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Exploring Multicultural London English across Offline and Online space

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Multicultural London English across Offline-Online space

It has now been over 15 years since the ‘Linguistic Innovators’ project (2004-2006) which first identified and described an emerging multiethnolect spoken in London: ‘Multicultural London English’ (MLE; see Cheshire et al., 2008; 2011). In the years since, research has examined the social distribution and function of an array of MLE features including: pronominal man, utterance final tags innit and still (or ), and intensifiers such as bare (see inter alia Cheshire, 2013; Pichler, 2021; Núñez-Pertejo & Palacios Martínez, 2018). More recently, others scholars have drawn comparisons with other varieties spoken in ethnically diverse areas of the UK, such as Manchester and Birmingham. This has led some to argue for the emergence of a more general variety – what Drummond (2018) labels ‘Multicultural (Urban) British English’.

Previous research on MLE tends to converge on the finding that it is an “ethnically-neutral variable repertoire” (Cheshire et al., 2011: 157) and that its use is best predicted by the ethnic diversity of the speakers’ friendship networks (Cheshire et al., 2008). Indeed, for many working-class speakers in London today, MLE appears to be the unmarked Labovian vernacular, largely replacing Cockney. However, more recent research on MLE and MBE has complicated these claims (see Drummond, 2018; Gates, 2019; Ilbury, 2020)

In this talk, I explore the use of MLE (or MBE ) across offline-online space, considering the ways in which the variety has become ‘recontextualised’ (see von Mengden & Kuhle, 2020). To do this, I draw on insights from two recent projects that I have been involved in (Ilbury, 2020; Ilbury, Grieve & Hall, 2021; in prep). The first project is a blended ethnographic study of language variation in an East London youth group. In that study, I show that aspects of MLE have become enregistered with certain social practices and identities that indirectly reference ethnicity. Specifically I argue that features of MLE are stylistically recruited by individuals to express an alignment with a Black British interpretation of transatlantic ‘street cultures’ – what some have termed ‘Road culture’.

The second project is collaborative work with Jack Grieve (Birmingham) and David Hall (QMUL) that explores the spread of MLE lexis across the UK. In that project, we use a multimillion-word corpora of Tweets from 2014 to examine the geographical distribution of MLE lexis (e.g., leng, paigon, fam). By examining the frequency of MLE words across different regions, we find that not only is MLE (or MBE ) lexis strongly associated with London, particularly in areas with established African Caribbean communities, but also there is evidence for the geographical diffusion of MLE lexis in other ethnically and culturally diverse areas in England. I then go onto discuss some (proposed) mechanisms of the diffusion before considering these findings in light of claims of a broader ‘MBE’.

Concluding, I reflect on the dynamics of language variation in an era of digital culture. This leads me to argue for the utility of integrating social and digital media data in studies of sociolinguistic variation and change.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Linguistics Forum series.

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