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26 March 2024

Posh, privileged and fraudulent: meet the slangster

Why do well-off gents from Devon think they’re in Top Boy?

By Zak Asgard

Accents are malleable. They shift and change over time. Just look at Gillian Anderson, or Millie Bobby Brown, or Harry Styles and his mumbling interviews as examples. These changes can be confusing, though they are often explained by emigration or bilingualism – or playing Elvis for 159 gruelling minutes in Austin Butler’s case. But no accent shift is more confusing than the popular faux-roadman or aspiring “slangster”, as I like to call them.

It seems that for every Londoner with a genuine accent, there exists a posh, wealthy and well-educated impostor. Swathes of privately educated men have infested London’s bars, clubs, DJ sets and workforces with the deranged notion that they should speak with an entirely affected accent. Why? Because they don’t know how to be themselves.

Mock accents and disingenuous personas have been around for some time. Take Mick Jagger’s infamous and gimmicky “mockney” accent, or Lily Allen’s bootlegged East End bad-girl act. Let me remind you that Allen is an alumnus of both Millfield and Bedales – two of England’s more ostentatious private schools. But there’s something a little more disturbing about this new breed of affluent phoneys. Where mockney accents were somewhat laughable, the bogus street accent seems like a form of cultural tourism. It’s as if they’re putting on these voices until they grow bored of pretending and the corporate world calls – offering a life of grinning opulence. But they’ll believe their own lies until then.

I remember being asked for a lighter by another student in Bristol.

“Ay, G, you got a lighter, still?” He was wearing a puffer jacket, but I spotted the wellies, signet ring and cropped fringe that so many aspiring slangsters possess.

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“Why are you talking like that?” I asked.

“What do you mean, Brev? I’m from South, innit. Brixton.”

“Where in Brixton?”

“Dulwich.”

“That’s not Brixton. Why are you using a fake accent?”

And then he hit me. I probably deserved it, but that’s not the point. The point is that this seemingly privileged and wealthy young man was a fraud.

There was another guy from my secondary school who spent the first five years of his education speaking with a deep, received pronunciation accent. He came back from the summer holidays one year with a fledgling rap career, a shaved head, and an accent straight out of PhoneShop. We sat together in Spanish class and I worried, when I first heard his new voice, that he’d suffered some sort of traumatic brain injury over the holidays. Turns out he was another victim of mistaken self-identity.

There’s an argument that these faux accents are the result of communication accommodation: Howard Giles’s theory that a person changes their style of speech to accommodate those around them. It makes sense when applied to my rich friends who have become DJs and no longer know how to speak without saying “still” after every sentence: “Ay, Zak, I best be seeing you in Streatham on Friday, still.” I doubt they speak like that when they’re home. It’s also true that children and teenagers are susceptible creatures; picking up slang is just part of living in the city.

But this doesn’t account for the various “mandem” I met while living in Devon. The closest any of them had ever come to the mean streets of south London was Newton Abbot. But still they insisted on calling me their “G” and telling me to “suck” my nan when I offended them. I wonder if they spoke like that on shift at the abattoir: “Yo, G, that cow is bare dusty, fam. Imma spark it in the face.”

You might think that these dialect changes are related to prestige, as was the case with the transatlantic accent of the early 20th century. It’s certainly true for Guy Ritchie who has made the same film 12 times and still gets giddy when talking to Vinnie Jones over the phone. But what prestige comes from talking in affected slang? We all know they’re faking it. It’s not as if they’ll turn up to their interview at JP Morgan – earned through nepotism – and say to their interviewer: “Wagwan? You good, yeah? Low me to do some bank-shit, yeah? Say less my guy.”

So why do they do it? I think it has to be a mixture of lost identity and the suppressed guilt of having had a reasonably privileged life. These people don’t know how lucky they’ve had it, or maybe they do and they’re trying to hide it. Either way, it’s hard for the rest of us to endure. People, in most cases, speak with an accent they grew up listening to. Accents define us, at least in certain ways. I think that’s what makes them so interesting, and why it’s important we preserve them. Affecting an accent is unnerving. It’s a bit like watching The Sopranos and calling your girlfriend a “jamoke” because she forgot your “gabagool” at Tesco.

I feel a little Tony Robbins saying this, but whatever happened to being yourself? It’s OK to have come from an economically privileged background and to own a house in the Cotswolds. Sure, the rest of us might be a little jealous, but we’re bound to like you more than when you start rapping lyrics from your Soundcloud album by the bus stop outside Brixton Tube station. Just drop the act, for everyone’s sake.

[See also: Kate Middleton and our conspiracy culture]

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