The emergence of Multicultural London English

By Nigel T Espey

Cockney, Queen’s English, Estuary English; with the variety of accents existing in the British Isles, some having developed only boroughs away from each other, it should come as no surprise that accents are adjusting to suit the times.

Photo:Picture of Indian Army victory march in London. The descendants of immigrants such as from India, as well as current immigrants, contribute to the creation of MLE. 1919.

Picture of Indian Army victory march in London. The descendants of immigrants such as from India, as well as current immigrants, contribute to the creation of MLE. 1919.

Copyright Westminster City Archives

A recent materialization of this adaptation is Multicultural London English (MLE), an accent that draws its myriad intonations not only from Cockney, but also from the parlance of the Caribbean, South Asia and West Africa.

Having emerged in the late 20th century, MLE - or “Jafaican” as it is often mockingly referred to - is the territory of younger generations, primarily in the East End. It is an interesting chimera of a dialect, incorporating not just words from other languages, but different pronunciations of English from the people who speak those other languages. This is why it is typically confused for lacklustre attempts of white London youth to mimic Jamaican accents. Hence: “Jafaican.”

Photo:Multicultural London, London's youth on a night out

Multicultural London, London's youth on a night out

Westminster City Archives

 In reality however, MLE has been found to be an earnest product of a multicultural setting. Youngsters pick it up, not because they think it is “cool,” but because they are exposed to a variety of different accents and pronunciation that are naturally internalized to adapt to a changing cultural setting.

Hence: the strange pronunciations of “home” and “food” as “hawm” and “fiyd,” but elements of the old Cockney still remain, for instance “pound” as “paand.” Further, words from other languages entirely, such as “nang,” which means “good” in Bangladeshi, are adopted as well, making the whole thing, when assembled into one sentence, nigh incomprehensible beyond inner-city London.

This linguistic obscurity was brought under public scrutiny after the 2011 England Riots. Rioters and anti-rioting communities were able to mobilize through text messages that, when intercepted, weren’t readily understandable. This is because they were offshoots of MLE, utilizing esoteric terms to refer to things like the police (“feds,” “po po”), and homes (“yards”). Both violent rioters and the communities that tried to counter them used terms learned from American popular culture and Jamaican offshoots of MLE, which brought attention to MLE’s use. Did it encourage violence? Was it overtaking traditional English? Questions like these were part of the reason why debates arose questioning the state of London accents today.

MLE has spread at what some people consider to be an alarming rate, overtaking Cockney in its traditional boroughs (where it has moved to places like Essex and Hertfordshire). In 2010, professor of sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, Paul Kerswill, estimated that Cockney would be completely gone within thirty years. Perhaps then it should come as no surprise that there have been several efforts to preserve Cockney, with people proudly claiming it as part of their heritage and organizations planning events in celebration of it.

However, dissenters claim that MLE is not uprooting Cockney, but rather is emerging from it, as if the two are adjacent steps in an evolutionary sequence. This vein of thought posits that Cockney is not threatened by MLE, but is rather part of its rebirth into a changing cultural climate. Both arguments boil down to a matter of opinion. But whichever way MLE is interpreted, it is now an undeniable part of London’s linguistic landscape. 

This page was added by Nigel T Espey on 14/11/2012.

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