In recent years, linguists across Europe have described new language varieties spoken by young people living in multicultural and multilingual communities of large cities. In Germany the variety is referred to as Kiezdeutsch (“neighbourhood German”), in Norway as kebabnorsk (“kebab Norwegian”), in the Netherlands as straattaal (“street language”). Professor Paul Kerswill gave a talk yesterday at Lancaster University on the UK print media representations of the London multiethnolect, Jafaican (“fake Jamaican”). The innovative features of Jafaican include, most prominently, pronunciation, vocabulary and non-standard spelling. A stereotypical utterance thus produced by a speaker of Jafaican would be, “Raaass man, me gwan me yard see me babymother/babyfather”, or in plain English, “I’m off home to my better half”.
According to Kerswill, there are two sides of the coin when it comes to media reception of Jafaican. The variety is often stigmatised and related to “bad social practices”, such as teenage abortions, stabbings and gun crime. David Starkey (in)famously related Jafaican to the 2011 riots, and, more generally, to the violent, nihilistic gangster youth culture on the rise. Right-wing populists even warn of the “dangers” of Jafaican as a potential replacement of its native British counterpart, Cockney.
More positively, many describe Jafaican as a product of natural language change, and even as cool, contemporary and classless. The London-based magazine, Time Out, humorously included Jafaican among the three dialects of London English (next to Estuarine and Mockney). The TripLingo app, a tool for deciphering slang in a number of languages, included Jafaican in the TripLingo (2012 Olympics) UK edition.
Although speakers of Jafaican have little awareness of the impact of their variety and of its exact place among the London speech communities, Jafaican seems to be opening a range of discourses. How do people establish relationships between language and social practices? What is the nature of the “backwash effect” of minority languages on the majority language? And, more generally, what is the future of multicultural language varieties? Kerswill’s research doubtlessly provides plenty food for thought.