Jafaican: “Ali G would understand it perfectly”

aliG1In 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.

Kerswill

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2 Responses to Jafaican: “Ali G would understand it perfectly”

  1. Paul Kerswill says:

    Thank you Morana for your post! Just a couple of comments would be helpful, I think. It’s important to note that ‘Jafaican’ originally referred only to ‘somebody pretending to be Jamaican through style, music or language’, while the media’s current meaning is clearly ‘multicultural language variety or style used by young people in parts of London’. The trouble is that the internal shape of the word ‘Jafaican’ reminds us of its roots as ‘fake Jamaican’. This allows commentators to insist on the Jamaicanness of the language, and so you get the quote you’ve mentioned in your post. This quote looks like pure Jamaican, and not the speech of any Londoner except somebody with close Jamaican connections! A related issue is that the term ‘Jafaican’ isn’t used by any of the users (or at least it wasn’t a few years ago). It was probably unknown to them, and certainly unknown to us, at the time of the first newspaper report of ‘Jafaican’ in April 2006. We’ve always stuck by ‘Multicultural London English’, which is a mouthful. But you’re absolutely right that the media, and other public organisations and individuals, have drawn a link between this variety/style and ‘gangsta’ culture. David Starkey took this a stage further by saying the language was both foreign and harmful to British culture. The fact that Multicultural London English goes by the name ‘Jafaican’ in the press may well have contributed to this link.

  2. Lottie says:

    I wonder if it has roots in Ska. Anyway, Ali G’s interview with Andy Rooney is hilarious.

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