Extremes Of English Language
When books are written about slang and colloquial language – and my friend Max Décharné’s delightful ‘Vulgar Tongues: An Alternative History of English Slang’ is one of the best – they tend to miss out a particularly odd form of speech patterns. A kind of ‘extreme English’ that can be heard in the films of the 1950s.
‘It’s crackers to give a rozzer the dropsy in snide’
I don’t invent any of the terminology I use in my books. Sometimes it’s picked up from friends, or I’ve overheard it. I value the richness of language over its comprehension. But I occasionally utilise the kind of dialogue one hears in old monochrome British comedies, when Cockneys still had distinctive accents, with a rounded ‘ow’ vowel and the odd habit of breaking a single syllable word into two syllables so that ‘yours’ becomes ‘yew-ers’. It’s an alien lingo, rich and visual, with quirky turns of phrase, and though it’s probably better off gone, I’m curious about it now.
‘You’re an absolute shower.’
The upper classes had their own strangled cut-glass language, marvellously made fun of in the linguistics books called ‘Fraffly’. A friend who makes TV commercials says they’re terrified of losing viewers who detect class in speech. He keeps to a safe road veering between cheeky working class and pedestrian middle-class, but avoids using upper class accents because ‘they sound old-fashioned’.
The odd linguistic corner of fifties dialogue seems to be unique. It is warm and friendly, never far from vulgarity. Classic Cockney Irene Handl had a Received Pronunciation speaking voice but was very good at playing language-mangling East End charladies. Anthony Newley, a Jewish East End singer, rolled wide vowels to stretching point, making every song distinctive and slightly odd because that particular sound was dying out. It was far more common among the lower orders, but remains hard to define. If you grew up on old British films you probably aren’t even aware that you know it.
‘Nark it and bung me the ackers’
While the argot and pronunciation of the old London streets might have vanished, a new form of speech has evolved, especially among young black and Indian Londoners. The Financial Times describes it thus; ‘A combination of slang and accent, this combines features of estuary English (a sort of diluted Cockney, relentlessly glottal-stopped) with elements of Caribbean Creoles, particularly the Jamaican patois used by the West Indian immigrants who settled in London in the 1950s and 1960s.’ There’s a huge vocabulary of words that bear no resemblance to their meaning.
Beast, Bayden and Bennin
But it’s even more complex than that because the stress-timed rhythm of English, which spaces the stresses out across a sentence, has changed to syllable-timed rhymes. This is where all syllables get equal time and stress, thus removing traditional cadence from sentences. It’s best to think of it in musical terms; sing-song harmonics changing to a steady beat. The street poetry of English is changing. We cringe when we hear someone trying to sound street cool because it sounds forced and dated instead of natural and organic.
Certainly hip-hop has brought in new words, but their shelf-life is short. West Indian street speech has slipped its reins and moved into multi-cultural speech with ease. ‘Bruv’ will be used by all but not ‘Blood’, understandably. Add this into the polyglot language of European ESLs and you get a new hybrid of London speech that is impossible to replicate in a novel simply because it will be out of date by the time the book appears. I’m sure the same phenomenon exists in every culture, which is why we all had to put subtitles on for ‘The Wire’.
The English language has always been a pungent stew of arriving and departing words and phrases. New language penetrates faster now because of television. And there’s this London snobbery, from a new slang dictionary:
Northerner – Anyone who lives outside the M25.
With the pandemic making people stay put, local reportage becomes important again. Most of the UK is defying the government and refusing to return to offices. Suburban property prices are rising fast. The old ‘Work 15 minutes from home’ rule is back. So if people reduce their travel patterns and stay put more, will we see a return to the localised speech patterns of pre-war England?