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Multicultural London English: the rise of a new phonological variety?

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For some years now, people in England have been noticing the rise of what is sometimes called ‘talking black’ among young Londoners: there is a sound, a style, which older people associate with some sort of Jamaican influence and hip-hop. Partly it involves the adoption of youth slang by groups who do not fit the stereotypical demographic of late adolescent, working-class youth who either belong to ethnic minorities or who have ethnically mixed peer groups. In the context of the London riots of August 2011, certain commentators have castigated this way of speaking as both foreign (Jamaican) and the badge of a violent, black youth culture (rioters can be heard to speak it).

It is easy, however, to show that it is neither ‘foreign’ nor a contributory cause of the violence. Our studies show that it is a new phonological variety which actually has multiple origins arising out of a highly multilingual environment. Large-scale restructuring has taken place, with changes in the traditionally broad diphthongs of London English leading to what amounts to a reversal of ‘diphthong shift’, which was a southern continuation of the Great Vowel Shift. There is also marked syllable-timing. In the consonant system, we find the almost categorical re-instatement of /h/ in lexical words, as well as a uvular allophone of /k/ before nonhigh back vowels.

We contend that this new variety, which we call Multicultural London English (MLE), is likely to have a permanent influence on London’s English, though this is not certain so long as its speakers are still young, and so long as its use is a matter of style for a number of people. We also investigate just how ‘multicultural’ the variety is: we see speakers picking features from a ‘feature pool’ (Mufwene), but doing so in slightly different ways depending on a number of sociolinguistic factors which include ethnicity, gender and heritage language. Despite these differences, the conclusion is that MLE qualifies as a ‘new dialect’, containing the type of variation one would expect of any demographically delineated language variety.

References: Cheshire, Jenny, Kerswill, Paul, Fox, Susan & Torgersen, Eivind (2011) “Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: The emergence of Multicultural London English” Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151–196.

Kerswill, Paul. 2013a fc. Identity, ethnicity and place: the construction of youth language in London. In Auer, Peter, Martin Hilpert, Anja Stukenbrock & Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (eds) (in press). Space in language and linguistics: geographical, interactional, and cognitive perspectives (Series: linguae & litterae). Berlin: de Gruyter.

Kerswill, Paul, Torgersen, Eivind & Fox, Susan (2008). Reversing ‘drift’: Innovation and diffusion in the London diphthong system. Language Variation and Change 20: 451–491.

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