Nang, Dekko and Dupa: How Is Immigration Changing Language In the UK?

"It doesn't matter if you're Indian, Pakistani or Jamaican, we all speak in the same accent and that goes along with clothes, music, shit like that."

by Hannah Ewens
24 February 2016, 1:10pm

Photo by Javier Izquierdo, from the piece Why England Is the Best Place Ever

As xenophobia swirls around us, there's an increasing paranoia around immigration and language in the UK: see David Cameron recently demanding that immigrants will have to demonstrate how they've improved their English after two and a half years or face deportation. Already, women who come to Britain on a five-year spousal visa have to demonstrate that they can speak basic English.

Japan is one of the largest monocultures in the world, and you can see what a lack of ethnic diversity has meant for its language, which has remained more or less identical for a thousand years. Meanwhile Google has tracked language change in London via the search tool and has found a significant shift in how we speak, with many more languages coming into use, particularly European ones. Census data from last year showed over 300 different languages being spoken in British schools. But to what extent is the English language itself changing as a result of immigration?

It's important to remember that English itself is a language that has borrowed from immigrants. "Whether you're talking about conquerors or the conquered, people have always come to Britain and left their trace on the language," explained sociolinguist Professor Sebastian Rasinger. "Normans, Romans, the French have left a substantial mark on our language. If we later look at the development of the British Empire, the English language travelled out and picked up new bits and pieces as it went along. People travelling in and out of India and parts of the Caribbean had an impact on language change, albeit not a dramatic one."

In its simplest form, one theory is that the higher the rates of immigration, the more language will change. "Language in itself is very fluid," according to Rasinger. "Like a living organism that's constantly changing and the more a language is in contact with other languages, the more likely it is that those other languages influence whichever language they're in contact with. That's true for the English language, as for many others."

Nang or nanging: meaning cool or good. Identified as part of a new inner London dialect emerging among young people as a mixture of English and Bangladeshi from 2005

Rasinger is keen to emphasise that over the past few decades, the impact that immigration has had on the English language is relatively minimal. "Immigrants bring their language with them and we quite often find that people will use their own language but not with a native English-speaking population. They'll speak it with people from their own country, or within their community."

However, this is changing, as the children of immigrants are born and raised in the country. Post-war Afro-Caribbean communities started entering the UK because there was work in Britain. From 1951 to 1961, the number of people in the country born in the West Indies grew from 15,000 to 172,000. After the fall of communism in 1989, there was a steady flow of Polish immigrants to the UK which sped up in 2004 when Poland joined the EU, opening up borders for the free movement of workers. They were initially a strong blue collar labour force, providing skill for the building trade and service sectors.

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Professor Paul Kerswill, who specialises in language and linguistic science, says that when people settle in certain areas they have to "sort it out linguistically" and acquire a way of speaking that they understand. That means adapting English, along with what they already know. And that spreads. "In some schools in London in the last few decades, you've had immigrant-descent children who are learning English as a second language alongside the first-language speakers, so non-native words end up in the latter's English as well." For example, dupa, which means 'bottom' in Polish, has come to mean 'ass', 'girl' or 'girlfriend' in some inner city circles.

"People say I speak like a black girl, but I just speak like a London girl," said 19-year-old Jay, half-white, half-Chinese, born and raised in Peckham. "It doesn't matter if you're Indian, Pakistani or Jamaican, we all speak in the same accent and that goes along with clothes, music, shit like that." It's fresh creps, blud, bare, chatting breeze. Language experts call this phenomenon MLE, or Multicultural London English, a term coined by Kerswill and a colleague 15 years ago. When environments become more ethnically diverse, people begin to sound the same, regardless of their own ethnic background. The birth of MLE is thought to mark the first time teens have consciously used language to stake out their own territory. From London, MLE has spread to other multicultural cities, such as Birmingham and Bristol. It's not just slang, it's a whole dialect.

Pukka: meaning first class or genuine. From the Hindi word pakkā meaning ripe or cooked. Popular throughout the nineties

"We think it probably was started by black communities," explained Kerswill. "It's an accent as well as slang. The first people to use it were Afro-Caribbean. Nowadays, all ethnic communities use it in east or south London, and white kids too. It's not ethnically marked. We've got some recordings of different ethnicities of young people speaking, and asked other Londoners what the ethnicity of the person is, and they can't tell. It's highly mixed, it's not racially determined. It depends on your social networks, who you know, who you go to school with." In his 2012 paper 'Green MLE', Dr Jonathon Green likens it to Cockney in its uniqueness and spread.

Music has been a huge driver of this language evolution. "In London you've had waves of Afro-Carribean music coming in and merging with the local music industry, creating things like ska, for instance. In the last 15 years, you've had grime," said Kerswill.

KC, a 21-year-old ULU student from Tower Hamlets, explained that grime was where he and his brothers picked up slang. "Skepta, Wiley, all these big names were a massive influence on us and everyone around here. They're from these ends and there's that connection there. Then you see how mainstream they are now – those lines, words are spreading across the whole of the UK."

What we don't know about MLE is whether it's here to stay. Teenagers are the first to pick up and quickly drop trends. "It could just be something that young people do and then grow out of it," said Kerswill. "It hasn't been around quite long enough yet to know one way or another. What we are fairly certain of is that people stop using slang when they grow up. Once they hit 25 or 30, they just stop using it. However, the characteristic accent is another thing. It should remain part of the general sound of London English. Will 40-somethings use it? Sixty-somethings? I think the answer will be yes, there will be traces. When we're in our late teenage years, we lose the ability to change our accent, so teens should be hardwired by that point."

Dekko: meaning look or peep; example, "Give that girl a dekko". From the Hindi dekho meaning to look and dekhnā to see

What about more recent immigration trends? What about Poland? As Kerswill points out, there haven't been any studies on Poles and language in almost a decade – and those who were studied all that time ago were only learning English as a second language at that point. The first generation of English-born Poles haven't yet grown up. When this happens, Kerswill explained, we'll have a better picture of what the eastern European influence has been.

Ultimately, if there is any significant change to the English language, it is likely to be so slow that we'll be too dead to know about it. According to Rasinger, "Huge changes to language generally take a very long time. If you're looking at major changes to the English pronunciation or grammar, we're talking 100, 200... in some cases, 500 years. It's not something that happens overnight."

It's impossible to know in which direction it will go, either. "It depends what happens to migration in this country in the next 100 years," Kerswill said. "With the Syrian refugees, all of a sudden there's a new picture. If we end up taking as many refugees as Germany, we'll have many more people learning English as a second language and then transmitting that to their kids. That could change things for the longer term."


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