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Multiethnolects as contact languages: the case for the Jamaican influence in London

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  • UserPaul Kerswill (University of York)
  • ClockThursday 04 March 2021, 16:30-18:00
  • HouseOnline.

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In North-west European cities, new varieties of established languages have emerged in the past 40 years, following rapid migration. Arrivals from other countries acquire local languages with varying levels of fluency, while their children acquire something like ‘native’ proficiency. It is these (young) people’s speech that is in focus. To varying degrees, these speakers’ varieties differ structurally from the established varieties, and the obvious question arises as to the mechanisms behind these changes (Cheshire, Nortier & Adger 2015). A well-established term for these varieties is multiethnolect, but some researchers prefer such terms as urban contact dialect (Wiese 2021). In London, the first large-scale migration after World War II was of people from the Caribbean, notably Jamaica: my overarching question will be to ask whether this group, who mostly spoke English-lexifier creoles, formed the basis for what is now known as Multicultural London English (MLE). I will take a broadly contact linguistic approach to this question, coupled with an evaluation of the relevance of demography, population history and culture (Kerswill & Torgersen 2020). I will consider the extent to which multiethnolects such as MLE are allied to creoles and to koines, that is, whether there are parallel processes involved in multiethnolect formation and the formation of either of the latter language types. In terms of demography, Trudgill’s (2004) deterministic theory of new-dialect formation is relevant, assuming as it does that frequency and intensity of contact between speakers override social factors, and that all we need to know is the language varieties involved and the relative population sizes associated with them. Since a good deal is known about the linguistic input to current multiethnolects, it makes sense to apply the determinism model in accounting for the appearance of certain features but not of others. Useful in combination with Trudgill’s model is Mufwene’s earlier Founder Effect (Mufwene 1996), which argues that a founding population of speakers has a strongly disproportionate effect on the developing dialect compared to later arrivals. I argue that, despite the fact that no ethnolinguistic group dominates in London (apart from the Anglophone one), the fact that Jamaicans arrived first and ‘set the tone’ for youth language and culture enabled Jamaican Creole items – almost all in the lexical domain – to survive in contemporary youth language. It is no coincidence that many of these items are actively used in grime and drill music, even though a high proportion of performers have West African, not Creole, language backgrounds. On the linguistic side, my conclusion is that multiethnolects share properties with other contact languages, but because of their particular patterns of development, essentially involving rapid language shift and group second-language acquisition (Winford 2017) followed immediately by a process akin to koineisation, they have unique properties.


Cheshire, J., Nortier, J and Adger, D. (2015) Emerging Multiethnolects in Europe. QMUL Occasional Papers in Linguistics. QMUL , London.

Kerswill, P. and H. Wiese (fc 2022). Introduction. In: P. Kerswill & H. Wiese (eds.) Urban contact dialects and language change: Insights from the global North and South. London: Routledge.

Kerswill, P. and E. Torgersen (2020). Tracing the origins of an urban youth vernacular: founder effects, frequency and culture in the emergence of Multicultural London English. In: K. Beaman, I. Buchstaller, S. Fox, S. Levey and J.A. Walker (eds.) Socio-grammatical Variation and Change: In Honour of Jenny Cheshire. London: Routledge, pp. 249–276.

Mufwene, S. (1996). The Founder Principle in creole genesis. Diachronica 13:1, 83‐134.

Trudgill, Peter (2004). New-dialect formation: the inevitability of colonial Englishes. Edinburgh University Press.

Wiese, H. (fc 2021). Urban contact dialects. In: The Cambridge Handbook of Language Contact.

Winford, D. (2017). The Ecology of Language and the New Englishes: toward an integrative framework. In Filppula et al., (eds.) Changing English: Global and Local Perspectives, pp. 25-56. Mouton De Gruyter.

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