From the mouths of teens
A 'perfect storm' of conditions has seen teen slang from inner-city London spread across the country. But where does this new language originate from? And, if you can't stop kids from speaking it, is there any way to decipher what the words mean?
Sunday 05 November 2006
At the back of a London bus, two teenagers are engaged in animated conversation. "Safe, man," says one. "Dis my yard. It's, laahhhk, nang, innit? What endz you from? You're looking buff in them low batties."
"Check the creps," says the other. "My bluds say the skets round here are nuff deep."
"Wasteman," responds the first, with alacrity. "You just begging now." The pair exit the vehicle, to blank stares of incomprehension.
Later, this dialogue is related to Gus, a 13-year-old who attends an inner London comprehensive; he wastes no time in decoding it.
''Safe just means hi,'' he says briskly. "Your yard is like your home, where you're from. Nang just means good. Your endz is your neighbourhood. Buff is, like, attractive. Low batties are trousers that hang really low on your waist. Creps are trainers. Bluds are your mates. Skets are sort of slutty girls. Nuff means very. Deep is the same as harsh or out of order. Wasteman is what you say to someone when you're fed up with them. And begging," he concludes, with a flourish, "means chatting rubbish."
There's more: butters means ugly, hype is excitement, bare is a lot, cotching is hanging around, and allow it is a plea to leave something or someone alone. "Everyone in my school speaks like this," says Gus, a little wearily. "It's because you hear the cool kids saying these words and then you have to do it too. You've got to know them all and you've got to keep up. Nobody wants to be uncool," he adds, with a shudder. "That's, like..."
"No, sick is good," he says patiently. "I guess it would just be, you know, deep."
Gus and his ilk have been caught up in an emerging linguistic phenomenon. Researchers have found that, while most traditional cockney speech patterns have followed traditional cockneys as they've migrated out to Essex and Kent and other points beyond the M25, teenagers in inner London, one of the world's most ethnically diverse areas, are forging a separate multi-ethnic youth-speak based on common culture rather than ethnic or social background. Multiculturalism may have become a political hot potato for everyone from Daily Mail leader writers to Trevor Phillips, but anyone passing a metropolitan playground will realise that, linguistically at least, the melting-pot patois is already a reality from Tooting to Tower Hamlets.
"It is likely that young people have been growing up in London exposed to a mixture of second-language English and varieties of English from other parts of the world, as well as local London English, and that this new variety has emerged from that mix," says Sue Fox, a language expert from London University's Queen Mary College, who's in the middle of a three-year project called Linguistics Innovators: The Language of Adolescents in London, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Fox and her colleagues have studied the speech patterns of a sample of teenagers across the capital. "One of our most interesting findings," she says, "was that we'd have groups of students from white Anglo-Saxon backgrounds, along with those of Arab, South American, Ghanaian and Portuguese descent, and they all spoke with the same dialect. But those who use it most strongly are those of second or third generation immigrant background, followed by white boys of London origin and then white girls of London origin."
The dialect is heavy with Jamaican and Afro-Caribbean inflections; words are clipped, as opposed to the cockney tendency to stretch vowels (thus face becomes fehs, as in "look a' mi fehs"), and certain words - creps, blud (thought to relate to blood, as in brother) and sket, are Jamaican in origin. This has led some in the media to invoke Ali G and Radio 1 DJ and "wigga" Tim Westwood, and dub the patois Jafaican, though Fox points out that Indian, West African, and even Australian slang (nang is an Aussie term, as is dag, meaning uncool) are just as much in evidence, as are new variants - saying raaait in lieu of right, for instance - whose origin remains obscure.
"The term Jafaican gives the impression that there's something fake about the dialect, which we would (omega) refute," she says. "As one young girl who lives in outer London said of her eight-year-old cousin who lives in inner London, 'People say he speaks like a black boy, but he just speaks like a London boy.' The message is that people are beginning to sound the same regardless of their colour or ethnic background. So we prefer to use the term Multicultural London English (MLE). It's perhaps not as catchy," she says, "but it comes closer to what we're trying to describe."
In the half-century since teenagers first came of socio-cultural age as a distinct demographic, their relationship to the rest of society can be described as a tense stand-off punctuated by howls of hormonal turbulence. "Don't laugh at a youth for his affectations," said the US essayist Logan Pearsall Smith. "He is only trying on one face after another, to find a face of his own." Over the years, the faces have included provocations ranging from skinheads to hoodies, but the advent of MLE is believed to mark the first time that teenagers have consciously used language to stake out their own territory ("I can't understand a word he's saying sometimes," bemoans Gus's mother, in perfect following-the-script style). Professor Paul Kerswill of Lancaster University, who is leading the Linguistics Innovators study, believes it's no accident that teenagers should be the early adopters of MLE.
"Adolescence is the life stage at which people most willingly take on new visible or audible symbols of group identification," he says. " Thus, fashions specific to this age group change rapidly. Fashion and music often go together, and these in turn are often associated with social class and ethnicity. The same is true of language. It's most obviously observable in terms of slang and new ways of expressing themselves, such as the substitute of 'I'm, like' for 'I said' or 'I thought' a few years ago." (This was the most blatant manifestation of Rising-Interrogative Valley-Girl speak - as in "I'm, like, so over him? But he's, like, totally bugging me?" - that was the preferred lingua franca among teenage girls before the rise of MLE). "What we're seeing with MLE is qualitatively different," continues Kerswill. "It's a real dialect rather than simply a mode of speech, and there's already evidence that it's spreading to other multicultural cities like Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester. It'll become more mainstream through force of numbers and continued migration, and because it's considered cool."
Kerswill and his fellow researchers believe a "perfect storm" of circumstances has arisen to ensure the rapid dissemination of MLE: a nexus of immigration, population mobility, and a wave of successful London garage stars (and MLE speakers) such as Lady Sovereign and Dizzee Rascal. The face of MLE could well be MIA, a Sri Lankan-born rapper raised on an estate in Hounslow, west London; her single Galang contains the refrain "London calling, speak the slang now".
"You can hear this music on a national basis," says (omega) G Money, a DJ at 1Xtra, the BBC's urban radio station. "It's not something you have to search for on the pirate networks any more. And it's definitely having an influence. I was in Watford recently and the kids there were no different to the ones you see in London. They all dress the same and they all speak the same."
The rise of MLE is happening at a time when Kerswill and his team are seeing a general trend across the UK toward dialect levelling - the process whereby people in different parts of the country sound more and more like each other as their local accents and dialects die out and everyone, from the Prime Minister downwards, speaks a form of elided-vowel Estuary English. " Dialect levelling is strongest in new towns such as Milton Keynes" says Kerswill. "Local accents - what we call dialect solidarity - tend to s urvive in close-knit communities, most of which are working class. It's interesting, for example, that Liverpool seems to be getting more scouse. Population make-up would be a factor, as well as what some linguists would call 'neighbour opposition' with its arch-rival Manchester. It's a question of identity."
Kerswill believes that levellings versus solidarities will have a bearing on the future of MLE. Concerns have already been raised about its ubiquity, with the Lilian Baylis School in Kennington, South London, banning the patois as part of a government pilot project to improve results. "We're not trying to devalue it," says Gary Phillips, the school's head. " We're trying to teach the kids that its time and place is not in the standard English world of formal essays or debates." But the crunch for MLE could come when its adherents move out of their close-knit teen community and enter the dialect-levelling world of adulthood.
"We don't quite know whether kids will un-acquire MLE as fast as they've picked it up," concedes Kerswill. "The indications are that it depends very much on people's social networks and aspirations. Those who go into university or highly-paid jobs will change their speech. Those who remain where they are will most likely retain a lot of it. Most people are doubtless somewhere in the middle, and will change to some extent. But that will open the way for MLE to lead to changes in the English language in its spoken form, at least. One conclusion that we have definitely drawn from this study," he concludes, "is that English is one of the most dynamically protean of all languages."
Back at the sharp end of the socio-linguistic coal-face, Gus would have to agree. "The words change all the time," he says wearily. " It's, like," (even in his out-of-school Standard English, he pronounces this "laaahhhkk") "you have to learn a whole new vocabulary every few months just to keep on top of it. It's like, just recently, swag now means bad."
And that's not nang?
"Allow it," he proclaims, switching effortlessly into standard MLE. "It's all getting bare swag."
Slang Dictionary Not getting props in the hood? Then read on, blud
Definition Something that's rubbish. Also used to describe being ignored
Usage "You got air"
Other terms dissed
Definition Obvious, stupid
Usage "You're so bait man"
Other terms Waste, clown
Definition Making or having lots of money
Usage "What you ballin' now?"
Other terms Flossing
Definition Lots, many and good; high in quantity and quality
Usage "I got bare jokes man"
Other terms Nuff
Usage "What's happenin' blud?"
Other terms Bredrin, fam, man dem
Definition Being insulted, publicly put-down or humiliated
Usage "You got boyed!"
Other terms Chiefed, hotted, had up
Definition Exclamation of approval, usually accompanied by "throwing" gun-shaped hands in the air to mimic some Jamaican badman's habit of firing gunshots in the air to show the DJ their approval
Usage "Brapp! Brapp! That bar was heavy!"
Other terms Zoop! Zoop!
Definition Sucking up to someone, kissing arse
Usage "Why you breading?"
Other terms On his balls
Definition Feeling the vibe
Usage "Yeah, I'm bubblin'"
Other terms On this ting
Definition Wearing something
Usage "My man's bustin' his trousers low"
Other teams Rocking, pushing
Usage "That girl is choooong, blud"
Other terms Buff, fly
Usage "I can't find my chops!"
Other terms Bling, ice, chaps
Definition Derogatory term - idiot
Usage "Shut up, clown"
Other terms Joker, wasteman/woman
Definition To kick back and relax at home alone or with close friends, to do as little as possible
Usage "I'm been cotchin' in my crib for time"
Other terms Chill
Usage "Yo, fresh creps, blood"
Other terms Kicks, boogers, sneaks
Usage "Why you cussin' for?"
Other terms Burying, burnin', ripping
Definition Something that's rubbish or that's getting no love
Usage "You're deadout"
Other terms Air, dead
Usage "I'm gonna get draw"
Other terms Weed, score, tens
Definition Being attacked or killed (originally patois for "ghost" ). Duppy can also be a derogatory term for white people
Usage "Man got duppyed"
Other terms Kill off, murked
Definition Local area, estate or neighbourhood
Usage "Grime is big on the endz"
Other terms Hood, ghetto, road
Definition Shortened way of saying something is too far away or too much of a hassle to get to. Requires extra emphasis.
Usage "Deptford is far, blud"
Other terms Long
Definition Describes the speech pattern, speed and style used when someone raps
Usage "His flow is tight, G"
Other terms Delivery
Definition Rapping without any pre-written lyrics. Nowadays used to describe lyrics that aren't in song format, not necessarily unprepared
Usage "Drop a freestyle man"
Other terms Bars, spitting
Usage "Yeah, nice garms, blud"
Other terms Threads
Definition Term for girls with not particularly nice sexual origins, but not necessarily meant as derogatory - like "birds"
Usage "I get bare gash man, for true"
Other terms Brud, link, tings, booty
Definition Genre of music indigenous to the UK, performed by the likes of Dizzee Rascal (right). Mostly mid-tempo, stripped-down, minimal style of music comprising of beats and bass with simple rhythms
Usage "Yeah, I do grime"
Other terms Eski, dark garage, sub-lo
Definition Positive term for something or someone that appears raw and tough, but not necessarily related to grime music
Usage "This beat is over grimey"
Other terms Fierce
Definition Working hard to make ends meet.
Usage "I've been grinding for time man"
Other terms On the grind, struggle, hustle
Definition A good artist with a big fan base who is getting lots of interest. Also used to describe someone who is either excited or excitable
Usage "This MC is hype!"
Other terms Blowing up
Definition Self-censoring alternative for "shit", meaning stuff. Originates from clean versions of explicit rap songs that reverse offensive words.
Usage "That's some heavy ish"
Other terms Shizzle
Definition Being robbed
Usage "My man's got jacked last night bruv"
Other terms Boyed
Definition Used as an adjective to mean ridiculous or rubbish
Usage "That show is jokes, man"
Other terms Waste
Definition Shooting a gun
Usage "He's licking off shots"
Other terms Busting, bursting, spraying
Definition Overly complicated, boring, difficult or time-consuming. Requires particular emphasis
Usage "Homework? Nah, that's long, man"
Definition Men, friends or brothers
Usage "Wait here for mandem"
Other terms Bruv, cuz, bredren
Definition Very or highly, can be used in both positive and negative contexts
Usage "Those garms are over grimey"
Other terms Bare
Definition Going to a place
Usage "Yeah, I'm gonna reach it"
Other term Touch it
Definition Often, frequently - short for regular
Usage "I juice on the regs"
Definition An MC will represent or big up their area or crew to show they have not forgotten where they have come from
Usage "I'm repping my endz, blud"
Other terms Shouts
Definition Localised area, alternative to "from the streets"
Usage "Kano is big on road"
Other terms Endz, yard
Definition Caught by the Police, arrested
Usage "I got shiffed outside the KFC"
Other terms Nabbed, Pulled up
Definition Used nowadays to mean good or very street. Derives from Jamaica's showerman crew, the notorious yardie gang
Usage "That tune is shower!"
Other terms Showerman, showerwoman
Usage "Still stacking the sterling?"
Other terms Doe, notes, queen heads, papers, paperspread
Usage "That's swag"
Other terms Waste
Definition Term of agreement
Usage "Yeah, that's for true"
Other terms For real
Definition Not very good
Usage "That's wack"
Other terms Shit, waste
Definition Insult to describe a worthless, useless or unreliable individual. Also wastewoman or wastegash
Usage "You're a wasteman"
Other terms Poomplex
Definition House, home turf. Or to mean back home in Jamaica: " back-a-yard"
Usage "I'm hitting yard now man, that long man"
Other terms Crib
Definition Young person (aged one to 18 years old)
Usage "How's your yute these days"
Other terms Minor, youngers, pickneys
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