Multicultural London English is not “Jafaican”

Brixton Tube Station

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The Telegraph’s Ed West recently published an editorial titled Jafaican may be cool but it sounds ridiculous, that I find appalling.  I respect West for having politics different from my own, but that’s no excuse for slandering a legitimate dialect of English in such a shoddy, clueless manner.

Jafaican is slang for Multicultural London English, a dialect spoken in the inner city of London which has a fair amount of Carribean influence thanks to the city’s West Indian population.  The accompanying accent is marked by vowels that are more “conservative” than those in Cockney or other types of London English.*  This makes “Jafaican” speakers coincidentally sound more like Northern English accents to my American ears, although I admit this is totally impressionistic.

Let’s get right to the meat of West’s piece, though, with this paragraph:

And I don’t think an aversion to Jafaican (fake Jamaican), which according to the Sunday Times (£, obviously) will have completely replaced Cockney by 2030, is racial. The West Indian accent from which it came is fairly pleasant, nice enough for various drink makers to use it to flog us their products. However, its by-product is rather unpleasant, sinister, idiotic and absurd.

Anybody who appears to only associate Carribean English with cheerful Jamaican bartenders doesn’t strike me as the best source of sociolinguistic commentary.  But that doesn’t stop West, who summarizes his thesis thus:

… the rise of Received Pronunciation reflected a desire by the lower-middle class and provincials to embrace the values, lifestyles and habits of the British upper-middle class. In London the adoption of Jafaican, even among the privately-educated, reflects both a lack of confidence in British cultural values and an aspiration towards some form of ghetto authenticity.

West’s argument, such as it is, is that there is something troubling about such a small “minority” (West Indians) wielding a powerful influence over London’s dialect.  Of course, Cockney itself was most likely influenced by such minorities, but I’ll let that quibble slide for now.

What’s more troubling is that West implies that one non-standard dialect of English (Cockney) is authentically British, while relegating another non-standard dialect of English (Multicultural London English) to some kind of “semi-foreign” status.  Which is frankly xenophobic hypocrisy.

Furthermore, West doesn’t expand upon his specific objections to “Jafaican.”  Does he have a problem with how West Indians have impacted the pronunciation of English in London?  If so, I hate to break it to him, but pronunciation in London English has been known to change over the past thousand years.  Even the most conservative of Cockney is quite different in 2011 than it would have been in Dicken‘s time.

On the other hand, if West objects to Multicultural London English from a prescripitivist grammarian standpoint, then why does Cockney = good, while Jafaican = bad?  Cockney ain’t no model of standard grammar.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Perhaps I’m misinterpreting West’s point, though, which is that in the “old days” the lower-classes strove “upward” toward RP, whereas now they stive “downward” toward these Caribbean-influenced varieties.  But “covert prestige” dialects (i.e. dialects that are technically lower on the social scale but adopted by higher classes for a variety of reasons) are nothing new.  Let’s not pretend that middle-class young men trying to sound like they grew up working-class is a recent phenomenon.

So, then, West objects to this specific dialect of English for reasons that are unclear.  This isn’t a writer bravely fighting against an increasingly “PC” world.  It’s just an ignorant rant.

*The details are as follows, for those with a bit more knowledge of phonetics:  the GOAT set is further back and sometimes more monopthongal in quality than in Cockney, the STRUT vowes is also more back, the onglide of KITE fronter and possibly more monophthongal as well, the FACE dipthong is closer, the MOUTH dipthong often becomes a centralized monopthong, but, going in the opposite direction from these pronunciations, the GOOSE vowel is often FRONTER than other London accents.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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16 Responses to Multicultural London English is not “Jafaican”

  1. dw says:

    The Telegraph’s Ed West recently published an editorial titled Jafaican may be cool but it sounds ridiculous, that I find appalling.

    It’s the Telegraph. Its entire business model these days is based on publishing outrageous editorials that get widely linked from blogs and then draw in web traffic. Take a look at Nile Gardiner’s rants, which make Fox News look like NPR.

    • trawicks says:

      Which is why I made judicious use of the rel=”nofollow” tag!

    • trawicks says:

      I think in an immigrant neighborhood, it’s logical that the local dialect will be influenced most by the English-speaking groups within the community. The majority of non-Carribean immigrant groups in London are South Asian or African. That would lead me to believe that the West Indians, being from English-speaking countries, would have a disproportionately large role in shaping the dialect of immigrant enclaves in the city.

    • Ed says:

      Simon Heffer, who was my least favourite journalist, has left the Telegraph now. That’s some progress.

  2. Cclinton says:

    Traditional New York English has some dialect features that originate from minority accents, so one really shouldn’t be suprised that minority accents are shaping London English.

    What’s interesting to me though is that, if his statistics are to be believed, then it is accually fairly interesting that such a small group is having such a large impact of the speech London. I wonder why that is?

    Also, to add to your list of features, Multicultural English also has major backing of velar consonants before back vowels: http://phonetic-blog.blogspot.com/2010/07/k-backing.html

  3. boynamedsue says:

    Awful comment article in the Telegraph. Sun rises next day. At least we’re better off than the Aztecs, they had to cut someone’s heart out to ensure the same result.

    Still, their cricket coverage is excellent, and they’re less unpleasant and better informed than the Times.

  4. AL says:

    I didn’t read the article, but just using terms like “pleasant” and “unpleasant, sinister, idiotic, and absurd” seems so subjective.

  5. Ed says:

    As I mentioned on John Wells’s blog about this recently, the use of monophthongs rather than diphthongs by some LME speakers makes it sound closer to Northern, Scottish and Welsh English.

    What is the typical Jamaican vowel for GOOSE? I don’t associate Jamaican English with a fronted GOOSE but then I’ve never been there.

    I’ve always thought that this old accent recording from the Northern English Pennines sounds somewhat Jamaican http://sounds.bl.uk/View.aspx?item=021M-C0908X0008XX-0200V1.xml

    • trawicks says:

      My understanding is that Jamaican GOOSE is pretty much fully backed. The fronting of GOOSE strikes one as unusual in Multicultural London English because it’s the only vowel that doesn’t seem to be influenced by Caribbean-style conservatism.

      Older accents throughout the British Isles can often sound a bit Caribbean. Cork is another accent often mentioned in the same sentence as Jamaican. A lot of it, I think, is that Caribbean Englishes are derived from older British dialects, and so shares commonalities with more conservative British dialects (like the one you link to), or other colonies that are influenced by such dialects (as in Ireland).

      • William (Foss) Richardson says:

        I thought Jafraican was a mix of Jamaican with African, so there should be an ‘r’ in there!

        There’s certainly an inverted accent snobbery with people who grew up in working class backgrounds/areas/peripheral regions and then moved and got work in office/service middle class environments in or around London/the south-east, trying to maintain the perceived ‘credibility’ of a supposed more ‘authentic’ accent.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The thing that troubles me most about West’s article is that he describes Multicultural London English as “sinister.” How on earth can an accent or dialect be “sinister”? Does West imagine MLE as a man wearing a monocle and twirling the end of his mustache around his finger, all while spooky music is playing in the background?

  7. dan says:

    The Telegraph article is pathetic and unpleasant, partly because it’s based on pure ignorance (the accent being viewed as some sort of phony affectation, rather than something that has evolved naturally like other accents) but mostly because it gives license to the kind of foul racist bile of some Telegraph message board readers that erupts like pus from an angry zit every time ethnicity is discussed.

    Thanks for responding so intelligently to such an unworthy heap of crap.

  8. Joe says:

    Hi there. I’m sorry to be an arse on my first post in your blog, but shouldn’t “Dicken’s” be “Dickens'”?

    Like Boynamedsue, I’ve always beena bit disapointed with the value of the Telegraph. Metro has much better value for money (being a free paper).

  9. Duncan Hill says:

    Title is: Multicultural London English is not “Jafaican”, but in the text you write “Jafaican is slang for Multicultural London English”.

    In fairness, very few Londoners speak Jafaican anyway, I know not one person who does, although I have heard them talk, e.g. when travelling on the train! Very amusing to hear, as it doesn’t sound like a genuine Jamaican accent, but sounds just like Ali G.

    It’s basically a fad that’s come in and spoken by a few poorly educated white London youth.

  10. Charles Everest says:

    That’s Dickens’s or Dickens’ (both pronounced Dickenzez) not Dicken’s. You don’t have to write the possessive S on Dickens, you can just use the apostrophe, but it comes after the S at the end of Dickens’ Dickens’s name. His name wasn’t Charles Dicken it was Dickens, therefore Dickens’s or Dickens’. Take is from me Charles. I remember once somebody I didn’t know came into my office and asked “Where’s Charles Desk (didn’t know how to pronounce Charles’). I said “Who’s Charles Desk?” the reply I received was “No no, where’s Charles Desk” I said, “There’s no one here called Charles Desk” he then replied “Where is the desk of Charles?” I said “OH, okay, I understand. You want to know where Charles’ (or Charles’s, but always pronounced Charlzez) desk is. It’s the first one on the right. I thought you were looking for someone named Charles Desk. I am Charles though, so how can I help you?” This was met with a confused, blank stare. Any noun or proper noun ending in S and used in the possessive can be written S’S or just S’ but that possessive S is always spoken whether or not it is written.

  11. Bill says:

    What’s funny is when you have white kids growing up in parts of London that are predominantly white (Hornchurch, Dagenham, Romford, Bromley, Upminster, Hillingdon, Richmond, etc.) putting on this dialect because they think it sounds “more real” somehow. What’s even funnier (hilarious, actually) is that kids from outside London are speaking like this now, even in places where you’d never expect to hear it (Devon, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Yorkshire – all over, really). It’s a most baffling trend indeed. It’s kind of cute but also kind of ridiculous. You have to wonder why British-Asian dialects have not had the same penetration despite being more prevalent by some distance.

    There’s a genuine dialect here, and there’s nothing wrong with the dialect itself, but there is also an increasingly laughable attempt by some kids to sound more ‘gangsta’ (which undeniably snowballed when American gangster rap became mainstream), and, although these two trends are often indistinguishable, they are most definitely different things.

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