Tha street tawk, innit?

In The Voice, January 26-February 1, 2017

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

– Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

(Thanks Anjali for this excellent quote)

When people criticize language use or attempt to instill a certain language use, it is often a political and ideological act. As Andersen (1988) notes, “… the standard forms are standard because they are used by people with sufficient power and control over major institutions to make their way of using language and looking at the world seem the ‘norm’.” Antonio Gramsci (1910) said it more eloquently: every time the question of the language surfaces, in one way or another, it means that a series of other problems are coming to the fore: the formation and enlargement of the governing class, the need to establish more intimate and secure relationships between the governing groups and the national-popular mass, in other words to reorganize the cultural hegemony.

In The Voice article Is Slang ruining Young People’s Chances in the Job Marketit is claimed that “…(slang) and street talk is destroying many young people’s chances in the job market because they are increasingly unable to distinguish when it’s appropriate to use it”. Goffman introduced the term ‘footing’ as ‘another way of talking about a change in our frame for events’. He describes the ability to shift footing within an interaction as ‘the capacity to jump back and forth’. Goffman notes that linguistics provides cues and markers through which we know how to behave and what to say in each shifting interaction within a conversation. A good example is given by Tannen who describes a conversation she was having with a friend on the phone. Suddenly, during the conversation her friend yelled ‘STOP, don’t do that!’. Tannen was aware her friend was directing this utterance at a dog he was looking after rather than at her. The intonation and ‘other’ voice were linguistic cues that signaled a frame shift.

Another question that needs to be asked here is whether the meaning of ‘street talk’ here follows what Graham (2000) referred to interchangeably with London Jamaican? Or is it used in the article as a synonym to slang? The Linguini feels it’s the latter. Looking closely at the terms used in the article to describe young people’s language, it is possible to discern confusion: Young people’s language is sometimes referred to as slang, at other times informal style, (in)correct English, Multicultural London English (MLE), and in other instances language is a marker of (bad) behaviour. The article mishmashes linguistic features from different emergent English varieties such as London Jamaican and London English, and MLE.


What is Multicultural London English?

Lancaster university and researchers Dr Sue Fox and Dr Jenny Cheshire explore the emergence of new varieties of English, its diffusion and acquisition. MLE is not a uniform variety, and there is no clear boundary between it and ethnically marked forms of English, such as Bangladeshi and Afro-Caribbean. In addition to the problem of demarcation are questions about how and when children acquire it – is it from parents, or older children? – and also whether people continue to use it as adults. If the latter, the route to its permanent influence on English is clear.

MLE emerged in the late 20th century and speakers of MLE come from a wide variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and live in diverse inner-city neighbourhoods such as Brent, Lambeth and Hackney. As a result, it is (arguably) regarded as a multiethnolect. Recently a research on ‘multicultural London English’ (Cheshire et al 2011) indicates that there is no ‘code-switching’ between Patois and local English, but instead shows evidence of a new ‘multiethnolect’ of (north) London children and adolescents from Anglo and non-Anglo working class backgrounds.  It has been suggested that the more ethnically diverse an adolescent’s friendship networks are, the more likely it is that they will speak MLE.

What is London Jamaican?

The articles gives man-dem’  as an example of ‘street talk’ when it is in fact a Jamaican Creole that made its way into London Jamaican. London Jamaican is based on the Jamaican Creole, a variety  mostly used by adolescents in the London area, many of whom are born in Britain. The following are some of the distinctive features of this variety (following Jenkins 2003, especially pp 100-102; Graham 2000; Sebba 1993)

Jamaican Creole grammatical features in LJ:

  • lack of case marking and other distinctions on pronouns: ‘mi’ and ‘I’ interchangeably for SE ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’; ‘im’ and ‘i’ for SE ‘he’ and ‘she’, ‘him’, ‘her’, ‘his’, ‘hers’, ‘it’, ‘its’; ‘yu’ for SE sgl. ‘you’, ‘your’. (Plural: ‘wi’ for SE ‘we’, ‘our’, ‘us’; ‘uno’ for SE ‘you’; ‘dem’ for SE ‘them’, ‘their’)
  • use of present tense for both present and past, e.g. ‘an I se’ meaning ‘and I said’;
  • elimination of tense suffixes ‘-s’, ‘-ed’, ‘-t’ and participle endings ‘-ing’, ‘-ed’, ‘-en’, e.g. ‘yu bret stink’ for ‘your breath stinks’;
  • negation with ‘no’, often with phonological changes, e.g. ‘no bret stink’ for SE ‘my breath doesn’t stink’;
  • lack of inversion in question forms, as in ‘im did phone you?’;
  • absence of the copula for SE ‘noun – to be – adjective’ constructions: as in ‘dis party well rude’
  • use of suffix ‘-dem’ added to a noun to indicate plurality: ‘man-dem’ meaning ‘men’, or a large quantity as in ‘kaan-dem’ (‘a lot of corn’).

Jamaican Creole phonological features in LJ:

  • substitution of /ð/ and /θ/ with /t/ and /d/, e.g. ‘bret’ for ‘breath’ and ‘dis’ for ‘this’;
  • labialisation when the sound /b/ is followed by certain vowels, e.g. ‘boys’ is pronounced ‘bwoys’;
  • dropping of word-final consonants, e.g. ‘bulleh’ for ‘bullet’
  • realisation of the vowel sounds /ɒ/ and /ɔ:/ as /a:/ so that ‘cloth’ becomes ‘klaat’
  • lack of weak vowels especially schwa, so that the word ‘rapper’ is pronounced /rapa/ rather than /rapə/ and ‘the’ is regularly pronounced /da/ and /di/.

Jamaican Creole lexical features of LJ:

‘mash-up’ (destroy); ‘picky-picky’ (frizzy, of hair); ‘duppy’ (ghost); ‘bombklaat’ (toilet paper)

But many words of Jamaican origin may also be used by whites and non-Caribbean blacks.

Features of London Jamaican which are also markers of London English but not Jamaican Creole:

  • the glottal stop, e.g. ‘gettho’ à /gheʡo/
  • vocalisation of dark ‘l’ (the RP sound when it does not occur before a vowel), e.g. ‘tell’ as ‘tew’, whereas in Jamaican Creole it is pronounced as clear ‘l’ (the RP sound when it occurs before a vowel)
  • substitution of /ð/ and /θ/ with /f/ and /v/ (London) alongside /t/ and /d/ (Jamaican)

‘In choosing to focus on JC [Jamaican Creole] as the model for their “Patois”, “London Jamaican” or “Street Talk”, young black adolescents are refusing to be “Standardised” and are refusing to be swallowed up by the more dominant white middle-class culture which surrounds them.’ (Graham 2000:46, quoted in Jenkins 2003:101)

In her research on MLE, Dr. Sue Fox found that inner-city Anglo adolescents converge closer to non-Anglo adolescents than to older Anglos, forming a new, multiethnolectal variety.

Register is confounded with MLE:

“Some employers have expressed concern about young job seekers sending them hasty and poorly thought-out messages replete with smiley faces and emojis from mobile devices, or using social networking sites to befriend interviewers.”

Rianna Raymond Williams, an east-London youth worker created a video to encourage young people to know that: “in the work setting, saying or doing the wrong thing can cause you to lose opportunities, alienate people or lose a job”. Here, young people’s language is talked about in terms of behaviour.


Lacking  a variety of writing skills, whether academic or formal, is not reserved to young people. Arguably, many adults around the world, English-speaking or not, produce job applications and cover letters similarly incompatible with employers’ expectations. However, the article points a blaming finger at ‘young people’, signalling them even further as an out-group. This also raises further questions: Is this group of ‘young people’ homogeneous? How do we know these young people’s lack of success could be put down to lack of language skills?

The most disturbing aspect in this article is that Williams aligns herself with a predominantly, white British hegemony, using discourse of ‘learning support’ to gain affiliation and promote a career. David Lammy, Tottenham MP is quoted as saying that he sees, “many young people not being able to use correct English”.

The debate on what is correct or incorrect is a result of misconception of a nonstandard variety, that is actually following a set of rules:

 […] it is difficult to point to a fixed and invariant kind of English that can properly be called standard language, unless we consider only the written form to be relevant. […] it seems appropriate to speak more abstractly of standardisation as an ideology, and a standard language as an idea in the mind rather than a reality – a set of abstract norms to which actual usage may conform to a greater or lesser extent  (Milroy and Milroy 1999: 18-19).

“If you use AAVE, you won’t get a good job” = if you use standard English you will get a good job. But is it ethnicity or language that prevents people from getting certain jobs?  Is the problem racist attitudes or linguistic deficit?  (adapted from Holmes, 2001:353)


Computer-mediated discourse (CMD)

Another linguistic ‘problem’ of young people is what is called ‘text messaging’ language. The perception that there is such a phenomenon as social media written language has long been debated in sociolinguistics. David Crystal, a prominent British linguist and writer, argued at the emergence of the Internet 2.0 that a new mediated discourse or language is forming.

It’s important not to overstate the difference between the ‘then and now’.(Cameron and Panovic, 2014) Is this new phenomenon the product of revolution or evolution? If we consider snail mail, today people use text messages for short-term arrangements instead of snail mail. But snail mail was not always snail-like. About a century ago in London, several postal deliveries were employed per day and short messages were written to accomplish a similar goal as today’s text messages. Marc Prensky (2001) suggests that people who were born in the digital age and grew up with it, not only communicate but think in a different way from those those without experience of digital technology. Prensky also thinks that digital communication changed the way digital natives write for academic and formal purposes. Naomi Baron (2008) links this to ‘linguistic whateverism’. From a  sociolinguistic perspective, this is not possible because language users have communicative competence. They are able to to use different styles of writing for different purposes. CMD doesn’t exist in a self-contained ‘virtual world’ and is not so different from every other discourse, internet users use a diverse set of communicative practices to accomplish different social actions.




Cameron, D. and Panovic, I. (2014) Working with written discourse. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

Sebba, Mark (1993) London Jamaican: Language Systems in Interaction, pp19-20

The author is willing to remove any content that may infringe on copyrights

7 thoughts on “Tha street tawk, innit?

  1. Hi Mira, I quite enjoyed this romp through ‘talk innit’ and all such. So I shall relate an experience while hitchhiking through southern England in 1972 (an eon before Computer-mediated discourse).
    A lorry driver provided a thorough-going discourse on his experiences in WWII, but I could scarcely work my way through the dialect. A very nice memory of some nooks and crannies off the M3. My nods and brief affirmations were all I could contribute though. 🙂
    Offshoots from German, such as Pennsylvania Deitsch and Yiddish are perfectly clear to my ear, but dialects of English do challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Bill, Your account made me laugh and nod along – apparently it’s not us – it’s them – when I first came to southern England (after almost 5 years of traipsing around Europe teaching English, mind you) I found myself, similarly to your, nodding along to a bus driver’s instructions on how to get somewhere and then having to ask someone else when the bus drove off! Do you speak Yiddish? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Mira, It’s great fun to share such experiences. No one is better at getting lost than I — once a wrong turn, many a wrong turn. So I can more than sympathize with your bus adventures. ESL is great fun. It is a genuine privilege to become acquainted with different cultures via the gift of language.
        And to arrive at an answer to your question I ended up turning it into a post 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting article. I like the quote at the beginning. I have been preparing my students for their GCSE speaking and listening assessments. They use the word ‘basically’ all the time when explaining something, and I’m in two minds about it. On the one hand, I feel they should enjoy their creative freedom to express themselves. Yet, on the other, I know it’s in their own interests to refrain from using this kind of expression, not only in GCSE assessments, but in job interviews etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tim, thanks for stopping by and sharing this interesting insight! Basically sounds like a youth marker, not a slang word as such but a linguistic feature used more in a higher frequency with younger groups of people to signal belonging to the group. Yes I agree that a prescriptive approach to language use ,i.e., telling people how to speak, is in essence a manifestation of power, and it is only powerful, hegemonic groups who can do that, outside of course a community of practice. But like you rightly said, since at the moment there is an acceptable way f speaking for example in job interviews, should we teach students to use that register?


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