Entertainment

Toronto’s Slang Isn’t ‘New.’ It’s Black

Even when it comes to the so-called rise of our own words, credit often goes to celebrities like Drake or Lilly Singh.
October 21, 2019, 3:30pm
Drake Toronto slang
Drake often gets credited with popularizing slang from Toronto. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The way “Toronto” talks has been the subject of headlines for the past few weeks, in a terribly embarrassing way.

It began with a Vanity Fair video, followed by an article sharing the research of a University of Toronto professor, topped off with a cringe CityNews segment called “New Toronto slang growing in popularity.”

The problem is the words being discussed aren’t new—they’re not even necessarily slang. And they don’t belong to Toronto, but to Black communities within Toronto, who are notably absent from the aforementioned coverage.

The language, or “slang” for some, referred to in these conversations (including words like “ting,” “man dem," “waste yute,” “wallahi,” and “bucktee”) have origins in the languages of the city’s Black diasporic communities, particularly countries within the Caribbean and the East African region. Words like “ting” and “man dem” are borrowed from Jamaican Patois, whereas “bucktee” is Somali. Because Toronto is home to many immigrants and first-generation folks from these areas, it makes sense that these words mirror their identities.

But you wouldn’t know that from consuming most of the mainstream coverage about the language used in Toronto. In fact, the only thing you might learn is that Drake using “cyattie” is what makes it cool—a narrative that ignores the city’s less famous Black residents, from whom these words are being co-opted. Worse still is when non-Black celebrities become both the face and leaders of conversation about the topic.

With Vanity Fair’s “Lilly Singh Teaches You Canadian Slang,” the late night host primarily explains words used in Toronto, including “man dem” and “ting”. Though Singh, who is from Scarborough, briefly acknowledges the origins of some of these words, it still seems unfair that she’s been appointed the ambassador of this language, considering her documented history of appropriating and co-opting Black and Indo-Caribbean identities.

Shortly after the video was published, linguistics professor Derek Denis was profiled about “the rise of Toronto slang” in a Canadian Press article. Denis stated that when Drake uses these words, “whether people want to admit it or not, it brings a sort of pride to this city,” as if people needed Drake’s validation to be proud about their own culture. But the article failed to specifically credit Black Torontonians (in a tweet, Denis said he mentioned Black people to the reporter, but it was left out of the piece).

In the CityNews segment, reporter Maleeha Sheikh took to the streets to ask the “average Torontonian” (what does that even mean?) if they were familiar with the city’s “newest slang”. A poor attempt of mocking the language showed that none of the interviewees, including Sheikh, knew the definitions of the words, not because they were “new” but because the people interviewed weren’t Black.

So I’m left wondering, who is benefitting from this so-called ‘rise’ of Toronto slang? Not Black Torontonians, who would still be using these words even if there was no new study, no Vanity Fair video and no Drake.

Similarly to African American Vernacular English (AAVE), these words, slang for some and everyday speech for others, help texturize how Black people communicate with one another. It’s a given that non-Black people will come in contact with Black vernacular, claiming the reason they use it is because of who they grew up around—an excuse often used by Crazy Rich Asians’ star Awkwafina, who has been criticized for donning a blaccent. As Twitter user @delafro_ pointed out, many of those same people “magically revert back to standard english when they’re around their parents.” Black people may not always code switch to fit white social norms and when they don’t, there may be consequences for it.

Meanwhile, when non-Black entertainers, like Lilly Singh and Awkwafina, appropriate Black culture, they profit from it, gaining opportunities rarely extended to young comedians like DemDawg. (There are outliers though: Toronto-based YouTubers Trey and Jae Richards of 4YallE Media, who have partnered with Much to launch a web series, are among select Black comedians who have succeeded by focusing on the language used in the city.)

There are good examples of how to cover, celebrate our language, and critique the language used in Toronto. But if “slang” is considered to be an important part of Toronto’s cultural fabric, a claim that everyone seems to be flocking towards, it should be treated accordingly.

Sharine Taylor is in a perpetual state of annoyance. Follow her on Twitter.