London, the melting pot that it is, the centrifugal force, bringing in people from all over the world, the rich looking to avoid tax, the economic migrants looking for a better living and the asylum seekers avoiding hell on earth has caused a cultural and linguistic meltdown and in its place a new accent has emerged.
Cockney has not disappeared, its still the preserve of the hoards of psychopathic meathead football fans, still spoken, apparently all along the Central Line, the line of white flight in pubs in Epping and in the Cockney enclave of Eltham.
But in Hackney, Bow and other such areas, the old stomping ground of the Cockney geezer, something has been a brewing, a kind of unofficial synergy has come about, subconsciously, formed by the teenagers, formed by people, who for the most part go unseen and unheard. They have, it seems, together, and perhaps unwittingly contributed one of the biggest cultural revolutions of twenty-first century London, the creation of a new language, a new accent. Its been termed Jafraican or Multi ethnic London English but in all honesty, like some millions of microscopic organism, its different in different places. For example, Sue Fox, a research fellow in sociolinguistic variation at Queen Mary College, University of London has been quoted as suggesting that in Tower Hamlets, a new mix of Cockney and Bangladeshi has developed. She said: “The majority of young people of school age are of Bangladeshi origin and this has had tremendous impact on dialect in the area. They are using a variety of English not traditionally associated with Cockney English. It ‘s a variety that we might say is Bangladeshi-accented; and in turn what I’ve found is that some adolescents of white British origin are also using these features in their speech.” Her study discovered that young, white men have begun using words from their Bangladeshi friends such as “nang” for “good” and “skets” for slippers.’
I picked up on elements of it as soon as I arrived London in 2003 or 2004, when unshaven scruffily dressed geezers, usually a Turk working in grocery stores, would refer to me as ‘boss’, paradoxically, given that some of them probably owned the store. I never knew how to take their jaunty street talk; I’m not of the street, although I guess its an act you learn if you want to, and I somehow felt there was some kind of reverse psychological insult implied, ‘boss’ being a misnomer for ‘you spectacle wearing fuckwit’. Furthermore, I quickly understood that, in London, if anyone, on approaching me, classified me as a ‘bruv’, I knew I was in a spot of trouble, that at the very least they wanted some small favor from me. This is not because the term ‘bruv’ is an insult, its because it implies a false sense of intimacy and security, which in anyone who isn’t completely naïve will recognize as a cover for wanting something, as an attempt to provide me with a psychological trick to help me avoid the reality of the humiliation that I was about to endure. The time I got mugged on Tottenham marshes, during which time they took my possessions, and kicked my head into semi-consciousness and my left ear half off my head, the opening line was a virtual invitation into the family, ‘do you have the time blood?’
The defining phenotype of this special, twenty-first century strain of London language is of course the introduction of ‘innit?’. English grammar demands that if you ask for validation from someone you use the verb ‘to do’ in the form of the phrase ‘doesn’t it’, where it can be replaced by whichever suitable pronoun, or in the case where the verb ‘to be’ is being used with ‘isn’t it’. So ‘he plays football well doesn’t he?’ or ‘it’s a lovely day isn’t it?’ Of course in the north of England we have been subverting the pronunciation of doesn’t it and isn’t it for a long time with duntit and intit? But it seems with the dawning of the new millennium a groundswell of affection for the term innit grew up amongst the new generation of kids, which eventually seeped its way into the language of adults. Its not just that innit is the London street for intit or isn’t it Londoners have gone a step further. First whereas isn’t it is only useable in sentences where the subjective pronoun is it innit is used for any subjective pronoun, so you can say, “he’s good at football innit?” Its also used for any proposition that includes another verb other than ‘to be’, which means it has effectively displaced ‘doesn’t it’, e.g. ‘the ball rolls down the hill fast innit?’ Interestingly this is identical to the way the French use ‘n’est-ce pas’. Not only that, but innit can also now be used to mean ‘I know what you mean’ or ‘I agree with you’. So someone can be saying something, expressing an opinion, and you’ll hear their interlocutor express agreement by saying ‘Innit!’, instead of ‘you are right’, or ‘it is!’ Of course if someone is saying to you ‘its good innit’ then the street response should, strictly, be something along the lines of ‘It in!’ but ‘Innit!’ seems to be the rule.
That this evolution of language has been driven by children, was evidenced, in some time around 2005 or 2006, when I heard for the first time an incredibly sweet and peculiar sound. I heard a group of Hackney girls, sat on the top deck of the bus, conversing in what seemed like a confusion of cockney, Londonified Jamaican street and these strangely soft and drawn out vowel sounds, affected, as if to be posh. It was the first time I had come across such an accent, and when I looked to see that the girls were black, I thought maybe they’re particularly well mannered girls, who have come from a working class black community, i.e. their accent is the result of having a social connection to the cruder language forms, and being well educated, the result of meritocratic society and aspirations. However a few months later on a bus heading towards Barking, I heard another bunch of kids speaking in the same way, Jamaican street words, a bit of cockney and again that poshness, particularly in the way they said ‘like’, i.e. ‘laaaehck’. What surprised me, when I turned around to see the source of this sound, was that these were dyed in the wool, white British east end girls. Suddenly I realized that something was happening linguistically, to the young people of East London, something magical, mysterious and beautiful, which was seeping across colours and ethnic groups. London then the real melting pot, a melting pot of language and words, as kids tried to emulate each other, communicate more efficiently with each other, trying to be street, cockney and educated all at the same time. It was incredible; I had for the first time become aware of, Jafraican or Multicultural London English.
Mian Ridge, writing in 2005, describes a conversation between teenagers coming out of South London Music School. “Naes, ma, dat is sick” (“Nice man, that is cool”), one boy says admiringly, as he watches his friend take the flight of steps in one go, bouncing deftly to the pavement in his Adidas trainers. “Can’t be on de long ting, bwoy” (“Can’t be wasting time, boy”), his friend replies. “Bare tings to do innit” (“I’ve a lot to do”). As they say their goodbyes (“bae”) and head off in different directions, Joseph comes over to greet me. “Wha’ g’wan on, man?” he asks, as he gives me a hug. She quotes David Crystal, author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language who describes the change of rhythm of spoken English. Historically, spoken English demonstrated what linguists call a stress-timed rhythm, with stresses recurring at equal intervals of time, as in the measure of Shakespearean verse (“To be, or not to be… “). The new accent instead borrows the machine-gun beat of West African or West Indian English, what linguists call a syllable-timed rhythm, in which each spoken syllable is afforded roughly the same amount of time and stress. “Before people spoke in the rhythms of Shakespeare: tum te tum te tum,” he says. “The new accent goes rat tat tat tat tat.” Crystal argues, the phenomenon of white teenagers speaking in this way only appeared with hip-hop’s ascendancy.
Some examples of the new slang, and what it means, taken from the London Slang dictionary. Yard, home; Choong, good looking; Nang, very good; Ill, good / cool; Dem menz, those people; Bare, many and good; high in quantity and quality; Blud Friend, Other terms Bredrin, fam, man dem.;
The thing is through this new language is evolving quicker than anyone can keep track off. The speed of it seems to be due to the diversity of peoples, not just the words and language they import, but also in the idiosyncratic way that certain groups of people rise, collectively, to the challenge of learning English. I mean to say, that groups of foreigners, learn English together, and begin to learn from each other, its like the blind leading the blind, until the blind are all so convinced by their new way of seeing, that not only does it become a de facto style of English, other English people may, in belonging to the group resign themselves to it. In my middle class, mostly white western European circles, I have seen the prefix ‘super’ added to almost every adjective going, a Spanish contraption, infectious, imported perhaps unwittingly, by a particularly garrulous and well networked lady, who has scant regard for the formalities of the English language, and who speaks English with a sufficient degree of nonchalance, to convince all those around her that this is a valid way of speaking. I have also seen dyads, lovers, of non-English extraction; slowly build their own working English with an amusing array of linguistic peccadilloes and eccentricities, like for example using the phrase, ‘I don’t want to be stressing around’ rather than ‘I don’t want to be messing around’. The thing is, engaged in a five hour long walk with them, you realize, subconsciously, that integrating these peccadilloes into your speech means they will understand a millisecond quicker, which in turn saves you energy repeating your words, so their quirky English, effectively becomes the word and these foreigners have become your new English schoolteachers.
The language seems to be evolving most quickly amongst the violent aggressive formations that role round the streets of London, those who are careering head first into life sentences. In these societies and circles, there is a real rat race towards being the most violent, energetic and dominant. This is reflected in the violence, breakneck speed and desire for deviation in their talk. There are constantly a new range of novelties introduced no doubt by the big men, and which the wannabees are keen to adopt. Credit goes to those who can rattle their words faster than the speed of sound, which merge words and play around with the grammar, so that the language becomes incomprehensible to the majority of people. The Heath Brothers, in their book Made to Stick provide some clues as to why language is changed in this way: “The superlatives of one generation, groovy, awesome, cool, phat, fade over time because they’ve been associated with too many things. When you hear your father call something “cool”, coolness loses its punch. When your finance professor starts using the world “dude”, you must eliminate the word from your vocabulary. Using associations, then, is an arms race of sort. The other guy builds a missile, so you have to build two. If he’s “unique” you’ve got to be “super-unique” (p.174).
In another article, in the Independent, the writer notes the following conversation: “At the back of a London bus, two teenagers are engaged in animated conversation. “Safe, man,” says one. “Dis my yard. It’s, laahhhk, nang, innit? What endz you from? You’re looking buff in them low batties.” “Check the creps,” says the other. “My bluds say the skets round here are nuff deep.” “Wasteman,” responds the first, with alacrity. “You just begging now.” The pair exit the vehicle, to blank stares of incomprehension. The author recounts a conversation with a thirteen year old boy who says, “Everyone in my school speaks like this,” says Gus, a little wearily. “It’s because you hear the cool kids saying these words and then you have to do it too. You’ve got to know them all and you’ve got to keep up. Nobody wants to be uncool,” he adds, with a shudder. “That’s, like…”
As someone who lazily accepts the language taught at school and profiled on TV, you hear the language of these kids on the street, and you think these guys are deliberately placing themselves out of the mainstream, deliberately making it impossible for themselves to be accepted, as if they were members of the Yakuza getting a tattoo or having their smallest finger removed, taking the choice of integration out of the equation. Its aggressive, its quick-fire, its deliberately subversive, and when you are approached by a gang of such types, determined to regale themselves in your effects, you know your bog standard English accent, whatever hues it may contain, is going to be an offence to them, is going to make them hate you even more.
It was interesting though to see how Daily Mail readers responded to a recent article written on this subject. One reader wrote, ‘Although languages are said to evolve I think this type of speech sounds awful. I find I feel threatened around groups of youngsters who speak in this way and although it may sound snobbish, to me they don’t sound very well educated, almost as if they are part of the imfamous ‘Chav’ phenomenon.’ Another, a patois speaker had an equal amount of distaste for the way in which young people were adopting and doing to creole, what creole had done to previous accents and languages, ‘I have spent most of my life growing up in Jamaica (I am 17). When I hear people on the road ‘trying’ to use patois it angers me. Patois is very special to me. it is just not a dialect, it’s what makes a Jamaican. Patois can either be spoken or not spoken. It cannot be learnt. My theory to why youth from all ethnic backgrounds speak ‘Jafaican’ is to fit into a certain croud, to be accepted and when spoken properly it can be very intimidating.’
In London, in some places, it feels like you’ll be lucky to find a person speaking English. English. Do you speak it? No. In Tottenham, more often than not, you stop someone to ask for the time, or directions and he or she’ll hardly understand a word you’re saying.
Elsewhere of course things are much the same. The haughty tones of the North London public school boy still resound on the night buses home towards Highgate and Hampstead on a Saturday night. Children in Hampstead speak with sure assurance, self-assuredness and confidence it sends state school educated adults into shock.
London has always been a place for the rest of the world. But the innovations in transport and technology means that people come and they can preserve their link with the rest of the world, with some other part of the world. Satellite TV, the internet, cheap air travel all mean that people can now life in Africa in London, in India in London, in Bangladesh in London. The accents in London, from around the world, are just as distinctive, and command their own place, in the same way that regional dialects in England. Its almost as if Geordie is lining up with Spanish and Scowse and Arabic and Welsh and Mancunian and Irish and Italian and Jamaican. Seventy years ago the accents to be heard might have been those from around the British Isles, now its as if every country in the world, every continent, feels like some kind of provincial backwater, which sends its quota of immigrants to London, looking to make it in the Big Smoke.