Home Tech Bait, ting, certi: how UK rap changed the language of the nation

Bait, ting, certi: how UK rap changed the language of the nation

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Bait, ting, certi: how UK rap changed the language of the nation

There is a video format that is spreading on TikTok. Shot in suburban towns across England, teen interviewers stop their peers on the street, answering questions ranging from fashion choices to humorous hypotheticals and local neighborhood dramas, while building a large social media following and pitching their slice of country to the world present. “950 (pounds) for that, you know my intentions,” a white teenage boy says of his Canada Goose jacket in a video recorded in Bury St Edmunds. “We’re checking his IV, you know, you heard my man,” someone says in another video.

Both the presenters and many of the interviewees speak with this distinct accent: Multicultural London English (MLE), a dialect born in London’s African-Caribbean communities in the 1970s and 1980s. (Some now argue that ‘Black British English’ is a more appropriate term.) It is rooted in Jamaican patois with influences from Cockney, and more recently from Arabic, American and West African Pidgin English.

A primary driver of this spread – which goes beyond viral TikToks – is British rap, with drill, grime and more bringing new language styles to the corners of the country. In some cases, the entire cultural spread of MLE is contained in a single song. “I give them British slang / My brudda, my fam, my akh / You say, ‘The feds just did a sweep’ / We say, ‘The boy’s walking in my gaff,’” Central Cee rapped in a 2022 freestyle, nodding to patois, cockney and Arabic respectively – akh is an Arabic word introduced into MLE from the British Somali community, which is among both the largest Muslim and black communities in Britain. Elsewhere, West African slang and dialects have continued to creep into British rap. Drizzled on songs from the likes of Skepta, J Hus and NSG, terms such as wahala (problems), ‘let me land’ (let me finish) and juju (ancient African spiritual belief systems) are a reflection of how African communities are put together. burrow deep into British soil.

“You have quite a long history of British vernacular being exported through British cultural forms,” says Christian Ilbury, a lecturer in sociolinguistics at the University of Edinburgh – from Scouse accents in the Beatles to Arctic Monkeys and the presence of industrial worker accents. in the field of indie music. “Grime essentially became the vehicle in which we saw MLE.” Those children in the suburbs of England, he says, “don’t speak this variety because of where they grew up. They use it to align themselves with a cultural orientation that they value.”

In recent years, the audience for British rap has expanded, spilling out of the inner cities. Key to its spread was the Internet, which broke down the music industry’s traditional barriers to accessing and spreading this new way of speaking. “Social media has played a big role,” says Rob Drummond, professor of sociolinguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. “Everyone has access to everything, so it will spread faster. Young people communicate constantly via Snapchat and WhatsApp. It makes it much more immersive and immediate.”

Ilbury agrees: “With social media you get representations of MLE that transcend geographic boundaries.”

Also crucial is the special appeal of black pop culture, as defined by American writer and activist Kevin Powell in an interview with Time in September 2000: “You can’t discuss black music without taking into account its edginess… the rebellion … and the fact that the edginess and rebellion ultimately appeals to white youth just as much as it appeals to black youth.”

That dynamic took root in Britain in the 1970s, when various forms of reggae – also subversive and sometimes seen as anti-establishment – ​​became distinctly British variants of a black cool that appealed to a younger white audience.

In the early 1970s, slang in wider London revolved around “East End, white working-class jargon, with some Yiddish and some (Romance-derived queer slang) Polari,” says Tony Thorne, director of the Slang and New Language Archive. at King’s College London. Things started to change in the middle of the decade, he says, when “a lot of younger white kids got into reggae and later dancehall and dub,” and “started to pick up slang that wasn’t of the old variety.” They leaned on the patois present in the music, and then in MLE, with expressions such as ‘yard’ (house) and ‘babylon’ (establishment or police).

They leaned on the patois present in the music, and then in MLE. “Jamaican culture in London,” says Thorne, was seen as “super cool. The mods loved it, and later skinheads and punks loved it. He remembers the music spreading to the whiter suburbs of London, but not reaching any further because the genres were “not really global at all, they were still local” – and there was no internet to spread them further.

As digitally distributed British rap appeals to a wider audience, this dynamic is starting to manifest itself nationally. When grime broke out in 2014, it came with a distinct fashion sense and language – words like ‘ace’, ‘gassed’ and ‘butts’, as well as quirky clothing consisting of tracksuits and streetwear. It was more than just a genre: it was a culture. “And how do you express your alignment with grime music?” says Ilbury. “You start talking in a way that sounds like MLE.” Since then, drill and a new generation of British rappers have arrived with a similar impact: words like ting and certi (certified) are ever-present in the sound, alongside streetwear brands like Trapstar, Hoodrich and Corteiz. Ronan Bennett’s TV drama series Top Boy has also become extremely popular.

Many of the most high-profile British rappers of recent times have been men, so MLE “is often heard as extremely masculine in Britain,” Ilbury notes, and is therefore “often associated with young men.” As a result, the dialect appears to have resonated more strongly with teenage boys in the suburbs. Drummond says that the music, and therefore the language associated with it, carries with it “what we in linguistics might call a ‘secret prestige’” for young men in these regions.

During Drummond’s field studies in Manchester he noticed that the dialect was used more often by boys, while girls retained their more regional way of communicating. “Using certain ways of speaking for these young people, especially young men, is a way of expressing an identity,” he says. “But unfortunately it comes with a whole load of baggage that they may not be quite ready for yet.”

These developments raise questions about cultural appropriation. They also highlight the racially charged demonization of MLE as a language associated with “roadmen,” while “roadman” has become a synonym for low intelligence and stupidity in the increasingly popular TikTok and Instagram skits.

Linguists note that many of these young white men from central England are likely to drop their MLE as they move to a more professional environment. But MLE’s current popularity is likely to leave a lasting impression, with the dialect already becoming a standardized part of white British speech. “Even if they scale back because they get a nice, responsible job at a bank, there is still a fundamental change,” says Drummond. “It’s like a flood. A big wave comes and it dies down, but the tide is still moving that way.”

Aniefiok Ekpoudom is a writer from South London. His first book, Where We Come From: Rap, Home & Hope in Modern Britain, is a social history of British rap. In support of the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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