In the aftermath of the English riots of August this year, mainstream media analysts pored over the rioters' language, with special attention to social-media exchanges. There are precedents for this preoccupation with forms of speech as social markers, with British society being acutely class and accent conscious, but on this occasion, something more troubling was going on than the usual fun and games with language and social stereotypes.
A sense that a socially excluded underclass has become worryingly entrenched and that the language spoken by many of the young rioters, largely drawn from London's marginalized social housing projects, was somehow implicated. The emergence of this dialect, called Multicultural London English, or MLE, by sociolinguists and "Jafaican" by the popular media may offer insights into the accelerating globalization of Britain, the globalization of British English and decreasing social mobility.
In the days after the trouble, many commentators noted the confluence of violent destruction, nihilistic materialism and MLE. The Guardian, for example, presented an array of exhortations to riot culled from texts on Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger, including "the riots have begun ... mandem [a group of boys/young men] pullin out bats n pitbulls everywere. Join in!" and "what ever ends [neighborhoods] your from put your ballys [balaclava, bandana, face covering] on link up and cause havic."
In a live televised debate, Professor Richard Starkey, specialist in Tudor England and celebrity historian, offered an account of a white underclass that has "become black" in the context of a "violent, destructive and nihilistic gangster culture." This "blackening" of white youth is most visible, he argued, through the extensive use of a Jamaican patois "intruded" into Britain.
His comments drew a firestorm of criticism from liberal commentators and politicians, with leader of the New Labour opposition party, Ed Miliband, asserting that such comments were "absolutely outrageous" in the 21st century. There were numerous calls for sanctions. But his description of the "patois" as Jamaican was erroneous, for the dialect he referred to is homegrown and British. Yet while Starkey was undeniably wide off the mark on a few points, he articulated the concerns of many and drew attention to a language spoken by many on London streets, one that is a direct consequence of cultural globalization.
As far back as 2001, research by educationalists found that more than 300 languages and dialects were being spoken by children and teenagers in London's schools, and MLE has emerged from this this exceptionally diverse linguistic environment. More recent research, led by Paul Kerswill at Lancaster University and Jenny Cheshire at Queen Mary, University of London, claims that the new speech form is spoken in more or less the same way by young people of diverse ethnic backgrounds; this is not mere slang, but a dialect, or "multiethnolect," that emerges out of a multicultural sphere of everyday, shared, lived experiences and negotiations. MLE derives, it's suggested, from four main sources: Caribbean Creoles, most notably Jamaican - a cornerstone of London street speech for decades and the reason why many non-speakers label it as "black"; former colonial forms of English, such as those of South Asia and West Africa; Cockney, the fading dialect of the London working class; and "learner varieties," unguided second-language acquisition through friendship groups.
All of this, of course, has reignited a popular British debate about the "dumbing down" of English. But this time round, in the aftermath of riots, the stakes are high. Arguments about the coarsening of language and imprisoning effects of "restricted" language codes are emerging from unlikely sources. For example Lindsay Johns, a self-defined hiphop intellectual, argues that the youths he mentors in south London are trapped - linguistically, educationally, socially - by "ghetto grammar" and cannot "code switch" their way out. He describes a key issue from a linguistic point of view: the inability of some young people to navigate between different languages, dialects or registers of speech. Lindsay's fear is that young people who cannot do so may be psychologically trapped with a restrictive language that is more for performance than reflection.