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…
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.
Sadly, racist and sexist slurs, in political discourse, pop lyrics and in comments sections and online debate, are still a hot topic in the national conversations of the Anglosphere. I talked to Hattie Crisell about the b-word and her article on the subject is here…
Anyone wanting to learn more, or to teach about slang and youth language might be interested in the following. I’ll update this material soon, to include reference to the concepts of enregisterment and stylisation, and will also put an updated bibliography on these pages shortly…
YOUTH CULTURE AND ITS LEXICON
Sub-varieties of language developed by young people may be celebrated (by the media) or stigmatised (by educators and prescriptivists). This extract looks at the forms, functions and social implications of so-called youth slang(s).
SLANG AND YOUTH
While slang was formerly associated with the underworld, and later the armed forces and institutions such as universities or the English public schools, teenagers and young adults are currently thought to be the most prolific linguistic innovators and users of slang in English.
In the USA Teresa Labov (1982), Eckert (1989) and Eble (1996) have studied the use of slang by street gangs, high-school and college students respectively, describing its role in defining member categories in the microsocial order and in ethnic demarcations, and its centrality in dynamic social interactions. Younger slang users are evidently aware of and interested in their own linguistic practices as evidenced by Urban Dictionary, a collaborative user-generated online compilation of over a million items (Damaso and Cotter 2007).
The features ascribed by Halliday in 1978 to anti-languages apply to modern slangs. These are lexical innovation – producing neologisms or reworkings to fill lexical gaps in the language; relexicalisation, or finding novel terms to replace existing ones, and overlexicalisation or hypersynonymy, the coining of a large number of terms for the same or similar concept. Examples are the many nicknames for their weapons of choice used by criminal gangs and the multiple synonyms –‘carnaged’, wazzed’, ‘hamstered’, trolleyed’, etc. – for ‘intoxicated by drink or drugs’ traded by adolescents and young adults.
Slang can be approached by focusing firstly on its social or sociolinguistic functions, then on its lexico-semantic features, that is the ways in which it manipulates language in terms of structure and meaning.
There is a consensus as to the principal functions of slang in socialising processes and social interactions. The ability to understand and deploy slang is an important symbolic element in the construction and negotiation of individual and group identities, enabling bonding, affiliation and expressions of solidarity and engagement. It performs the important function for an in-group of providing a criterion for inclusion of members and exclusion of outsiders. It is at the same time a means (primarily but not only for younger speakers) of signalling ‘coolness’ and indulging in playfulness. The slang vocabulary may be part of a self-referential system of signs, a semiotic repertoire of self-presentation or stylization which can also include dress and accessorizing, body-decoration, gesture, physical stance, etc. It therefore functions not only as a lexicon or linguistic resource but on an ideological level of affect, belief, etc.
From a lexico–semantic perspective slang is of interest in the way it both imaginatively invents and reworks according to the semantic possibilities of a language, and forms expressions according to its morphological potential. Slang employs the standard processes of word-formation in English, among the most common being compounding (‘pie-hole’ for mouth), blending, (‘chill (out)’ and ‘relax’ become ‘chillax’); affixation (‘über-nerd’ which is also a rare instance of borrowing, combining with an earlier slang term), change of part of speech or functional shift (‘weirding’, behaving erratically); clipping (‘za’ for pizza, ‘bab’ for kebab), abbreviation and acronymy (‘FOFFOF’ for ‘fair of figure, foul of face’). For further examples see Sornig (1981) and Eble (1996). Slang makes use of more unusual devices such as re-spelling (‘phat’ for fat in the sense of excellent); punning (‘babia majora’ for an attractive female, ‘married alive’ meaning trapped in a relationship), the insertion of a word or element between syllables or tmesis, sometimes called infixing, as in ‘fanfreakingtastic! It employs phonology-based manipulations such as rhyme and reduplication (‘drink-link’, a cash dispenser), and assonance or onomatopoeia (‘clumping’, attacking with fists or feet).
Arbitrary coinages –completely unprecedented inventions – are extremely rare and difficult to substantiate: even the most unusual- looking expressions are usually derived from some linguistic precedent: ‘bazeracked’ and ‘bosfotick’, UK student synonyms for drunk or exhausted, for instance, employ phonosemy or sound symbolism and imitate other multisyllabics denoting destroyed, damaged or confounded. Some words of unknown origin become popular –‘gak’ for cocaine is one such; others like ‘mahoodally’, a term used by some London students to mean ugly, remain in limited circulation.
Slang makes extensive use of metaphorical manipulation, playing on and with meaning and associations in the mind. Sornig (1981) lists the processes involved, drawing examples from German and other languages. Eble (1996) uses US campus slang to show how a range of rhetorical figures is mobilised in the same way as in poetry or literature. These include metaphor (‘beast’ can denote an aggressive law enforcer, male seducer or unattractive female); metonymy (‘anorak’, later ‘cagoule’, the supposedly typical garment standing for the earnest, unfashionable wearer), synecdoche (‘wheels’ for a car); fanciful comparison (‘as dumb as a box of hair’, i.e very stupid); amelioration and pejoration whereby words acquire a more positive (‘chronic’ now denotes wonderful) or negative (neutral ‘random’ comes to mean bad) sense, generalisation and specialisation in which terms extend or narrow down their meanings so that ‘dude’ denotes merely a person while ‘the man’ refers to an agent of oppression; indirect reference whereby ‘her indoors’ denotes one’s wife and ‘the chilled article’ a cold beer. Peculiar to slang is ironic reversal whereby ‘wicked’, ‘sick’ and ‘brutal’ become terms of approbation.
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT SLANG
That slang is in any way inherently deficient cannot be demonstrated according to linguistic principles. Slang usage is not necessarily ‘impoverished’, though in many in-groups a small number of items may dominate (quasi-kinship terms, greetings and farewells, terms of approbation, insults, chants) and be repeated constantly. Halliday and others have used the term pathological (more often applied to impaired language or speakers) when referring to unorthodox varieties; Sornig calls slang a ‘substandard’ language, and Andersson and Trudgill perpetuate a questionable if common hierarchical discrimination in observing that slang is ‘language use below the level of neutral language usage’ (italics mine). Many linguists are nowadays wary of hierarchies of language or of generalising based on the notions of ‘standard’ or ‘nonstandard’ varieties, and sociolinguists are finding the negotiating of roles, relationships, status and power through language, at least by young speakers, to be far more subtle and fluid than previously suggested.
Slang users may be virtuosos of style-switching and crossing (mixing different ethnic varieties), and may be acutely aware of appropriacy – fitting style to context, or may simply use the occasional expression to liven up conversation (many young people of course use little or no slang and Bucholtz (1999) has shown how deliberate avoidance of ‘cool’ slang can itself be an act of identity). They may also question mainly middle-aged researchers’ theorising of their behaviour in terms of prestige, power and class, when these are not necessarily realistic constructs for them, and prefer to invoke notions of a shared, dynamic alternative culture with a special claim to ‘authenticity’.
Transience is often thought to be a defining characteristic of slang, and there is a rapid replacement rate in certain semantic fields and functional categories, but complete obsolescence generally takes a minimum of several years and some terms remain in the language, still in highly informal usage, for many years (‘punk’, which was used in the 17th century and which now means to dupe or humiliate, is one such), or are recycled, as in the case of the 1960s and 70s terms of approbation, ‘fab’ and ‘wicked’. Some cryptic slangs, such as those of drug-users, and slang used by those afraid of obsolescence – the fashion and music industries for example – have a very high turnover of vogue terms, but others – those of taxi-drivers and street-market traders for instance – may retain some core elements for a long time. In secondary or generalised slang, too, terms may persist, ‘shrink’ meaning a psychiatrist and ‘dosh’, for money being examples.
In a multilingual setting, such as a metropolitan secondary school, where standard forms are not the norm and many different first languages are represented, a shifting variegated slang may be the most convenient, accessible (and indeed, locally prestigious) shared style of discourse. Slang is an important component of what linguists such as Cheshire and Kerswill (2004) have identified as an emerging social dialect based on ‘youth’, known as Multicultural London English or ‘multiethnic youth vernacular’. There are suggestions that this variety may impact significantly upon the mainstream. In future what might be viewed as part of a developmental phase in socialisation may have to be reconsidered: the abandoning of the language of adolescence that accompanies full entry into the adult social order may no longer take place to the same extent. Slang’s users are no longer confined to subordinate cultures and, in that it is not nowadays excluded from general conversation or media discourse, slang, at least secondary slang, is no longer a stigmatised variety, yet as part of its function it must retain or at least mimic ‘outsider’ status.
- extracted from K. Malmkjaer, ed. Routledge Linguistics Encyclopedia 3, (2010), London: Routledge
How are British Youth described?
Over the last few years I have been collecting articles in the UK press (from tabloids, broadsheets and online sources) which seek to characterise young people. The following, in no particular order, except perhaps for the sake of ironic contrast, are the salient characteristics which emerge from an informal analysis of these articles’ claims:
- Narcissistic with an unfounded sense of entitlement
- Experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression
- Identifying with celebrity culture
- Prone to ‘drug abuse, alcohol-fuelled pregnancy or law-breaking,’
- Clean-living, ambitious and competitive
- ‘…growing up without boundaries, thinking they can do as they please… No adult will intervene to stop them.’ (David Cameron in 2009: the discourse of ‘broken Britain’)
- More socially liberal and accepting than previous generations on issues such as gay marriage and euthanasia
- More politically right-wing than parents or grandparents at the same age
- Digitally literate and globally empowered
- Suffering from literacy problems and economic disempowerment
- Speaking a different language
UrBEn-ID is an ethnographic linguistic research project being carried out at Manchester Metropolitan University, funded by The Leverhulme Trust. UrBEn stands for Urban British English, reflecting the project’s aim to investigate ways in which young people in an urban environment use language in the construction, negotiation and performance of their identities.
Some of their recent findings can be accessed here:
Three years on, and those labels; Babyboomer, Generation X, Millennial and Gen Z are still contentious, still contested. This from Marketing Week in April 2019:
Banter noun good natured raillery, badinage, chaffing, teasing repartee, clever chit-chat, laddish drollery, facetious, ironic verbal to-and-fro
verb to converse teasingly, chaff, rib
A national sport? An elaborate private joke between likeminded people? A healthy bonding, a celebration of mateyness?
Banter matters, not least because of its links with bullying, sporting slurs, even rape. In more subtle ways it keys into topical issues like diversity, gender relations and class. Its subversive humour is central to our national identity. A proper investigation is overdue.
For someone like me who suffers long enforced absences in humourless territories overseas, it’s an important pleasure to keep in touch with our own vibrant national conversation, online via Twitter, MumsNet, Popbitch, etc. then to return in person and join in for real. But what a conversation. The soundtrack to modern Britain is made up of non-stop punning, teasing, riffing on catchphrases and clichés, knowing references to pop-culture tropes, gossip and ribaldry and sustained abuse of the privileged and pretentious.
Coming back to the UK, I’m always struck by the native wit immediately on offer from strangers, whether shop assistants, taxi drivers, football fans or simply anonymous citizens waiting in a checkout queue. Banter is absolutely central to an English sense of self and others. For us it’s a default setting. Only the English among all the peoples of the planet are required to be funny, about everything, all the time. It reflects both the worst – the strident endless chippiness – and the best – our cheerful fellow-feeling – of us as a people. In fact I think that where it was once the upside of the reserve and insularity that used to afflict us as a nation, those things no longer apply, leaving only a free-for-all by a newly empowered, insolent and fantastically talkative public.
I remember the first time I heard a man use the word ‘bantz’ as an abbreviation for ‘banter’, and he’s got the scars to prove it.
We should look more closely at the fascinating history of banter, consider its components: wit, facetiousness, irony, wordplay, sarcasm, looking at examples and analysing its uses: bonding, bullying, self-defence – and seduction. Examining both sides of this double-edged weapon, we have to consider both the cruelty (when black teenager Stephen Lawrence’s killers were questioned by reporter Martin Bashir about their racist video rant they replied ‘Harmless banter, Martin. Harmless banter’) and the poignancy associated with the practice (ex-players invariably cite it as what they most miss when they retire from sport; hard-pressed police officers I interviewed said that they measured a station by whether the team there ‘had good banter’).
“Whenever I see my husband naked he reminds me of a beautifully coloured bird”
“Well it’s more like a baby carrot to be honest”
The fun started in earnest, or, another view has it, the rot began to set in, when in October 2007 UKTV relaunched its UKTV G2 channel under the name of Dave. ‘Everyone knows a bloke called Dave’ the press release quipped. The channel’s slogan was, and is, ‘The Home of Witty Banter.’ It was thus that a national pastime which hitherto had gone unnoticed, or had been taken for granted, was highlighted, commercialised and sold back to its legions of fans. By 2012 the b-word was all over t-shirts, posters, mugs and websites, namechecked in radio and TV broadcasts and arraigned over and over again by right-thinking (or sanctimonious) journalists in the ‘quality’ press.
Hate it when I’m ironing and people say “can you do my shirt” & “iron these trousers” and “you’re going to have to leave sir, this is Ikea”.
Mutating from a mildly amusing tic into a divisive social issue, where did banter come from, and where is it going? It has come to be our defining characteristic, beloved of the football dressing room and Sky Sports, student bedsittees and Twitter devotees, loathed by Guardianistas, feminists and right-thinking metrosexuals…debated by the chattering classes, but practised – unusually – by all the classes, and, despite what some claim, all the genders, too.
Banter is a catch-all word for idiocy that warns the rest of us that Here Be Lads. Banter is Soccer AM. It is Andy Gray. It is middle-aged men on Top Gear pretending that they are edgy outsiders by mocking society’s weakest, then going home to Chipping Norton where they live two doors down from the Prime Minister. It is an English stag do in Dublin or Amsterdam with matching T-shirts
– Lizzy Porter, Daily Telegraph
Banter is arguably part of a very ancient tradition that takes in ‘flyting’, the ritual exchange of insults practised by Norse and Scottish poets in the fifth century. The word itself, though, is not so very old and its origins are unusually obscure. When bantering appeared, first as verb then as noun, in the street slang of the late seventeenth century it referred to exchanges that were more aggressive and vicious than the mild, playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks, often preceded in descriptions by ‘harmless’, ‘good-natured’ or ‘witty’, that it had become by the twentieth century. It first meant to trick or bamboozle somebody, to hold them up to ridicule and to give them a ‘roasting’, in a term of the day we still possess. The first recorded instance of the verb is in Madam Fickle, an otherwise unremarkable play of 1676 by Thomas D’Urfey, in which Zechiel cries to his brother: ‘Banter him, banter him, Toby. ’Tis a conceited old Scarab, and will yield us excellent sport — go play upon him a little — exercise thy Wit.’ A letter of 1723 equated banter with ‘Billingsgate’, the foul and vituperative language used by the porters at the London fish market of that name. Banter became notorious because of a spirited attack on it by Jonathan Swift in a famous article he wrote for The Tatler in 1710. In it he attacked what he called ‘the continual corruption of our English tongue’:
‘The third refinement observable in the letter I send you, consists in the choice of certain words invented by some pretty fellows; such as banter, bamboozle, country put, and kidney, as it is there applied; some of which are now struggling for the vogue, and others are in possession of it. I have done my utmost for some years past to stop the progress of mob and banter, but have been plainly borne down by numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.’
In the same year he referred to the term in his Apology to The Tale of a Tub writing that ‘This polite word of theirs was first borrowed from the bullies in White-Friars, then fell among the footmen, and at last retired to the pedants; by whom it is applied as properly to the productions of wit, as if I should apply it to Sir Isaac Newton’s mathematics.’ Linguists have failed to identify the ultimate origin of the word, but I think it’s very probably from rural dialect, in which ‘banty’ can still mean small, aggressive and irritating.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries banter most usually denoted fairly gentle ribbing by friends, acquaintances and workmates. Its connotations have subtly changed again more recently, moving closer perhaps to its original edgier senses, but with added nuances. My survey of recent references from the US shows that there it is nowadays most often linked to the language of would-be seduction – invariably by hapless males of females – or to sales talk or business slogans. In the UK on the other hand it is most likely to be associated with sports fans (where it may be allied to the tradition of ‘sledging’), students (with their ‘neknomination’ drinking rituals and ‘violation nite’ initiation ceremonies) and of course with a myriad amateur and professional humourists, from the wannabe standups and scriptwriters competing for attention on social media sites to the established big guns firing off salvoes in Mock the Week, QI and the like.
Today, in celebration of Kierkegaard’s birthday, I’m slumped in a chair in a state of existential despair #curtainsclosedandeverything
Update from June 2017: I talked to Archie Bland about this subject and here is his long read in the Guardian this week…
And now, in May 2019, Billy Bragg comments on the visual banter that got Danny Baker fired by the BBC…
A word that is bandied about – recently by Boris Johnson among many others – yet rarely examined closely. I have tried to unravel its connotations in two different contexts, once fairly flippantly, once a little more seriously…
Once used to describe the weakness of tiny, mutually hostile nations with changing borders, this invocation of the troubled Balkan region is now fashionably applied to the banking sector. Balkanisation refers to, in the words of the FT‘s Patrick Jenkins, “the breakdown of cross-border banking as nervous lenders retreat… from the more troubled parts of the Eurozone.”
It is part of the trend towards deglobalisation, financial fragmentation, renationalisation and domestication of debt caused primarily by economic turbulence, prompting banks to introduce more effective safeguards against cyclical changes, aka buffering (another buzzword du jour), but increasingly also due to tighter official regulation. National regulators may now stop banks using deposits in one area to fund debts in another (the ability to shift capital or asset-swap from country to country is known as fungibility), and regulatory intervention can result in the breaking up, or Balkanisation, of the big, diversified financial entities themselves.
Here is a more detailed consideration…(long read)
Here City University student Jasmin Ojalainen writes about the UK’s urban slang…
As the melting pot heats up, multiculturalism isn’t only shaping the way we live but the way we speak. Jasmin Ojalainen investigates the /twæŋ/of London street /slæŋ/
”Yo, what’s good?” asks a young man in a greeting. While the more conventional ”I’m good thanks, how are you?” may be the natural response for most, it is not often heard amongst the London youth today. Particularly not with Andy Djaba, a 19 year-old chemical engineering student at Imperial College. ”I use quite a lot of slang, but not anything that someone that’s not from London wouldn’t be able to follow,” he says.
London slang and its varieties are constantly changing with diverse cultural nuances. Tony Thorne, language and innovation consultant at King’s College London, notes that the speech pattern amongst London youth has shaped over the years. “In the past London slang displayed certain distinct features – the obvious one of referring to places in the city and of course rhyming which is particularly associated with a London origin even if it is now used elsewhere,” he explains. “Today the slang associated with London youth is not actually confined to London and it is difficult to determine which specific parts of its vocabulary originated there.”
He refers to Multicultural London English, generally known as MLE, which features new words borrowed from outside the UK – exactly the variety of slang that Andy, of West African origin, is talking about. MLE is often linked to recently emerged multicultural hybrid “Jafaican,” or fake Jamaican, with West African and Asian undertones. Jafaican surfaced to the popular culture most notably through Ali G, a parody of a white man adopting slang as a stylistic preference in order to appear more “street.” Although Jafaican is a London creation, the modern youth slang is an urban vernacular saturated with a mixture of ethnic imprints. “The predominantly ’white working-class native Londoner’ slang of the past has been replaced to a large extent by a multiethnic set of codes retaining some local features, such as glottal-stopping or the criminal lexicon, but strongly influenced by external, especially Caribbean varieties,” explains Thorne.
Talking to Andy, these features are present. “Londoners drop the t’s,” he says, referring to glottal-stopping. “There’s little phrases that Londoners will say at the end, ‘d’you know what I mean?’, ‘you get me?’ and ‘innit?’” he says – again, characteristic of the Jafaican dialect. “It’s a nice way to round up a sentence.”
Thorne notes that whereas slang used to be condemned and resisted, it is now publicly recorded and celebrated as new words surface all the time. “There is an obvious need for linguistic renewal and innovation to keep pace with technological and social change and reflecting new influences such as immigration by outside linguistic groups,” he explains. “Within exclusive minority communities, such as street gang members, music genre aficionados and fashionistas, there is also a desire for novelty, originality and authenticity.”
The hip hop culture in particular has popularised modern slang, and Andy says that many words amongst the young today originate from the popular culture and contemporary phenomena, such as rap lyrics, videos and TV programmes – even people themselves. “I started saying ‘roll safe’ quite a lot because of the documentary. It just means you’re leaving somewhere,” Andy says referring to Hood Documentary, a series of documentary episodes released by a South London actor Kayode Ewumi last October. “Also ‘suck your mum’, but that’s like an insult – you hear rappers say it now, so you hear people say it a lot more now,” he adds. These lyrics have most recently been heard in a WickedSkengman, a release by London rapper Stormzy late last year. Andy explains that some of this slang develops in context through repetitive use, often in a group of friends. “Once people hear it, people start saying it, and eventually you understand what it means,” he says.
Because slang is a subversion that sits alongside what is considered correct use of language, a debate around its use in formal contexts persists. In 2013, the Harris Academy in South London’s Upper Norwood introduced a ban on slang to improve standards of English amongst students. Simon Heffer, author of Strictly English, is not against slang but he believes that it doesn’t belong to professional environments. ”Educated people avoid slang in formal settings, such as a job interview, so someone who does not know to do this will be assumed to be uneducated,” he says. Heffer suggests that the use of slang can point to underlying social inequalities in certain situations. “Slang is often used by those who don’t have a lot of power in society, so it serves those people best. This is most striking in London, with its persistent class system.”
“Where people use slang because they are incapable of reverting to correct speech when necessary, that does suggest at least educational marginalisation,”Heffer says. To Andy, this is something he pays attention to – very much for that same reason. ”I don’t include any slang, or as little slang as possible, when talking to older people or lecturers, tutors, stuff like that,” he says. ”I pronounce my t’s when talking to them.” He agrees that the use of slang could suffer a sociocultural stigma in a professional environment. “If you drop a lot of slang in a formal setting, they’re not gonna understand what you’re talking about. Secondly, if you do it, I think they’ll think you’re just a bit dumb. That you don’t have a wide range to your vocabulary,” he says. “You have to try and be a bit more sophisticated with the way you speak.”
Thorne agrees that slang bears an inherent stereotype. ”High status on the street implies low status in the capitalist economy,” he says. “There is nothing inherently, linguistically deficient about slang and slang users are not necessarily incompetent in standard literacies, but slang is associated with marginal or transgressive groups and activities and is viewed by many as embodying a threat to mainstream values.”
There is a concern that discarding slang at schools would further alienate young people, and some academics have sought alternative methods to bridge the linguistic gap. A former London schoolteacher Tim Woods started the London Dictionary Project as an attempt to catalogue and understand the slang his pupils were using, which was made public in 2014. “There is a common narrative that says that it’s the slang itself which is the problem, which is ridiculous,” Woods says and suggests that the choice should be up to young people themselves. “People respond to incentives, so if you put someone in a great school where many graduates end up running the country, they’ll be happy to adapt to the requirements of the system,” he says.
While Woods thinks that slang itself isn’t harmful, he believes in encouraging young people to use proper grammar and vocabulary to improve their language skills.
“It’s like taking a class in a foreign language and not being allowed to speak your native tongue. It’s not the native tongue itself which is harmful, but there can be a benefit to learning the way that other groups speak,” he says. “Language is very powerful and that makes people nervous. Often what people are saying is symptomatic of things rather than causal – but people would often rather the symptoms, such as inequality or hate, would just go away.”
Why the use of slang should face such controversy comes down to its stamp of exclusivity. Jonathon Green, a lexicographer of slang, notes that the use of slang has been linked to the marginal of society throughout history. “Slang was, is and will remain the language of the street,” he says. “A bottom-up creation that is associated with the working or lower class, even the modern underclass. There is little upper class slang, and such individuals are far more likely to ape the usage their social inferiors.”
Criminal jargon associated with slang may make this even more so, and Andy notes that the use of slang points to deeply rooted issues even today. “You don’t hear white people say London slang as much as black people,” he says. “There’s a thing that people think that if you speak with a lot of slang that you’re talking black. It’s ridiculous – I can understand why people say it, but it’s a generalisation. And it makes you think that in saying that, you’re implying that black people aren’t educated or white people are more educated.”
Green agrees that the ties with slang are socioculturally bound, and says that because of Jafaican infused MLE “we all speak black American to one degree or another.” He suggests, however, that the stereotypes that come with the use of slang are now met with an element of humour. “Slang is not as taboo nor as looked-down upon as once was the case. Look at dictionary definitions: for many years slang was defined as ‘low’ or ‘criminal’. These days the dictionary focus is on its wit and playfulness,” he says.
Despite the historically negative connotation of slang, in today’s society it inevitably merges multicultural identities past the stereotypic notion. ”Slang is used to construct alternative affiliations and identities, some of which may be multiethnic or even considered post-ethnic,” Thorne notes. “There may be grounds for disapproval but they are social or subjective, not linguistic or objective. Some terms in standard English, such as mob, gay, and bus, originated in slang.” Green also agrees that slang is a powerful social instrument that above all forges collective identities. “It all depends where you stand. If you see yourself as an upholder of establishment values, then slang is symptomatic of the ‘dangerous classes‘,” he says. “If you are young, criminal or in some other way socially marginal, then slang can both reinforce you as part of a group, and exclude those who are placed outside that group.”
Historically, London slang has seen the rise of many additional localisms and Thorne notes that even now, there are local dialects – although they largely overlap – within London youth slang ”so that slightly different terms are fashionable in different zones.”Andy, who was born and raised in North West London, notes that the geographical and social differences play a key role in what slang is used. ”Where you’re from and what school you went to definitely affects the way you speak,” he says. “I’ve got mates that are from south London and some of the stuff they say I don’t understand.”
The expanding tentacles of London slang and its diverse branches seem to have eclipsed the traditional Cockney over time. Green, however, thinks that the traditional East End dialect is not entirely gone. “Cockney is not brown bread*, but it is a very different creature from that which was first recorded in 1856,” he says and suggests that the old slang has become something of an iconic trademark.
“The last twenty years and more have seen a major change. It has become little more than another illustration on the tourist map of London. Like black cabs and red telephone kiosks – neither of which really exist – it is inextricable from traditional London. In fact it is yet another badge awarded the Z-list celebrity, along with tabloid scandals and appearances on reality TV shows,” Green says.
Even so, the rhyming slang has escaped the tongues of the younger generation. “I don’t understand Cockney slang,” Andy says straight away. “I think it is dying out – to be fair, I don’t live in the Cockney area, but I haven’t heard people my age talk any Cockney slang.” And he is not alone. A study published by the Museum of London in 2012 already showed that the East London dialect may be fading out as majority of the 2,000 participants failed to recognise traditional phrases associated with the rhyming slang.
In an article written for the Independent, however, Thorne points out that Cockney isn’t a shared dialect but a word game not meant to be understood immediately by everyone. So, no one actually talks in Cockney anymore, but Thorne notes that even when the rhyming part is left out, the heritage of the slang is still present in our everyday discourse. Many phrases have been simply trimmed from their originals, such as “taking the mick” that used to be known as “Mickey Bliss.”
Dynamics of slang from rapid change in meaning to widely recognised words that stick around for decades may be as complex as the sociolect itself, and what makes some slang effective is difficult to pinpoint. “It’s not possible to predict or to be sure in retrospect which slang terms persist or cross over into everyday usage and which don’t. This may occur if a term fills a lexical gap in the language – if it encodes something which previously lacked a name,” Thorne explains. ”Slang by definition carries a charge of novelty, exoticism, transgression and topicality which may account for its power,” he says and adds: ”It’s also untrue that all slang is short-lived: even the vogue terms of youth slang, such as ’solid’, ‘cool’, or ‘wicked’, tend to stay in use for several to many years, though they may migrate from the high status expert users to less fashionable speakers.”
Green notes that the initial secrecy of slang may have accounted for its fast-paced change. ”When a term became known outside the group, it was necessary to replace it. And while linguistic secrecy, if it even exists, is much shorter-lived today, that principle still obtains,” he says. And perhaps the magic of slang and why it works is its constant revision that accounts for some personal influence. The idea of a shared identity boosts the personal significance slang has on its user, and Woods suggests that it is indeed that kind of social power that makes slang so popular and effective.
“A few times when I was a student myself I gave someone a nickname and it stuck. Everyone would start calling this person by the new name, but only the people in our group knew where it had come from and what it was implying,” he says. “There was always a bit of a hidden meaning behind it. The person with the nickname felt like they were really part of the group too, but of course a nickname often only lasts a month or something.”
“I think slang is similar. If you can use the right words, if you know the words, you know you’re in the group and other people are reminded that you’re in the group,” Woods thinks. Andy says that to him, slang has exactly that function, sometimes to the point where it replaces actual names. “I don’t even call my brother by his name anymore, I just call him ‘bruv‘,” he says.
Thorne reminds that other historical slangs in London, such as Polari, which West End version was used in theatre whereas the East End equivalent was heard in the Docklands, both mainly by gays, worked as a stamp of identification. As a social means, slang fosters an exclusive sense of belonging and equality between the speaker and the listener. ”All peer-groups or communities of practice operating in clearly defined and restricted settings and valuing exclusivity are likely to generate their own sociolects – nonstandard varieties of language related to location, class, ethnicity and/or activity,” he says.
Andy says that he uses slang especially with his friends, and confirms that “there’s an identity to it.” Additionally, he thinks that London slang itself has a widespread sense of tribalism amongst its speakers in the city. “It’s quite clear that Londoners speak in a different way to everyone else,” he says and shows that people take pride in the use of slang with a playful us-them mentality. “If I heard a non-Londoner saying a lot of London slang, I’d be like, what are you doing, just trying to copy how we speak.”
In the UK, London is naturally the cradle of all slang and according to Green, the capital’s strong slang base is “vastly outweighing any rival.” But even so, the countless possibilities unleashed by the digital world and multiculturalism, the original London slang – the language of the working class, underworld, traders, and gays – has since lost its primacy. Whereas cultures and multidimensional identities are constantly forged together, so is new slang.
Contemporary millennials and today’s youth ensure that slang keeps flourishing, which means it changes often – and perhaps the secrecy of modern slang is in the fact that it can be hard to keep up with. ’Styll’, perhaps the most peculiar of recent slang words, is something Andy finishes the occasional sentence with. It doesn’t really have a meaning, or it is one of a varying degree, and yet it somehow seems to encapsulate the youth slang with its growing popularity and slight absurdity.
“It doesn’t mean anything, you just say it. Like when you’re watching a football match, you go: ‘Oh yeah, that was a good match styll,” Andy says. “I picked it up on Twitter.” And that’s how slang seems to work. It forms in the mouths of the young, the contemporary and the influential, it spreads through peer groups and celebrities, and most importantly, it develops through life and conversation – and nowadays, even social media.
And while the era of global digitalisation has already had its footprint on youth slang, Andy says it’s difficult to remain self-aware with the overwhelming exposure of new slang and emerging influences. “It’s not that deep,” Andy sums it up with a phrase that has surfaced in his speech in regular intervals. ‘It’s not that deep’ or ‘the situation at hand does not require such desperate actions,’ as defined by Urban Dictionary – or perhaps in this context, a suggestion that Andy doesn’t want to overthink the possibly layered reasons behind the way he speaks. “You just pick these things up and it gets assimilated into how you talk,” he explains, and it seems perfectly plausible.
Slang and varying patterns in speech are contagious, at least to some. As a natural response to ever-evolving language, our primary means of communication and understanding our surroundings, we tend to pick up and imitate changes in style all the time. After all, it’s bare colloquialism. Innit?
allow (verb) – to forget about sth; to dismiss the topic of discussion
bait (adj) – obvious
bare (adv) – a lot of, very
big man ting (adv) – to be honest
bitz (n) – neighbourhood
bruv (n) – brother
com (adj) – cool
dinter (n) – male
deece (adj) – nice, decent
gassed (adj) – excited, full of oneself
gwop (n) – money
innit (excl) – isn’t it
long (adj) – boring
mandem (n) – a group of male friends
moist (adj) – soft
man’s (n) – I, I am
neek (ad) – nerd
peak (n) – bad luck
roadboy, roadman (n) – local; someone who knows the area well
roll safe (excl) – goodbye
skeen (adj) – understood
styll (adv) – though
wagwan (excl) – what’s up
wasteman (adj) – loser; someone who does nothing with their life
Adam and Eve (verb) – to believe
Barney Rubble (n) – trouble
Brahms and Liszt (adj) – pissed (drunk)
bees and honey (n) – money
brown bread (adj) – dead
butcher’s hook (n) – a look
China plate (n) – mate (friend)
dog and bone (n) – phone
half-inch (verb) – to pinch (steal)
Hank Marvin (adj) – starving
laugh ‘n a joke (n) – smoke
Mickey Bliss (verb) – to take the piss
pig’s ear (n) – beer
rabbit and pork (verb) – to talk
Todd Sloane (adj) – alone