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26 August 2017

Big up MLE – the origins of London’s 21st century slang

The communities that created Notting Hill Carnival have shaped language as well. 

By Sanjana Varghese

“Let’s settle this: Big Narstie debates who can say wagwan.”

For an unsuspecting BBC iPlayer viewer, this might just be another incomprehensible video. But for most people under the age of 30, it makes perfect sense. Obviously, popular grime MC Big Narstie would be addressing the contentious issue of whether white people can say “wagwan” – “what’s going on” – as a greeting.

Notting Hill Carnival, which takes place at the end of August, is a visible celebration of black and brown African-Caribbean communities. But the communities that created Notting Hill Carnival have also inadvertently pushed English into the 21st century. Slang from Jamaican patois and other African-Caribbean communities form the backbone of Multicultural London English (MLE), the bane of every teacher’s existence. English has always evolved and changed with the growth of immigrant communities – 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.

Ask any parent or secondary school teacher in an English city and they could begrudgingly provide you with some examples of MLE. Phrases include “bare” (very) and “gassed” (full of oneself, alternately overwhelmed). A wasteman is not someone who takes out the trash, but rather someone of little worth. Some arguably mock uptight English phrases – a (personal) favourite is “Oh my days”, used to indicate surprise, usually exclaimed with the same intonation as the far more prim “goodness gracious”. Others are just phrases, like “innit” for “isn’t it”, or “you get me”, tacked onto the end of a sentence or a question. Horrifingly for teachers and parents, linguistic deterioration even transcends modes of communication – by text, wagwan becomes wag1, you get me becomes ygm. 

“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,” Antony Thorne, a linguistics researcher at King’s College London, wrote to me. “This way of speaking is characterised by a vocabulary reflecting a high degree of ‘black’ (terms possibly coined by African-Caribbean speakers in the UK, and US black ‘street’ language and hip hop terminology) influences, 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 received pronunciation.” Not all of the slang in MLE is patois; Thorne notes that there are South Asian, Turkish and Polish influences, to varying extents, on MLE’s vocabulary and intonation.

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But MLE cannot be attributed solely to the effects of post-war large scale immigration from former British colonies, as many linguists initially thought. The cultural influences of the Caribbean have also shaped its development, in combination with the “super diversity” of urban areas. Caribbean English in the 1960s and 1970s was carried into common parlance through music like ska and reggae from immigrant communities; by 1980s, speech patterns that were predominantly associated with ethnic minorities began to gain prestige on playgrounds, streets and clubs in parts of London. In plain English, MLE became cool. 

By the 1990s, Thorne noted that he had recorded white working-class school kids using more “recreolised lexis”, or what the mainstream media coined, “Jafaican”. The UK grime scene and US hip hop vocabulary and intonation patterns augmented these trends. Language from gang culture and word of mouth in combination with these previous influences enabled MLE to become a driving force in linguistic change today.

“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.”

Historian David Starkey faced backlash when he made these comments in 2011, but he was right about one thing. That kind of language, “that’s been intruded in England” actually is used almost identically among ethnicities and genders in urban areas and has started to spread further afield. London has often been cast as the driving force of youth culture ; it’s where the now ubiquitous UK grime scene came from and TV shows set in London, like Michaela Coel’s hit comedy series Chewing Gum, incorporate MLE. 

Some linguists who have been tracking the growth of MLE argue that 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, such as peng and creps (attractive and trainers, respectively). 

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 Thorne. “If you hear but can’t see the speaker, it’s impossible to determine their ethnicity”. Starkey would probably think that’s a bit peak (a reference to peak time on the tube, meaning awful or undesirable). 

Certain sections of society (predominantly white and middle class) have started to become concerned. Some commentators have alleged that the use of MLE will affect its users in more formal situations; such as in a job or college interview, and could hamper their opportunities at career advancement. Yet some of the young men who Dr Rob Drummond and his team of researchers spoke to in Manchester in a 2014 study didn’t necessarily agree. Much like the rest of society, they knew the difference between a job or university interview, and hanging out with their friends, and demonstrated it to those researchers. You just have to watch a teenager get a phone call from their grandma to see how quickly young people can adapt to varying contexts. 

Language isn’t and shouldn’t be a static monolith; it’s difficult to argue that ye olde English was a more useful way of communicating. Chaucer and Shakespeare would have loved MLE, given its multiple dirty euphemisms and how easily it rolls off the tongue. Objectively, other linguists have also seen similar trends in all kinds of global urban environments, such as “Turken-Deutsch”, Turkish influenced slang used by teenagers in Berlin, or “straattaal” in the Netherlands. There’s arguably a racist overtone to middle-class white commentators, academics and parents alleging that the spread of slang with African-Caribbean origins is the downfall of modern civilization. Exhibit A: this laughable Daily Mail article from a concerned parent that “Kingston-upon-Surrey had turned into Kingston, Jamaica”. 

Thorne argues that MLE’s growth attracted so much attention because it’s “associated with social unrest, crime and what in the 60s was called transgression and ‘deviancy’”. The attempt to associate MLE with aggression and criminality echoes the commentary around the upcoming Notting Hill Carnival, where much of MLE’s lexicon originated. The carnival is often portrayed as dangerous and drug-ridden, even though it’s statistically safer than Glastonbury

It’s evident that MLE is here to stay, from UK grime becoming an international phenomenon to Vice’s “Chat Shit Get Elected” snap election series that featured political satirist RantsnBants calling Theresa May a knackered old goat (that might not need explanation). Linguistic change is as natural as language itself; it’s a fundamental part of how languages are actually formed throughout the world, and many English words are bastardizations of other European tongues. Just like all other languages, so too must English mutate and change to remain both relevant and useful, you get me? 

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