Real Lives: Can you talk britspeak?

Teenage speech certainly does annoy the oldies (ie anyone over 35). But it's got nothing to do with `Neighbours'. Alex Spillius reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
f you have never used, or fail to comprehend, terms such as "large salads", "bunch of arse" or "your mum!", then you are either the swotty type of schoolkid or simply too old (probably at least 35). Probably you also quite naturally lower your intonation at the end of a sentence - a habit which according to Barbara Bradford, a linguist at the University of London whose research was much quoted in the press last week, many young people are now reversing. Get real, you doughnut.

Hard though it is to draw a precise dividing line, it appears that a yawning linguistic gap is opening up to separate a younger generation - brought up on a mixture of US television, films and music, Australian soap operas and rave culture - from the rest of the population. (That is, anyone over about 35). The tendency of British teeangers to raise intonation at the end of a sentence, as if leaving a question hovering to the listener, has been blamed on Neighbours, the Melbourne-based soap opera. Barbara Bradford herself is open-minded about the causes, but doesn't exclude the possiblity of Aussie influence.

"Most young people have watched these programmes, which contain attractive lives - surfing, bronzed bodies and an easy lifestyle," she says. The taped conversations that provided the strongest evidence for her theory were of a group of British 18-to-26-year-olds who had spent time together abroad with the adventure charity Raleigh International.

"Travelling might have something to do with it, but when I went to Bush House yesterday the girl who took me up in the lift was doing it as well. It may be something to do with groups working together. It may be very much a bonding thing. When they came back home and were separated - my daughter was one of them - she stopped doing it."

Ms Bradford played a segment of the tape, in which a girl says: "We went on two-or-three-night safaris. There's actually elephant prints, like an elephant highway, right the way through near where our camp was."

Read this aloud, raising the intonation on the italicised words, and you may well sound horribly like a Shane or Kylie addressing a small child, or else like an extra from Baywatch. Yet it is arguably American culture that has more greatly afflicted inflection. It has certainly had a greater bearing on slang and "fillers" than any other single influence. The traditional British sentential links such as "you know", or the use of "sort of" as three dots in mid-sentence, have been commonly replaced by "like", as in: "I'm like, interested in reading, but not like - that much", or in reported speech: "She said to me, `you idiot', and I'm like, `what did you call me?'"

This can infuriate parents, among them the writer and royal biographer Anthony Holden, father of three teenagers. "It really bugs me when one of the kids says, `I'm like going down the pub, Dad, like, with a few of my friends.' It's so lazy. But I think Tarantino is the guilty man, not the Australians. He's currently filming Macbeth, and one shudders to think what he will come up with: `I'm like, in blood steeped so far...' Or, `So foul and fair a day I have not seen'."

But according to David Rosewarne, senior lecturer in English at Kingsway College and the man who identified "Estuary English", the young are simply more prone to Americanisms than the rest. We are all now more likely to say "there you go", instead of "there you are", and, on the telephone, "who is this?", rather than "who's speaking?"

"I wouldn't say TV is the number one influence. The number one influence is the people you knock around with. If you are in a group where there is something to be gained by being a member you will use the terminology that will endear you to the group," he comments.

Younger people are not only more keen to be accepted but aim to exclude their elders by their argot. Val Bynner, a local government officer, recalls when everything her two children referred to was "lame", or "wicked".

"It was a problem when they were younger and we had arguments about the way they spoke. I felt it was part of a general sort of attitude that was quite nasty to parents and their generation - that they are not interesting and not worth listening to. And it worries me that there is such strong cultural influence that has nothing to do with their real experience or people they know, it's completely false."

Her daughter now returns from university in Glasgow with a distinct Scottish lilt. "She says that Scots assume anyone with an English accent is upper middle class" This trait is known by linguists as "accommodation", and is particularly common among the southern middle classes. It can leave sons of Hampstead describing home as 'Ampstead, while `t's are dropped into the gutter and dipthongs are flattened like pigeons under the wheels of a Ford Escort. The grown-ups just don't understand that in an environment where rich and poor and black and white mix, World Service tones are liable to get you duffed up, or at least left in the cold.

And, according to a group of sixth-formers at Haverstock Comprehensive in Chalk Farm, London, the phrase that annoys parents most is "innit". Though a bastardisation of "isn't it", "innit" is an invariable, that is, it can be used as a reflection on any statement, as in: "Ruud Gullit's a boss player, innit".

David Rosewarne has a theory that it derives from English as spoken by some Indians, struggling with pronouns, who tended to use "isn't it" in the same manner. For example: "He did very well, isn't it?" But whatever the origins, it irritates the hell out of the mother of Dan, a 17-year- old at Haverstock.

"My mum always says to me, `speak in English'. If I say `innit' or summink like that, she always like sort of pulls me back and says, `you have to start again'." Dan was the first in the group to speak and did so in a voice straight out of EastEnders, but as the conversation progressed, and we discussed how accents need to be adapted, he used what one can only presume is his natural, middle class accent.

Will, 16, was actually more consistent, but explained: "If you're speaking with people who have got a quite strong London accent, you'll slip into that. If you're speaking with people who are well spoken, you'll slip into that. It's not a conscious decision, it just happens." None of the Haverstock group, by the way, raise their intonation, and all scorn Aussie slang.

The desire to play down privileged origins means middle class kids ask one another for a "salmon" ("salmon and trout" equals "snout" in Cockney rhyming slang), and asserting their approval with the phrases "pukkah" or "sweet as a nut".

Mock Cockney, or Mockney as it's known, began in the late Seventies when punk was the thing and being rich was not. At the same time black culture - first reggae, then hip-hop - became desirable, with the unfortunate consequence of plummy public schoolboys, particularly around the Notting Hill area of west London, addressing each other with "Yo, Jasper", or "Later, Matthew", as the Bronx met Charterhouse. Experts agree that this sort of behaviour falls away around the age of 25, along with the need to impress others.

Rosewarne and Bradford reckon the South-east, thanks to its more dynamic clash of cultures, possesses more diverse and changeable slang than elsewhere. Lorraine Page, head of sixth form at Haverstock, might agree. Shortly after arriving from the provinces to teach in London, she was utterly bemused when a year eight child complained thus about another's behaviour: "Miss, miss, he said `your mum, your mum'." This apparently is short for "your mum is a whore/ hag/bitch" and was the worst insult in the playground repertoire. Whether it owes anything to the Spanish "y a tu madre" (literally, "and to your mother") was probably not known by its practitioners, or anyone else for that matter.

On the clubbing scene, phrases come and go in weeks. A couple of years ago clubbers across the country were encouraging each other to "keep it tidy", when intoxication or behaviour that might be regretted was imminent. In Leeds currently someone especially enjoying themselves might be said to be "large salads", or "larging it up".

The uninitiated and the elderly are not advised to dabble in such phrases or attempt to use the names of pop artists favoured by juveniles. A friend's teenage child was recently running amok in a school corridor, and was collared by a middle-aged, bearded teacher who bellowed: "Who do you think you are? Doggy Snoop Snoop?"

sounds like teen spirit

Solid, sound, wicked, sweet, sweet as a nut, top word, boss - all variants of those most mundane words, good or great

The dog's bollocks/the dog's - excellent

Bunch of arse - execrable

Mad for it - extremely keen

Well pleased/well gutted - very pleased/very upset

Safe - no problem

Large (`he's large tonight'), large salads (`he's large salads'), larging it up - a person, very probably on drugs or alcohol, particularly enjoying their night out

Right on it - on top of the situation/on the ball

Keep it tidy! - a warning to someone about to overdo it

Lame - pathetic

Wankered - extremely tired after a good night out

Moody - dodgy or fake

Your mum! - a bad insult, short for your mother is a prostitute or similar

Veg out - behave like a vegetable, relax or take it easy

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