Philip Hensher: Rejoice that rhyming slang is no longer 'nang'

The cockney of 30 years ago is being replaced by conspicuously multi-ethnic ways of talking
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The Independent Online

A very interesting piece of linguistic research has shown that cockney is on the move. The old-style white British dialect is being strongly influenced by immigrant communities and, in parts of London, the local dialect of white, Asian and black people is drawing from a single melting pot. The cockney of 30 or 40 years ago is being replaced by conspicuously multi-ethnic ways of talking.

It's probably not very surprising to anyone who has thought much about language, but it's interesting all the same. The influence comes in more than one way. The easiest to study is vocabulary. For instance, it is reported that young people, of whatever ethnic background, living in the East End, have started using the word "nang" to mean "cool" or "excellent".

This, we were told, was a word from "Bangladeshi", reflecting the large community of Bangladeshi immigrants which settled around Brick Lane. This piece of information suggests to me that more research needs to be done.

Apart from the fact that "Bangladeshi" is a language unknown to science, I tried out the word "nang" on my partner, whose first language is Bengali, and he had never heard it. It may be a word local to the Sylheti dialect, where most restaurant-founding Bangladeshi immigrants originally come from, or it may not be from any Bengali variant at all.

Anyway, though there is a strong possibility that, in this particular case, the researcher was having her leg pulled, it doesn't invalidate the general point. Certainly, cockney as heard in London is being reshaped not only by Indian languages but by non-English rhythms of speech.

In south London - a dialect historically distinct from east London cockney - it's very common for white youths to adopt Afro-Caribbean rhythms and pronunciations. Old-style cockneys would pronounce "the" with a "v" and a falling unemphatic "schwa" sound, the same sound of the first vowel in "orange". These days the "th" is closer to "d" and the vowel more like "ah" - a pronunciation of black origin.

I suspect, too, that the fast-spreading invariable "innit" - "I went to the shops, innit?" - is borrowed from a similar invariant question tag in Bengali. That's quite a subtle borrowing, bending English grammar into parallel forms, and though initially it just sounds incorrect, in reality it is created by a valid, different grammatical sensibility.

It is important, however, to remember that when vocabulary is borrowed, it hardly ever retains its original meaning. "Rasmallai", for instance, a word both recorded and popularised by the television show Goodness Gracious Me as a term of appreciation of a sexy woman, is actually the name of a Punjabi sweet.

Nothing shows the strangeness of such processes more clearly than a much older piece of favourite cockney slang - something which shows that it's been going on for a good deal longer than this research admits. "Pukkah", revived by Jamie Oliver, goes back a good long way. But all it means in Hindi is "ripe, mature, or cooked". In India under the Raj, the term was used for good-quality building materials as far back as 1756. It was also one of two terms for sets of weights, like avoirdupois and troy in the imperial system, the larger of the two (the other was cutcha).

From that point, it easily took on a metaphorical meaning of "authentic" or "superior" - Hobson Jobson, that marvellous 19th-century dictionary of Indian English, has plenty of examples from 1860 onwards. It was no doubt brought back by retiring English sergeant-majors and memsahibs, and was absorbed into the language in a sense quite unfamiliar to Hindi speakers.

It shouldn't be surprising that foreign languages contribute to slang and dialect as well as the formal language - and when they do so the words usually change their meaning. Khaki just means "earth" or "dust" in Hindi; that became a part of correct English, just as "pukkah" went into slang. Why some words are absorbed by one linguistic register, and some by others, is a mystery.

Cockney, like every other dialect known to man, changes constantly under a vast number of different influences. Received Pronunciation has changed in the last 50 years, so that you very rarely hear anyone say "hice" for "house". The Sheffield accent I constantly heard as a child has changed, perhaps under the influence of broadcasting; the glottal stop replacing the definite article, inadequately rendered as "I'm going to t' shops", is less universal than it was.

Exactly the same goes for cockney. The 19th-century cockney, like Sam Weller, had a consonant intermediate between "v" and "w" which did for both; that's long disappeared. Only those over 60 now pronounce "catch" as "ketch". Rhyming slang survives, if at all, only as a conscious rearguard action against these ethnic influences, and is losing the battle.

If you want to hear the old-style cockney of 30 years ago, you need to go to the suburbs and peripheral towns around London. In London itself, ways of speaking are changing, as they always have; children whose ancestors for generations have lived in Bethnal Green are finding their neighbours' vocabulary, rhythms and music irresistibly catchy, and, to their grandparents' amazement, are talking in ways they never anticipated. But then, the first man to say "pukkah" in Bow probably met with the same amazement. I find the whole thing thrilling beyond words.