’d be indoors with me head in a thesaurus.

Andrew Milligan nods.

I started mucking around with slang. Making my own words up. Giving them away to mates in school. And then I realised. There was money to be made – and it went from there.

Andrew swings around to camera.

 

ANDREW MILLIGAN

Christian became so successful, within a year of selling his slang words illegally, he managed to buy his parents a new house, and was engaged to a Countdown semi-finalist. But things quickly went wrong.

CHRISTIAN GIBBS

I got greedy. I started mixing with the wrong people. I got too big too quick. At one point, I was running three or four terraced houses full of young academics twenty-four hours a day. I was effectively controlling most of the slang that was being sold in London. And then it all caught up with me.

 

EXT OF URBAN BASKETBALL COURT.

Christian is helping some young people to ‘lay up’

ANDREW MILLIGAN

After a spell at her majesty’s pleasure, Christian dedicated his life to helping the very people who once did his bidding in his urban slang factories.

 

CUT TO:

 

We see the trad shot of guys having fun. High 5ing etc

CUT TO:

 

Andrew Walk and Talk down an alley.

 

 

ANDREW MILLIGAN (cont’d)

Tragically, a few hours after that lay up we learnt that Christian’s past had finally caught up with him and he was ambushed by a gang of rival wordsmiths in a back alley Scrabble game.

 

 

He arrives at the taped off crime scene. There’s an abandoned Scrabble board and associated paraphernalia. He crouches down

ANDREW MILLIGAN (cont’d)

The last words he spelt out on the Scrabble board was a fitting testament to his memory: YOLO/ Gubati/Gggdedjs/

Andrew gets up and continues his Walk and Talk.

ANDREW MILLIGAN (cont’d)

So the next time you’re at a dinner party or even a simple kitchen supper and somebody decides it might be ‘fun’ to pass the ‘slang’ around, remember the real cost and just say no.

 

 

http://www.channel4.com/programmes/phoneshop

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b063hcgz