Wednesday 23 March 2011

our new multiethnolect

In connection with its ongoing exhibition Evolving English the British Library is holding a series of ‘events’.

Yesterday’s was a lunch-time lecture by Paul Kerswill on the subject of Multicultural London English (this blog, 02 July 2010, 25 Mar 2008 and 16 Nov 2006). I am gratified to say that the event was sold out, but less happy to report that many people had to be turned away.

In his lecture, richly illustrated by sound clips, Paul showed how traditional Cockney, once upon a time centred on inner eastern areas of London such as Bethnal Green, has now moved out to the outer suburbs (his team had studied Havering, on the Essex borders). In inner areas (his team had studied Hackney) the incomers who replaced the white working class had in many cases more than one variety in their repertoire, being able to switch, for example, between Cockney and Jamaican.

(We can illustrate this with the 1984 hit Cockney Translation by the late Smiley Culture, sung in Jamaican Creole but explaining words and usages from Cockney — as Paul pointed out, with no reference at all to Standard English.)
me come to teach you right and not the wrong
ina di Cockney Translation
Cockney’s not a language, it is only a slang
an was originated yaso [= here] ina Englan’…

For today’s teenagers, though, this has given way to a new local multiethnic speech variety shared by adolescents of all different ethnic origins. It is sometimes referred to as ‘Jafaican’, though Paul’s team prefer their term Multicultural London English.

To illustrate the point, Paul played us sound clips of four Hackney adolescents talking, and challenged us to guess the ethnicity of the speakers. They did indeed all sound much the same. Yet one was self-described as Bengali, one as White British, one as Black British Caribbean, and one as Turkish. (I did get two out of four correct, but that may just have been by lucky chance.)

We can illustrate this new variety by this clip of Dizzee Rascal being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman just after Obama’s election. You can hear all sorts of ‘Cockney’ features in his speech (t glottalling, l vocalization and so on) but also plenty of features foreign to traditional Cockney (unshifted FACE and PRICE diphthongs,‘man’).

And he has great answers to Paxman’s condescending and supercilious questions.
Do you believe in political parties?
Do you feel yourself to be British?
_ _ _

I have handed over to Paul Kerswill the original tapes of the interviews I conducted with Jamaicans in London in 1969-70 for my PhD work. If the recordings are still playable after sitting in a drawer for forty years the BL will help digitize them so that they can be properly archived.


  1. The variety is wonderful, but I am still sad that RP died. Especially the refined, careful one. Not even the researchers or drama schools seem to be interested in it anymore.

  2. RP is not dead! Its monopoly has just taken a knock, that's all.

    What I find refreshing about this is that while regional dialects are merging & dying out all over the British Isles, here's a brand-new accent, complete with distinctive grammatical and lexical features, and a history and local culture of its own.

    Who;d have thought th linguistic diversity of the English language would be rescued by London, of all places?

  3. Some ethnic accents seem to have influenced London speech more than others. I think that this is shown in the name "Jafaican": West Indian speech is perceived as a lot cooler than Indian or Pakistani speech. Why do you think this is?

    Ethnic diversity has produced a less interesting result in Bradford. It seems that the traditional dialect has died in Bradford but all that's been left behind is an undistinctive Northern accent rather than an exciting new accent. You don't hear many Bradfordians saying "Bratford" any more but you do hear it in Wakefield and less diverse areas.

    @ Mark Ahston: Multi-cultural society may hit the heartland of RP in the public schools. The elite schools are now very international and a lot of the kids just out of them sound slightly American. I think that this will become more noticeable with time.

  4. Mark - I will just stand up for Drama schools on that one. We do still teach RP, in a variety of forms appropriate for styles and periods of plays and characters.
    What I will say is that for students from outside the UK (Americans, Canadians, Aussies, etc), I and my colleagues are finding it more useful for them to teach a slightly estuarised form ([a] rather than [æ], [ʌʊ] rather than [aʊ], [ɾ] for informal medal t), to better blend in with their oxbridge/public school educated peers, who then have to make their own shifts to find the appropriate speech habits for Coward and Shaw.

    One school I teach at performed 'An Inspector Calls', requiring between-the-wars marked RP. Three of the cast came from a not dissimilar background to the characters - public school educated, oxbridge, upper middle class - but not realising how much they had to shift, they sounded VERY londonised, compared with the actor for whom english was a third language after French and Polish, who learnt his spoken English in Australia, who was much more successful in hitting the period appropriate sounds.

    So differing forms of RP, including marked, contemporary londonised and URP are being taught... Is it the directors and casting people who are less bothered about accuracy?

  5. Beatrice Portinari23 March 2011 at 13:20

    @ Mark: There will always be an RP (ie a prestigious -WHAT!- model) to fight against.

  6. L vocalization may once have been "distinctively Cockney", but it seems to me to have become near-universal in England. The only announcers on the BBC whom I hear with alveolar closure in nonprevovalic /l/ seem to be those from the Celtic countries.

    TH-fronting seems set to complete a similar takeover in the next couple of generations. Would anyone be surprised to see the interdental fricatives preserved only in the ex-colonies?

  7. @Anonymous:

    What American features have you observed in public school speech? That is very interesting.

  8. @ vp: I disagree completely on the L-vocalisation. L-vocalisation has reversed in some non-southern parts of England. It used to be common in words such as "cold", "old", etc. in Yorks, Lancs, the Midlands but the L has been restored there. I understand that the L used to be dropped entirely on -ool words in the north-west. Historic L has gained rather than lost ground in a large part of England.

    I read the Wikipedia article for Multicultural London English. Many of these changes are in the direction of RP (the entries for PRICE, FOOT, FACE) or in line with nationwide trends (for TRAP, h-restoration). The only ones I noted in the article that are clearly non-Cockney and non-RP are the use of [q] for /k/, and the use of [e:] and [o:] in FACE and GOAT. However, I can't say that I've ever met a White Londoner who uses these pronunciations. Perhaps I'm just in with the wrong crowd. I think that "Jafaican" is more evident with words than with pronunciations.

    On the subject of identifying voices with ethnicity, a lot of people think that a very low voice must be Black. There have been two occasions when someone who's spoken to me on the phone has told me that they presumed I must be Black from how low my voice is. (I'm actually White)

  9. There are RP accents with hardly a diphthong for FACE, with a bandwidth for the resulting monophthong from to ɛː, and "U"-RP speakers tend to have a lower voice, but both are coincidences, of course.

    (EDIT: word verification is "squica" - so much for low voices.)

  10. @Ed:

    That's interesting.
    Do you have any suggestions for audio/video links or particular speakers with the restored /l/s? Cheers.

  11. @Ed: The MLE value of the FACE vowel /ɛɪ/ is indeed in the direction of RP /ɛɪ/ (from Cockney /ʌi/).

    But the PRICE vowel /æe/ is surely a move away from RP /aɪ/ (from Cockney /ɑe/).

  12. @Mary: That's great to hear, yet I still have the impression it's less there than it should be. For example, I find Ed Stoppard's accent and voice in last years Upstairs, Downstairs absolutely shameful and annoying. Keeley Hawes was, on the other hand, overdoing it – her mouth were so wide during the whole thing, she could've swallowed a whale. The butler wasn't quite there either.

    Could you tell me what is the difference between what you call marked RP and upper RP?

    @Lipman: URP people have lower voices? Really? I always felt it was a sound a cat would emit if the were being stepped on or de-skinned. Just look at the current Chancellor – although that Harley Street voice specialist whose name I'm forgetting managed to tone it down, it's still annoyingly screechy.

  13. John: Out of curiosity, which two did you spot, and was it by specific features or by gestalt?

    Mary: This whole business of period-appropriate accents in the theatre strikes me as broken. Nobody performs Shakespeare in period accents (nor should they) and what Shaw thought of RP is amply on record. Unless an accent contrast is required to mark a character as culturally different from the rest, I'd far rather see actors performing in their native accents rather than in artificially assumed ones. I'm speaking as someone who for more than twenty years saw at least one play a week for pleasure.

  14. (oops)

    Pete: Why are you surprised? New accents appear, as in the Antipodes, where people speaking different accents mingle. London today is eminently such a place.

  15. Mary,

    I've heard that stereotype a couple of times, no idea if it's true statistically, and if so, whether this is a matter of genetics (hard to believe, but possible in theory) or of habit, using the lower registers of one's voice, howeer high the latter is. Of course, there's the contradicting stereotype of the overbred young aristocrat' high-voiced plapper.

    The current Chancellor does creak, and this may be associated with a type of U-RP, but not only have I heard much worse but I hear it as a (typical) creak at the lower end. At least a creaky voice, as a nasal twang, isn't connected to how high the voice is, I'd say.

  16. John C.,

    I think many playgoers would find it irritating or funny if in a classical setting, an actor had a local accent that isn't justified by the play. This might be different if the whole cast shares the accent, but some people find an American production of a Shakespeare play strange already.

    That doesn't mean the accents of the play or the setting have to be the historical ones. In Downton Abbey, for example, filmed last year and playing on the eve of the First World War, the accents were an approximation of the 1960s, and I don't think this bothered anyone.

  17. @Lipman: See, this is very interesting: I've actually never heard it defined in such a way – lower range of a high-pitched voice – but looking closely, it does make sense. As for Downton Abbey, yes, precisely, it wasn't really quite there in terms of the accent of the period. Even Professor Wells mentioned how mythological names ending in -eus weren't pronounced correctly: ˈθiːsjuːs, pɜːsjuːs, zjuːs. I don't think they had a dialogue coach, which is a shame.

    @John Cowan: Yes, this is precisely why I mentioned Keeley Hawes. She had 10 years of elocution lessons, practised for hours to pronounce the perfect 'o', and I can clearly see it. One of the methods when they teach you elocution is to make you overpronounce, exaggerate the sounds.

  18. Which reminds me: what sort of books, for example, would the dialogue coaches have to consult to get everything right for the Downton period if a dilemma pops up? Say, Broadcast English from 1929: ?

    In the book's notation does gréesy, gréesy mean ɡriːsi, griːzi or grɪəsi, grɪəzi? Geyser would be ɡiːzə, finance is fɪˈnæns?

  19. That was one of the problems, if you want to call it a problem, of the series - it's not very likely that Edwardian aristocrats talked like BBC announcers.

  20. I wrote a long reply that didn't post successfully. I'll break it up.

    @ Pete: the Wikipedia article gives /aɪ/ for MLE. It mentions monophthongisation for PRICE as well, which I overlooked before and would not be RP.

  21. @ vp: I meant that L-vocalisation in certain words was part of certain traditional dialects but this feature has since disappeared. The Wikipedia article for L-vocalisation quotes Petyt's observation that this process has been reversed in West Yorkshire (that was in 1985). The spelling "owd" for "old" is used in dialect writing such as the Me and Mar Lady series (Potteries dialect). See here.

  22. There are some modern Yorkshire examples. Geoffrey Boycott says the word "ball" several times at 0:42 here and says the L each time. Mick McCarthy says "normal" three times at 0:44 here

  23. Sadly I can't think of anyone famous with a Potteries accent to compare with Me and Mar Lady. Robbie Williams is from Stoke, but he doesn't have much of the local accent.

  24. Is it too late here to point out that Mr Rascal is from a Ghanaian family, so Jafaican is really not an appropriate term for his accent? Not that anyone here has, as we are all au fait with the concept of MLE.

    As a dialect coach - well accent coach, really: dialect coach is the preferred term in the States: as far as I can see the 'dialect' should be in the script - the area of RP is a minefield. Actors have a professional directory called 'Spotlight', which is divided in to about ten volumes, each one bigger than the Greater London phonebook, which has an online presence. Actors graduating from drama school have to fill in a tickbox form, giving playing age, specialist skills, singing range, and then my favourite, 'accents'. Among the four or so pages of options, RP is listed, as is London AND Cockney, Essex, Kent, but not Estuary, nor MLE. There is a great one: 'Northern', but no corresponding 'Southern', though there used to be till about eight years ago.
    So if they were filling in a spotlight form, Tamsin Greig, Judi Dench, Richard Dimbleby, Lord Onslow, Diana Mitford and the Queen would all go under 'RP', in the absence of any other distinction.
    Professor Wells' 'Accents of English' goes into fantastic detail on the nature of the different forms of RP, which I am trying to adhere to when describing sounds to my non-accent colleagues, but everything that doesn't sound contemporary is termed 'Heightened RP' by most of them.

  25. John Cowan - I am assuming that you didn't see the RSC's Hamlet from the other year - the main characters being played by an Australian, a West Coast Scot and a Yorkshireman, all using RP.

    I am also assuming that you never saw any of the productions at the Globe in which they used what is termed OP (Original Pronunciation). David Crystal wrote a great book about the research process and how it informed the performances of the plays. I saw the Troilus and Cressida, and after the first five minutes of tuning in to the unfamiliar patterns, enjoyed the play immensely. As did the large party of Spanish school children standing in front of me

  26. @Ed:

    Thanks so much for the links.

    I will revise my thesis to say that L-vocalization is endemic to Southern England.

  27. L-vocalization is alive and well here in New Zealand.

  28. @ Mary: Can you please tell me what difference is listed between London and Essex? My uncle has always lived on the border of the two. I've never been able to tell any difference in pronunciations, although you don't get any rhyming slang in Essex.

    It seems strange to distinguish between London and Essex and then group half the country as "Northern".

  29. Ed - the main differences I would note in an actor from Essex playing a londoner, as I had to last year for a play set in Deptford, is to use [æ] rather than [a] for the TRAP vowel, and for final neutral COMMA/LETTER to be fronted. STRUT also tends more to be realised as [ə] in my Essex students, rather than a more open sound for London - well, the london of the previous generation, anyway. There are some rhythmical and melodic differences as well. Contrast genuine East Enders like Patsy Palmer or Cheryl Baker with the orange people on 'The Only Way is Essex'
    I would also say that the spotlight form does give more specific Northern English descriptors - Manchester, Yorkshire, Durham - well the counties, anyway. Though the bit I never understand is that it doesn't have Estuary as an option, nor MLE, nor Merseyside (as distinct from Liverpool), but you can select whether your native accent (or one in which you are performably proficient) is Jersey OR Guernsey.

  30. David Marjanović24 March 2011 at 23:22

    L vocalization may once have been "distinctively Cockney", but it seems to me to have become near-universal in England.

    A few years ago, there was a paper in (remarkably) Nature which investigated how the Queen's pronunciation had changed over the decades. It had; the royal preconsonantal /l/ is reliably a syllable nowadays (not a vowel, but nonetheless syllabic), and the paper called this a feature of general "Southern British" English.


  31. @ Mary: That's interesting. Thank you for that! My uncle seems to have the London pronunciations for TRAP and STRUT but the Essex one for COMMA/LETTER.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.