An update on the unusual role of an ‘expert linguist witness’
Elsewhere on this site I have written about the ‘street slang‘ used by gang members and other young people in the UK, a variety of language also featuring in the lyrics of Drill and other rap music genres. In October 2020 I was invited by the Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics to talk about my role in translating and commenting on this language in the context of criminal investigations and trials.
My contribution to this event, with those of other specialists, together with some answers to follow-up questions from the virtual audience can be accessed here…
The prosecution of actual or supposed gang members, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and are victims themselves of coercion, trafficking, even modern slavery, is hugely controversial, as are attempts by some law enforcers to criminalise Drill music, its performers and its enthusiasts and the language that it uses.
Rap lyrics appear to be poetic or literary texts, and may be fictional, but many professional rappers and their amateur imitators routinely mix creative fiction conventions, metaphors and imagery with real-life facts, introducing real names and references to real places, incidents and actions for ‘authenticity’ and effect. They also frequently borrow or steal images, words and whole sequences from other rappers, and impersonate actors in the real world such as killers or drug dealers who they have learned about from media reports or by word of mouth on the street.
Even more confusingly, many young rap enthusiasts nowadays use the language of rap and its lyrical conventions when they are communicating in quite different contexts. I have encountered many examples of messages between friends, entries in journals or prison notebooks, editing an online persona for chatting in forums, etc. that use words, phrases and references familiar from lyrics as used in audio/video music performances.
There are now academics and activists seeking to question official attitudes to the policing of youth crime and to question the validity of presenting rap or rap-related lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing. There are also currently many agencies, charities and other stakeholders working with young victims, young perpetrators and their families and friends in order to analyse, publicise and seek solutions for the social stresses that foster gang culture. For my small part, I’m concerned, though, that these efforts, even the well organised periodic campaigns by police to control and reduce ‘knife crime,’ are still piecemeal and only partially coordinated across the country.
In November I talked on the same subject at Warwick University‘s Applied Linguistics Seminar…
One month on, and a small sign that mainstream media may be paying a little more attention to gang realities…
Ironically, the self-isolation I have been practising for the last seven months did not mean that I was without work. Periods of WFH alternated with forays into an empty city. Youth crime subsided at first but did not disappear during the pandemic: importantly for me the gathering and analysis of evidence and preparations for trials involving gang violence continued, and I continued to help defence teams and prosecutors to interpret the language used in messaging and Drill lyrics generated by suspects living in gang environments (as described in earlier posts on this site). In April I wrote an article for the Magistrates Association about the relationships between language, youth and crime*
During my time in quarantine I continued to record and comment on the language of the pandemic itself as well as the toxic terminology of populist politics and racism. At the beginning of September the team at LexisPodcast gave me a fresh opportunity to talk about these topics (my comments are in the second half of the recording)…
I had time, too, to write a profile of the humble, enigmatic London outsider artist, known only as Albert, for Raw Vision magazine…
‘Bad language’ and why you should really try to keep up
Studies have shown that the language of the court can be intimidating and perplexing for some of those who pass through it. We naturally hope that all of those involved in legal proceedings have sufficient command of a language in common to conduct their business successfully. There are times, however, when language barriers become apparent and it becomes necessary to interpret, to translate – foreign tongues used by other nationalities of course – but also new and unfamiliar language originating in our own communities.
Language is something that we tend to take for granted; it’s a facility that every human possesses and uses constantly. In the workplace we have to depend on a shared understanding of language, whether formal, legalistic or conversational. Professional linguists, however, see language differently and distinguish not only between informal, conversational speech and formal or technical language, but between a ‘dialect’ – the language of a region, a ‘sociolect’ – the language of a particular group such as a specific profession, ethnic group, age-group or social class, and even an ‘idiolect’, the words, phrases and turns of speech favoured by a single individual.
The closer we look at the language people are using, the more potential there is for misunderstanding. There is the problem of keeping abreast of rapid changes – of learning new terms, making sense of popular entertainment catchphrases and reality TV references, for example (‘Love Island’ springs to mind). Perhaps the problem is most acute when it’s the language of another generation. Parents, teachers, police officers, too, struggle to make sense of the latest playground slang, gamers’ terminology and the bizarre expressions uttered by music fans, fashionistas and YouTube stars. Abbreviations used in texting and on social media – YOLO, FOMO, SMH (‘you only live once’, ‘fear of missing out’, ‘shaking my head’) can also be baffling for older observers – not surprisingly because this sort of language is not designed to be understood by outsiders. Insiders use slang as a badge of identity to show that they belong to a particular group, equally it is used to exclude the people they don’t want to associate with; the old, the boring, the unfashionable and the unglamorous. Many users of slang, though, are surprisingly sensitive to what linguists call ‘appropriacy’ – matching their choice of language to the social situation – and wouldn’t employ a highly informal style in a formal setting such as a court. Problems arise when evidence involves language recorded in very different contexts.
If you struggle to understand the teenagers and young people around you when they call their schoolfriend a ‘durkboi’ or a ‘wasteman’ (both mean useless male) and try to cadge some ‘p’s’, ‘gwop’ or ‘Lizzies’ (all slang for money), you are not alone. There is a shared slang vocabulary that has established itself throughout the UK, often replacing colourful older usages (such as rhyming slang: ‘once a week’, a synonym of ‘beak’ or magistrate has disappeared) or local dialect. Popular words include ‘piff’, ‘peng’, ‘dench’, ‘gully’, all used to express admiration, ‘bare’ meaning many (as in ‘bare feds’ or ‘bare jakes‘, lots of police), ‘bait’ meaning obvious, ‘bruv’ and ‘fam’ denoting one’s friends or group. ‘Chirpsin’, ‘linkin’ and ‘lipsin’ refer to flirting, dating and kissing respectively.
New terms are being coined all the time because novelty is what gives the words their edgy, progressive quality, but, contrary to what many people assume, slang doesn’t fall out of use for years, it just moves from an older to a younger cohort; as it’s abandoned by the most self-consciously ‘cool’ it is picked up by the latecomers. A few parents and some teachers have managed to learn some of these terms, but trying to use them will inevitably provoke ridicule. In a 2017 survey only 4% of parents were able to successfully translate messaging slang, while 65% tried but repeatedly failed or misunderstood.
Slang, whether used covertly or out in the open, is a feature of all societies and languages and of all age-groups, too. It’s well established that those engaged in criminal activity, lawlessness or antisocial behaviour develop their own secret languages in order to communicate privately and to prevent outsiders from understanding these communications. Teenagers and young adults likewise develop their own slangs and restricted terminologies and often include vocabulary coined by gang members and criminals because it seems glamorous and daring. In the US and the UK highly informal youth-based dialects have arisen and the terminology in question is also used in music lyrics and on social media. The language of US rap and hip-hop music and UK–based varieties such as Grime or Drill music mixes AfricanCaribbean influences, especially Jamaican ‘patois’, with local colloquial speech and will be familiar to many young people, even those who are not engaged in antisocial or criminal activity. This kind of language is very rarely picked up by mainstream media, is not normally recorded in standard dictionaries and is difficult for linguists to collect. I do so by monitoring online messaging and online discussions among slang enthusiasts or slang users, examining music lyrics and, most importantly, by interviewing slang users themselves (as slang is still more a spoken than written variety) and asking them to give or send me examples of language used by them and their peers. Slang is not deficient language; it performs its functions efficiently in conveying meaning. However, because it is an underground, alternative code it is not subject to rules and authorities. This can often result in the same slang term having multiple meanings (hood, for example can refer to a criminal ‘hoodlum’ or to the neighbourhood in which they operate) and in meanings varying to some extent between one group of users and another. It also means that (because they are based on speech and not on written sources) the spellings of slang terms may vary and may be used inconsistently.
I have been collecting the slangs of adults and of younger speakers operating in all sorts of contexts, publishing a succession of dictionaries and articles over the years and teaching and broadcasting about these and other ‘nonstandard’ and controversial areas of language. As a linguist I became fascinated by a kind of language that, although exotic, anti-social, irreverent and frequently offensive is technically as complex and as creative as poetry or literature. It’s only by deciphering and understanding this sort of language – or rather these languages – that we can hope to enter the world of teenage cliques, young-adult in-groups and gangs, to come to make sense of their rituals and obsessions, their thoughts and feelings.
For more than a decade, and increasingly over the last five years I have been helping the police forces who are trying to control street crime and the lawyers who are defending those accused (nearly all of them still in their teens or early twenties). My task as a language analyst and an expert witness is to translate and comment on the slang terminology found on confiscated mobile phones, obtained by surveillance and electronic intercepts, or used in the course of live interviews. I’ve found that the officers in question and the legal representatives are dedicated, unprejudiced, painstaking and privately distressed by what they witness day-to-day. They may become familiar with the exotic, shocking language they are exposed to, but they require an expert objectively to interpret and assess the written or recorded evidence they work with, if necessary, too, an expert who can stand in court and testify on their or their clients’ behalf.
In looking at recordings of gang member’s conversations, for example, it’s crucial to know that a ‘burner’ or a ‘mash’ is a handgun; ‘dotty’ means shotgun, ‘Rambo’,‘ramsay’, ‘cutter’, ‘shank’ or ‘nank’ is knife. When looking at jottings in a teenager’s notebook or listening to a hardcore Drill track recorded by a gang associate it’s essential to identify ‘trap’ as a term for selling drugs or the location where it takes place, ‘plug’ as a drug source, ‘dip’ as stab, ‘op’ as enemy, ‘duppy’ as kill, ‘dasheen’ as run away. The same words, catchphrases and slogans are shared across London and into other UK centres: the same gang culture with its obsession with status and respect, its territorial feuding and its violent tendencies seems to apply everywhere.
Nobody expects the average adult, even if an educated, articulate professional to be fluent either in the language of innocent teenagers or the criminal codes used by gang members. Where, then, can a legal professional or law enforcer go in order to get help with slang and street language? Standard published dictionaries do not offer much assistance, even dictionaries specialising in slang do not usually manage to keep up to date and to define and explain the latest terms. Magazine features purporting to explain what millennials and Generation Z are saying are invariably frivolous and inaccurate. One valuable resource is the online Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) a collection of language posted on the internet by real people. Its entries are up to date and usually authentic, but more than half of the expressions on the site originate in the USA and some of the posts are private jokes or local nicknames. There is a small dictionary of the language of rappers and gangsters on my own website (https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/04/19/a-drill-dictionary/), and I can answer general slang enquiries at The King’s College Archive if contacted at email@example.com.
How could an obscure, elderly linguist have anything relevant to contribute to the debate now – belatedly – taking place on knife crime in the UK? It is many many years since I hung out, ineffectually feigning menace, with a gang of suburban mods (in the days when ‘bovver boots’ were the only dangerous item of subcultural paraphernalia), many years since I taught in an inner city London school and watched as younger teens gradually became disaffected and detached from family life and adult society. Much later I investigated and wrote about the successive waves of tribal youth culture – hippies, neo-teddy boys, punks, new romantics, rave aficionados, hiphop enthusiasts and the rest – who occupied the space reserved for ‘folk devil’ in the periodic ‘moral panics’ that the grownup public, with the help of the media, has always indulged in.
I was always interested in the outward signs and symbols, the accessories and the poses that these groups used to design and to project their identities, simultaneously signalling their belonging and their rejection of outsiders. I was more than anything interested in the special language that they used, generally characterised as ‘slang’, to communicate with one another and to baffle and dismay their perceived enemies – parents, teachers, the forces of social conformity in general.
It’s only by deciphering and understanding this sort of language – or rather these languages – that we can hope to enter the world of peer-groups, in-groups and gangs, to come to make sense of their rituals and obsessions, their thoughts and feelings. I have collected the slangs of adults and of younger speakers operating in all sorts of contexts, publishing a succession of dictionaries and articles over the years and teaching and broadcasting about these and other ‘nonstandard’ and controversial areas of language such as business jargon, fashion and lifestyle buzzwords and the ‘weasel words’ of politicians.
I wrote last year about the distressing, frightening language used by members of street gangs who identify with the Drill music genre, and on this site you can find my updated dictionary of the terms they and their followers and imitators use, terms which many other quite innocent and uninvolved young people will be familiar with, but which are alien and incomprehensible to most adults. There are links to news articles accompanying the Drill Dictionary, and other articles on youth slang and so-called MLE on this site too.
The phenomenon of Drill, to a lesser extent of Grime music and the gangs who use their style of rap and hiphop songwriting and recording, is so closely linked to the knife crime ‘epidemic’ that is being discussed as I write, that the connection can’t be downplayed or ignored. Today’s gangs, with their territorial disputes, drug-based economies and hypermasculine culture of bragging and ‘dissing’ differ from earlier incarnations in that they declare their allegiances and flaunt their activities semi-publicly online, using messaging, social media platforms and video recording.
I’m not of course suggesting that all the disturbing messages being exchanged by the gangs are accurate or sincere, or that the knifings and shootings they boast about have all really taken place. But I would propose very forcefully that anybody who is trying to analyse or engage with their behaviour must analyse and engage with what they themselves are saying and the language they use.
My own take on this is not just that of an interested outsider. For a decade now, and increasingly over the last five years I have been helping the police forces who are trying to control street crime and the lawyers who are defending those accused (nearly all of them teenagers). My task as a language analyst and an expert witness is to translate and comment on the slang terminology found on confiscated mobile phones, obtained by surveillance and electronic intercepts, or used in the course of live interviews. I’ve found that the officers in question and the legal representatives are dedicated, unprejudiced, painstaking and privately appalled at what they witness day-to-day. They may become familiar with the exotic, distressing language they are exposed to, but they require an expert objectively to interpret and assess the written or recorded evidence they work with, if necessary, too, to stand in court and testify on their or their clients’ behalf.
There are now a number of experts on the ‘multiethnolects’, the new urban speech patterns prevalent among younger speakers that mix elements of native and minority languages. Professor Paul Kerswill and Professor Jenny Cheshire were the first to name the phenomenon as MLE – multicultural London English – and have written extensively on it. There are also expert forensic linguists, such as Professor Tim Grant of Aston University, who employ linguistic methods in the analysis of criminal language, enabling them for instance to identify authorship and authenticity of anonymous messages and online communications by paedophiles and others. My own claim to expertise is that I am one of very few who focuses on up-to-date slang and on items of criminal vocabulary (the deliberately secret languages known as ‘cryptolects’), rather than the scientific analysis of longer sequences of speech or text.
In looking at recordings of gang member’s conversations, for example, it’s crucial to know that a burner is a handgun; dotty means shotgun, Rambo, ramsey, shank or nank is knife. When looking at jottings in a teenager’s notebook or listening to a hardcore Drill track recorded by a gang associate it’s essential to identify trap as a term for selling drugs or the location where it takes place, plug as a drug source, dip as stab, op as enemy, duppy as kill, dasheen as run away. The same words, catchphrases and slogans are shared across London and into other UK centres: the same mindset with its obsession with respect, its reverence for violence and indifference to suffering seems to apply everywhere.
"Every generation pretends gang crime is a new problem."
Rapper and author Akala says the social indicators of violence have "remained identical for almost 200 years". pic.twitter.com/aJO1raMFnn
Among the voices raised in the latest debate, Akala’s stands out as representing real experience of, and sympathy for the victims and perpetrators. I only feel that he underestimates the levels of violence tolerated and celebrated, the extent of the ill-gotten wealth and the technical sophistication of the gangs of today. Rappers routinely claim that their lyrics are a fictional reflection of an imagined street life, a poetic evocation of rage and intensity rather than a call to arms, but the words written by young knife-carriers that I have had to translate are exactly the same words used by the rappers. In some cases the rapper is the perpetrator – the killer himself. The young people living in the postcodes most affected by knife crime are of course dealing with the new reality every day, as explained here.
"Yeah I've got a knife right now."
These 15 and 19 year old gang members say carrying a knife is a "risk you've just got to take" because the penalty is "get killed or go to prison." #dispatchespic.twitter.com/sIeEzVyVqC
Knife crime is intimately bound up with gang slang and vice versa. To try to understand the killings and the woundings and their perpetrators and victims without understanding what they themselves are saying makes tackling the hugely complex problem much more difficult.
As a footnote, I have had a lot of very interesting and constructive feedback (suggestions, criticisms, donations of new terms) arising from this article and from my broadcast on the same subject on Voice of Islam radio. I also discussed all the issues involved with Rob Booth, Social Affairs Correspondent of the Guardian, who has published several insightful articles on innercity stress and street crime. His piece is here…
**Please do contact me if you can supply examples of street slang for my databases. Contact me too if you need to interpret street talk or criminal slang yourself, or if you would like me to contribute to projects in this area.**
Finally, as proof that Akala is right and that press stories on gangs are nothing new, this from 1958…