SLANG NOW – the Language of UK Youth in 2021

At the very end of September this year came another example of a UK school seeking to police its students’ language and to ban the use of slang and colloquialisms. I have been writing about youth slang since 1990 (there are numerous articles on this site, accessible by entering slang, youth or MLE in the search box) and about such interventions for more than a decade: this time I spoke to the Guardian‘s Social Affairs Correspondent Rob Booth and his article is here…*

September 2021 also saw the fruition, or culmination (portentous words) of a long-term project of mine dealing with the same topic: the rich, creative, controversial use of highly informal language by younger speakers. I have collected the multicultural slang, traded among younger people and used especially in urban centres across the UK. I have listed authentic examples of this language variety gathered from conversations, messaging, fieldwork interviews and donations and stored these in the Archive of Slang and New Language which I have curated at King’s College London.

Looking for a way to make this data available to the widest possible readership – whether students, teachers, researchers, fellow lexicographers or simply individuals fascinated by language change and novelty – I decided against traditional publishing in hardcopy in favour of putting the material online and so was gratified when, a year ago, the University of Aston’s Institute for Forensic Linguistics agreed to host an extract from the Archive, an up-to-date Glossary of UK Youth Slang, in its Forensic Linguistics Databank. This lexicon, very modest in its format but unique in the UK and I think in the wider Anglosphere, has just been made accessible. I hope it will be helpful for interested parties and I urge anyone consulting it to comment, criticise and, above all, send me additions for inclusion in future versions (rights to the content are restricted, so please don’t circulate it or republish it without full acknowledgement). I am constantly updating and expanding this and other datasets of nonstandard and socially significant language as well as teaching and broadcasting about them.

The Youth Slang Glossary in question is here…

I am very grateful indeed to all the collaborators, colleagues, students, parents, youth workers and many others who have helped me to record and analyse this exciting, inventive, sophisticated and technically innovative language – and to celebrate it rather than decry and stigmatise it in doing so.

* Rob Booth’s Guardian article was rewritten very slightly and republished by the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. I think the last word on my contribution to the subject, and indeed my career, should go to the anonymous poster of a comment following the Mail‘s piece…



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I first encountered codeswitching when as a very young boy I watched the movies of Satyajit Ray, the Indian auteur whose dialogues featured Indian families interspersing their conversations in Bengali with words and phrases in English. In those days the technical term for this, the concept too, was rarely if ever treated by linguists, let alone understood by the wider, overwhelmingly monoglot UK and US publics.

Codeswitching, which is actually commonly practised, usually in less formal settings, in many different societies and multilingual communities, did subsequently become the object of enquiry by language experts, and theories were generated to account for the phenomenon and to analyse its various manifestations (you can find a summary of these on Wikipedia).

More recently in the United States a particular manifestation, that of African American citizens moderating their language to cope with different speech environments, has helped ‘codeswitching’ to begin the crossover from technical terminology into everyday conversation. More recently still, in the last two weeks, the word has featured in a political and cultural cause celebre

She didn’t grow up in the Bronx. She moved out when she was 5. Saying she grew up around the language is misleading; it’s the very reason why it was so cringe-inducing to hear her say it. There was no flava, no swag, no essence. She didn’t pull it off.

‘From Westchester and Boston U who has never before been seen on any video (and she got lots of those!) speaking in this weird, constrained accent that was a person’s idea of what they should sound like. Leftists don’t get a pass on their racism.’

It’s “cultural appropriation.” It satisfies EVERY SINGLE definitional predicate thereof: She is not Black, not poor, and left the Bronx at age 5. She was pandering for political purposes. Not a debatable point.’

The accusations relate to American political Wunderkind and bugbear of the Right, Latina Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was accused of pandering to a new constituency and assuming a fake identity in a speech to a predominantly black audience – accusations she rushed to refute, telling her critics to ‘step off’ – African American vernacular for ‘get lost’:

Some members of the US public did voice their support

‘I think it’s just that most Republican house/Senate members have never talked to anyone except rich white men so they never have to switch’

 ‘Switching’ or ‘shifting’ is related to what linguists call ‘accommodation’ – altering your speech to match or to empathise with your interlocutors*. It can be simply intended to make communication faster, clearer, or it may be adopted consciously or unconsciously to establish a bond or to affirm solidarity. I certainly find myself doing it – but maybe I’m not typical as I’m a linguist. I do it and have heard it done not only with BAME interlocutors but when more neutral British accents are brought closer to those of Scousers, Geordies, Scots and, still in English, with Jamaicans, Americans and Australians. I think for obvious reasons we are more likely to engage the ’empathy’ mechanism when the conversation is in a more heightened, charged, socially sensitive setting – this of course would apply if we are more conscious of diversity, identity, inequity issues. I also have to talk a lot with younger people who are speaking street slang and MLE in their natural environment and when I do my intonation certainly shifts and I use more informal vocabulary and even slang – I modify the style of my speech in order to accommodate. They probably upscale their style for me too.

Whatever the reason for style-shifting I would say that it should generally be considered a positive rather than negative habit. In the stratified class-conscious British context it would only be questionable if it was condescending, as with a posh person adopting a ‘working class’ accent when talking to tradespeople – which I have to admit I do all the time and which Sunday Times columnist India Knight expounded on back in 2001 (thanks to Stewart McNicol for the reference):

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Style-shifting is a positive part of being multilingual or rather ‘heteroglossic‘ – the  philosopher and literary theorist Bakhtin’s term for being able to speak in multiple voices for creative effect and in recognition of multiple contexts. The problem is that most monolingual Brits and Americans can’t do it and don’t do it. Of course the adoption of other voices can be overdone or done inappropriately. Some people have accused style-shifters of ‘appropriation’ but it depends on the speaker’s intention. If it’s to claim the other’s identity to exploit it – Australian rapper Iggy Azalea stood accused of faking a ‘blaccent’ last year – it’s bad. If it’s in order to form a bond it can be laudable. The TV comedy Phone Shop brilliantly satirised white men speaking multiethnic street slang, as did Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G more than a decade earlier. DJ and hiphop enthusiast Tim Westwood has been getting away with it for years.

Following the latest brouhaha I talked to London journalist and specialist in BAME-related issues Faima Bakar about code-switching and her report for Metro is here:

Yesterday US linguist John McWhorter joined the debate in an influential piece:

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And Chandra Arthur reminded us of her TED talk on codeswitching as a strategy for underrepresented minorities in the tech industries:

In search of a personal take on the issues dealt with here, I spoke to a young academic researching at my own institution. Farhaz J told me…

‘I do find the idea of code-switching fascinating… I’ve been doing it all my life. From pronouncing English words with an Indian twang when conversing with my grandparents, to incorporating slang terms when messaging one of my primary school classmates who is currently in jail for gang crime. I’d imagine my most natural speaking style is that which I use when talking to my immediate family, with whom I’ve grown up and am most comfortable. And of course the style of language I would use in a job interview or an email to my lecturers at King’s College London might not be my most natural. It’s certainly interesting to consider motivations for code-switching.

If your natural style of speaking brings you privilege, why would you need to change it, and what does it suggest when you do? Perhaps in my case, my motivation for code-switching could either be to make myself more understandable, e.g. when adjusting my accent and grading my language when speaking to elders in my extended family, or to enhance my image – my ‘face’ – in the case of speaking to somebody who was involved in gang culture. I suppose it can be gratifying to appear trendy in how you speak – in my experience, the coolest kids in school used the latest slang, often acquired from peers or artists in UK rap and street culture. As language itself in that genre of music is regarded as much more essential than in others where there is much more emphasis on melody or vocal ability, there is probably a greater need for rappers to impress listeners with creative lexis in their lyrics.’

On a much lighter note, and lest we forget, Henry Hitchings reminds me to reference  former England managers Steve McClaren‘s spectacular act of linguistic accommodation back in 2008…

In August 2020 The BBC released this podcast with personal accounts of codeswitching in the workplace, and the role of MLE…

*After this post and John McWhorter’s article appeared there were useful conversations on Twitter about which technical terms in linguistics most accurately described what AOC had been doing. US based sociolinguist Kelly E Wright commented, ‘I would consider what AOC is doing as style shifting, in a Sociolinguistic sense. To me, code-switching is intrasentential.’ She added, ‘From my theoretical background, I would characterize accommodation as happening on fine grained, lower levels. Slight vowel fronting or raising. Point being, not at the level of metacognitive awareness…We notice a recognizable, and also “foreign” (to us or to the speaker in our percept) speech pattern. That means there is much more than textbook accommodation going on.’ I noted that I had favoured ‘styleshifting’ in my commentaries but that ‘codeswitching’ had now become part of the ‘public conversation’/’sociocultural narrative’ and that ‘accommodation’, whether conscious or not, might be an appropriate term in cases of class-influenced accent moderation in a UK setting.

Multiethnic London English – a Handbook


…and ICYMI, here’s the MLE glossary again:


               *But please don’t try to monetise it. It is Chris Nott’s copyrighted work.

Name Analysis and Ethnic Profiling


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I talked to Zoë Henry of Inc. magazine about reports that profilers in the USA can now pinpoint ethnic identities from individuals’ names. Zoë’s article is here:

I’m sure these experts are scrupulous in not doing anything illegal but I think, in the case of hyperindividualised and hyperlocalised profiling, the subjects (who presumably don’t know they have been identified) will probably feel comfortable about it if their names have been retrieved from lists they have subscribed to, possibly less so if they have been traced from other sources like electoral rolls, phone directories, library memberships.

In marketing there’s the assumption that a member of a group will conform to a stereotype of that group’s consumer behaviour – an assumption that is potentially patronising if not controversial. And when we look in close-up at actual instances, what precisely can we predict about, say, LeKeysha LLoyd Muhammad’s buying patterns and preferences? Especially if they are trans and have an address in rural Idaho?

Ethnic name profiling of course has a potentially bad reputation when used by government or law enforcement or by employers* in covertly vetting prospective hirings. As US human rights lawyer Bill Quigley commented:

‘One of the draconian consequences of 9/11 is racial profiling. Bollywood Muslim actor Shah Rukh Khan became the latest victim of what some call “flying while a Muslim” after he was singled out by US airport authorities allegedly because of his Muslim surname “Khan”. “I was really hassled at the American airport because my name is Khan,” he said. The other recent Indian victim was former president of India. On April 24, 2009 in a clear violation of protocol, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a Muslim, was frisked by the staff of American airliner Continental Airlines.’


*an article on that subject:

Stereotyped ethnic names as a barrier to workplace entry





Multiethnic London English – a Glossary

“The post-racial, non-rhotic, inner city,

Th-fronting, cross cultural,

dipthong shifting, multi-ethnic,

L-vocalisation, K-backing fusion of language”

As a linguist and lexicographer who once worked as a designer, I have long nursed the idea that an iconic reference work, especially one which celebrates and explores creative, exotic and subversive forms of language, could – should – also function as a work of art.

In 2013 I had the privilege of helping Chris Nott in the preparation of his graduation project at the Royal College of Art. Chris designed a glossary of, and a guide to MLEMultiethnic London English – that functions as document and documentation as well as being a unique art object.

Chris, now working as a design specialist in the studios of Brody Associates, has given permission for this artefact to be shared for the first time. It consists of a glossary and a separate guidebook (which highlights the words from the glossary too)

Please do consult it, dip into it, read it from virtual cover to virtual cover, or, better still, print it on to high-quality paper and savour its tactility. Place it on a lectern under a strong light. Use it to teach your students, to inform your friends.*

The contents of this reference work, which includes contributions from other lexicographers and linguists, are still topical, relevant, revelatory three years on. The visual elements and format remain unique.

The samples of language and the commentaries presented in the book move our thinking beyond ‘slang’, beyond older notions of race and class, to consider the post-ethnic realities of a UK subject to what theorists now call Superdiversity, in which, especially but not only for younger speakers, complex questions of identity are bound up intimately with language, style and symbolism.

For me what is also essential in treating slang, dialect or jargon is to go out into the streets, the clubs, school playgrounds and workplaces and record the actual words of their users, words which might never otherwise appear in popular or academic publications.

MLE, Multiethnic London English, now sometimes referred to as Urban British English or Interethnic Vernacular was the designation given to a developing social dialect, featuring a slang vocabulary and new patterns of pronunciation and accent, that came to notice at the end of the 1990s and has since influenced the speech of younger speakers in particular beyond London itself.

Here is Chris Nott’s work. First the Glossary


In a few days Chris’s 300-page Guidebook to MLE will be made available too




*But please don’t try to monetise it. It is Chris Nott’s copyrighted work.


By kind permission of Natalie King, here’s her blog post for Oxford University Press on the sort of youth language to be encountered in the streets of London today. I can vouch for the authenticity of all the expressions she mentions, but it’s notable that this account bears out my own investigations: these examples of ‘youth-speak‘ or Multiethnic London English have all been used by teens and younger adults for at least five years, some for more than a decade. Slang is not as ephemeral as many people think…

Urban London slang: an introduction for hipsters


John Walker (1732-1807) did for pronunciation what Dr Johnson had done for vocabulary. He published the ‘idea’ for his pronouncing dictionary as early as 1774, along with an unusual advertisement asking ‘a few men of reflexion’ to communicate to him ‘whatever may have occurred to them.’ The book finally appeared in 1791 with the resounding title:

A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language: to which are prefixed Principles of English Pronunciation: rules to be Observed by the Natives of Scotland, Ireland and London, for Avoiding their Respective Peculiarities; and Directions to Foreigners for Acquiring a Knowledge of the Use of this Dictionary.

Walker was strongly prescriptive. The accent of cultured London, he told his readers, is ‘undoubtedly the best.’ Everyone else is mispronouncing the English language, especially those who are ‘at a considerable distance from the capital’, meaning the Scots and Irish. London Cockney, however, is ‘a thousand times more offensive and disgusting’ than those provincial varieties. ‘Elocution Walker’ became a household name in Britain and in North America, and his book went through more than a hundred editions. It provided the public, hungry for prescriptions to guarantee the social safety of their language, with an immovable authority, and helped to create a new climate of ‘linguistic correctness’ out of which emerged the elite forms of speech that came to dominate the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

‘Pronunciation…is a sort of proof that a person has kept good company, and on that account is sought after by all, who wish to be considered as fashionable people or members of the beau monde…All other dialects are sure marks, either of a provincial, rustic, pedantic or mechanic education; and therefore have some degree of disgrace annexed to them.’ Thomas Sheridan (1719 – 1788)

This sometime actor and teacher of elocution (father of the dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan) wrote the extraordinarily verbose (and that’s just the title) British Education: Or, The source of the Disorders of Great Britain. Being an Essay towards proving, that the Immorality, Ignorance, and false Taste, which so generally prevail, are the natural and necessary Consequences of the present to defective System of Education. With an attempt to shew, that a revival of the Art of Speaking, and the Study of Our Own Language, might contribute, in a great measure, to the Cure of those Evils (1756).

He developed his ideas in A Course of Lectures on Elocution. Less bothered by the supposed mispronunciation of words, he fulminated against what he saw as a lack of eloquence – particularly the correct level of dramatic delivery –in public speaking. Central to Sheridan’s work was his emphasis on the importance of ‘tones’ to eloquence. These tones, which correlated with the expressive effects one can give to their speaking, were something Sheridan considered an important part of persuasion. He stated, ‘The tones expressive of sorrow, lamentation, mirth, joy, hatred, anger, love, &c. are the same in all nations, and consequently can excite emotions in us analogous to those passions, when accompanying words which we do not understand: nay the very tones themselves, independent of words, will produce the same effects.’ For Sheridan, how a message was communicated, whether by an actor, a preacher or an ordinary speaker, was as important as the message itself. He used the example of someone saying in a calm demeanour, ‘My rage is rouzed to a pitch of frenzy, I can not command it: Avoid me, be gone this moment, or I shall tear you to pieces’ to show the importance of tones…

…While nineteenth century schoolteachers tired their pupils out with rote-learning of sounds and chanting, the twentieth century saw more ingenious confections, ostensibly designed to instruct and practice, actually intentionally or unintentionally a source of torment. The first is often used, to tantalise, and then to teach, speakers of other languages who are hoping to get to grips with ours…

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard but sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead,
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth as in mother
Nor both as in bother, nor broth as in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear, for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose–
Just look them up–and goose and choose
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword
And do and go, then thwart and cart,
Come, come! I’ve hardly made a start.
A dreadful Language? Man alive!
I mastered it when I was five.


I have used this poem myself with visiting students from abroad and have become used to the expressions on their faces as I read it aloud. The polite amusement and gentle puzzlement giving way slowly to a mélange of incredulity and fear, settling into a sort of resigned misery.

So now for something quite a lot more vexatious…another ‘poem’, this time for you the native to attempt…

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Cloven, oven, how and low,…

…Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?
It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!

This tongue-twisting mind-bender, which is reputed to have cost a number of native-speakers their sanity (perhaps they tried to derive some meaning from it?), is an excerpt from the poem The Chaos. It was written in 1920 by ‘Charivarius’, the pen-name of Dr Gerard Nolst Trenité (1870-1946). The doctor was, like other keen observers of the foibles of the English, Dutch, (just like Dr G.J Renier, author of The English: Are They Human and P. Boogaart who wrote The A272: An Ode to a Road). What is more he was himself a puzzle, in that he was said to pronounce Charivarius (it means a cacophonous, mocking serenade or a series of discordant noises and comes, tellingly, from the Latin for ‘headache’) in several different ways, none of them acceptable in normal English, while he never told anyone how to pronounce his surnames…

‘…the best speakers of standard English are those whose pronunciation, and language generally, least betray their locality’.Henry Sweet (1845-1912)

The Edwardian Henry Sweet, to be very uncharitable, was, in a stuffy age, one of our stuffiest linguistic prescriptivists, a dry old stick who quite lacked the saving silliness of Nolst Trenité. But his theme has again become part of the public conversation in recent times. Elocution lessons enjoyed a resurgence in popularity following the success of Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, in which King George VI overcomes his battle with a lifelong stammer thanks to help from a therapist.  George Bernard Shaw famously claimed that ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him’. Carol Walker probably wouldn’t go that far. But as head of Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough, she insisted in 2013 that pupils moderate their Teesside accents and local dialect – to drop the ‘nowt’ and ‘yous’ and ‘gizit ’ere’ – in order to improve their chances in life.

What was perhaps most interesting about this story was that when it surfaced in the national press the sky failed to fall in. A few years ago, Mrs Walker would have been accused of cultural discrimination – of imposing arbitrary standards of ‘proper’ English on her poor charges. Of course, the idea of RP was always something of a fraud: if you listen to recordings of Gladstone, his tones are pure Scouse (and we learnt recently that Richard III may have plotted his villainy in a Brummie twang). And today’s favoured TV accent is more Brian Cox than David Attenborough. Yet as Mrs Walker’s decision suggests, there is still such a thing as ‘Standard English’ – it’s just that the definition is a bit broader. Her kids don’t need to start chanting ‘The rain in Spain’, but they do need to be able to make their way in the wider world.

It was only one year earlier that a primary school in Essex became one of the first in recent history to offer its pupils elocution lessons to help them lose their accents. Pupils at Cherry Tree Primary School in Basildon, are being taught to ditch their Essex accents during weekly lessons from a private tutor. Teachers say they have seen a vast improvement in their pupils’ spelling and writing since the lessons were introduced – with some parents even admitting they are now corrected on their pronunciation at home by their own children. The Essex accent has been thrown under the spotlight around the country following the success of the reality TV show The Only Way is Essex. However, Terri Chudleigh, English literacy coordinator, who first came up with the idea, said, ‘This is not about being ashamed of the Essex accent. I have an Essex accent and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s about helping the children to speak properly so they can improve their reading and writing and obviously have a better education. I really wanted to get someone in because I noticed the children weren’t saying words correctly and were therefore misspelling them. We had lots of youngsters writing ‘sbort’ instead of ‘sport’ and ‘wellw’ instead of ‘well’.’ During weekly sessions at the school, children run through fun speech exercises with names like ‘ho hum’, ‘stifled smile’ and ‘tongue boot camp’ before being encouraged to experiment with ‘posh voices’…




 A good friend of mine died young, of a surprise heart attack, at fifty. If I were reminiscing I could dig out one of many photographs to remind myself of his face, but no need. It is his voice that stays with me always. The utterly distinct tough-guy accent (unlike my father’s never modulated according to hearer), confounding class categorisations by blending his native Geordie and alma mater Magdalene College, Cambridge (pronounced, he would scathingly remind us, ‘maudlin’, of which much more later); the urgent hectoring tone used to denounce barmen when the ale was off, or friends who had failed to vote for Old Labour. Here in print, or even by imitating them out loud, I can’t do justice to the nuances of their accents, evoke their individuality with real precision: I wish so much that I had recorded them both, and all the other now silenced voices, when they were still alive.

A baby’s gurgling laugh elides into the sound of water trickling over pebbles; lovers ‘bill and coo’, share ‘sweet nothings’; girls’ eager conversation echoes flocking birdsong; revivalists’ ‘speaking in tongues’ reaches to the spirit language of the upper air; the rattling ‘doom-roar’ of a Death Metal band dissolves into rolling thunder. We respond to the affecting cadences of language, from the simplicity of lullaby via the complexities of poetry and rhetoric, back to the elemental vocalising of holy chant and mantra. We may look at linguists’ theories of the origins of language itself and discover that they are far from definitive. Commonsense connections between volume and aggression, speed and stress, for instance, satisfy us well enough, but science has yet to explain the precise relationship between phonology and psychology: why some words evoke reactions that are seemingly quite at odds with literal meaning. We learn that the unique sound of a loved one’s conversation may linger in the mind when even their face has disappeared from memory.

Having a sound knowledge of your own native language should be quite straightforward, even instinctive, but the English language is something special. Its convoluted history means that even the most common terms may be pronounced in different ways; linguists disagree among themselves on the rules that we should apply, while the many accents of English trigger widely different responses – from fawning admiration through polite puzzlement to knee-jerk hostility – in those who hear them…

 …When we move from words to longer examples of intonation, rhythm and pitch, it can be a mixture of supposed familiarity – we recognise the same sounds from a different context such as baby-talk or comic exaggeration – and unfamiliarity – we don’t know what it means – that leads us to find the sound of the Dutch language funny for example.

Where other accents – the regional British variants among them – are concerned, studies have found that people react positively or negatively first according to how closely the accent resembles their own and secondly to its associations, usually which prominent figures – typically actors, newsreaders, footballers – employ it and in which contexts it has been encountered, so a Northern Irish accent, once evoking the language of the Troubles is now, like the Scottish Connery lilt, linked to actors who charm and don’t threaten. Only rarely does a truly unusual, unplaceable accent arrest our attention, scramble our responses. My late friend’s was one such: its unfashionably precise articulation and its stern delivery was intimidating, but its sonorous qualities (worthy, someone said, of a [Richard] Burton or a [John] Gielgud) could overwhelm the hearer in other ways, to persuade, enchant, bamboozle, seduce…

It’s hard to imagine a cultural phenomenon that’s more important than the development of language. And yet no human attribute offers less conclusive evidence regarding its origins. The oldest and best-known theories of how language began all depend on sounds and how they are interpreted, refashioned and manipulated:

The Bow-Wow Theory

According to this influential theory, endorsed by Rousseau among others, language began when our ancestors started imitating the natural sounds around them. The first speech was onomatopoeic, marked by echoic words such as moo, meow, splash, cuckoo, and bang.


Relatively few words in any language are actually onomatopoeic, and these words vary from one language to another. For instance, a dog’s bark is heard as au au in Brazil, ham ham in Albania, and wang, wang in China. In addition, many onomatopoeic words are of recent origin, and not all are derived from natural sounds.

The Mama Theory

This theory posits that language began with the easiest syllables attached to the most significant objects.


Once we move beyond the most primal connections, such as that between suckling baby and mother, the theory falls short of explaining anything.

The Ding-Dong Theory

This theory, sometimes ascribed to Plato and Pythagoras, maintains that speech arose in response to the essential qualities of objects in the environment. The original sounds people made were supposedly in harmony with the world around them.


Apart from some rare instances there’s no absolutely conclusive evidence in any language of an innate connection between sound and meaning.

The La-La Theory

The eminent Danish linguist Otto Jespersen suggested that language may have developed from sounds associated with love, play, and especially song.


As Professor David Crystal notes in How Language Works, this theory still fails to account for “the gap between the emotional and the rational aspects of speech expression.”

The Pooh-Pooh Theory

This theory holds that speech began with interjections – spontaneous cries of pain (“Ouch!”), surprise (“Oh!”), and other emotions (the teenager’s “Meh” of indifference).


No language contains very many interjections, and, Crystal points out, “the clicks, intakes of breath, and other noises which are used in this way bear little relationship to the vowels and consonants found in phonology.”

The Ta-ta Theory

Sir Richard Paget, influenced by Darwin, believed that body movement preceded language. Language began as an unconscious vocal imitation of these movements, like the way a child’s mouth will move when they use scissors, or my tongue sticks out when I try to play the guitar. This evolved into the popular idea that language may have derived from gestures.


Once again, the theory fails to prove an unarguable connection between more than a very few instances of such a link.

The Yo-He-Ho Theory

According to this theory, language evolved from the grunts, groans, and snorts evoked by heavy physical labour, or the rhythmic chants of those engaged in it.


Though this notion may account for some of the rhythmic features of language, it doesn’t go very far in explaining where the extraordinary range of words quite unassociated with work come from.