oi! just you mind your language

by Matthew Bell

Published in Midweek, a London freesheet, 8 Jan 1999

Back in the seventies, game show stalwart Lorraine Chase starred in a television advert for Campari. Lorraine's act -- and it got her a lot of work -- was that she was tall, slim and glamorous but sounded as common as muck.

In the ad, set in an exotic holiday location, a Latin smoothie asked her if she had "truly wafted in from paradise". Lorraine replied, in what would now be termed "estuary English", "nah, Luton Airport". The nation fell about laughing. Along with John Inman's camp "I'm free" from Are you Being Served?, "nah, Luton Airport" was probably the defining catchphrase of the seventies.

Fortunately times have changed. Nineties Britain, while not classless, is less hung up on the way people speak. The clipped, cut-glass language of old British films, say Brief Encounter, now seems a world away from how people speak today. But twenty odd years ago this was how many people on television still spoke. People worked themselves into a lather about declining standards of speech. The mangled vowels of Janet Street-Porter, then starting her TV career, were seen as a sign of the end of civilisation. The barbarians were at the gates.

Londoners were portrayed as loveable cockney characters speaking in an odd mix of Dickensian London with a bit of rhyming slang thrown in. Remember American Dick Van Dyke's wavering attempt at a London accent in Mary Poppins? It wasn't until The Sweeney and films such as The Long Good Friday that real London voices started to be commonly heard on TV and in the cinema. Voices, heaven forbid, that swore. Nowadays programme-makers know that rhyming slang and cockney - or mockney - are the preserve of wannabe Londoners.

Even on Kids' TV we now hear how kids really speak. It has finally dawned on TV chiefs that Enid Blyton is dead. Nothing is "whizzer" or "tops" any more; it's "cool", "wicked", "criss" or "sweet".

It's not only TV and film that have dragged themselves into the nineties. In the past month new editions of the New Oxford, Chambers and Collins dictionaries have been published. All attempt to be with it by including the latest popular slang words - "dweeb" (nerd), for instance - and just as importantly remove those deemed past it such as "Bobbitt". (The verb, to bobbitt, means to cut off a man's penis after Mrs Bobbitt cut off Mr B's penis in the United States a few years back). The shelf life of new words is often remarkably short.

Language is fluid. Anyone can make up a word. Any day now someone will use the verb "to Clinton", in the sense of "to have an inappropriate relationship with". Words may not stick -- I doubt whether bobbitt was much used -- but many words we now take for granted, such as teenager, were probably seen as odd or ugly when they were invented.

Words also disappear. Traditional bingo language has virtually died out over the past couple of years as the big bingo operators - Mecca and Gala - have dropped the lingo. "Two fat ladies" (88), "legs eleven" (11) and "any way you like" (69) have been consigned to the language dustbin.

And in the world of horse racing the arcane communication of the tic-tac man -- a swirl of fingers and hands to communicate an adjustment in a horse's odds -- is under threat from the computer. Under the influence of the National Lottery, most punters would rather place their bet with a machine than a human being.

Not everyone, however, is happy at the way language is evolving. Take estuary English, which seems to cause increasing offence as it overwhelms the indigenous accents of London and south-east England.

In a lecture at the British Association annual science festival in September Professor John Wells of University College London related how Estuary English is overtaking received pronunciation (RP) as the language of educated Londoners. (RP is "correct" rather than necessarily posh English -- BBC newsreaders such as Anna Ford are a good example).

Professor Wells also reckons that estuary English is leaving its London base and starting to colonise the rest of the country. While admitting that Diana, Princess of Wales spoke in an upper-class accent, he claimed that she used a much less conservative form of pronunciation than Prince Charles, who, in turn, was less conservative than the Queen. Thus from the mouth of Diana "Tuesday" became "chewsday".

Listen to many middle-class pop stars or comics on TV and you'll notice how they adopt a classless estuary English that disguises their roots in Surbiton or Harrow. Whether consciously or not, everyone wants to fit in. Few people want to be marked down as posh and language is one of the biggest giveaways.

To further thicken the alphabet soup. the 'h' is left out of words by many London West Indians. Thus a 'thief' is a 'tief' and a 'youth' is a 'yout'. In another case of wannabeism, white kids are adopting the pronunciation to increase their street cool.

But it's not only the way we speak that is changing, it's the meaning of the words themselves. A new meaning can appear from nowhere, becoming commonplace before moving into cliche and then into obsolescence. A few years back the word "tad", meaning small, seemed to be on everyone's lips. Similarly, "sad", in its modern sense of pitiful. Now both seem tired, oven outdated. A tad sad perhaps.

Many words from across the Atlantic have become so assimilated into British speech -- hangover, baby-sitter, joyride -- that few people realise they are American in origin. Give it time and words which are becoming popular but are still slang -- the American "barf" for "vomit" -- will be fully integrated into English.

Not that we should accept Americanisms unreservedly. Although much US slang is vividly descriptive, other words -- euphemisms -- are invented to obscure. Corporate America, and increasingly British firms, uses words to hide the banishes on the unacceptable face of its capitalism. Thus we have "downsizing", "derecruiting" or "delayering", which are all neologisms (posh word for a new word) to describe sacking the workers. For second-hand goods Americans use "experienced" or "pre-enjoyed", which thankfully have not taken root in Britain.

Language is endlessly inventive. Plenty of new words have been used recently to describe the battles between men and women and straight and gay. David Rowan's new book, A Glossary for the 90s, includes "feminazis" as an abusive term for hardline feminists and a whole range of words to describe some lesbians' less than wholehearted commitment to the cause including "lug", a lesbian until graduation and "hasbian", a lesbian now in a heterosexual relationship.

In Britain name-calling, like sticks and stones, hurts. But in the US, instead of keeping quiet and hoping abuse such as "dyke", "queer" and "nigger" go away, the victimised have started to reclaim these words. Hip-hop culture, for example, sprays nigger around like a gangsta rapper's Uzi and gay groups talk of queer and dyke politics.

Despite the freeing of the TV and radio airwaves to allow in the olks with their estuary Engfish and slang, civilisation has not yet crumbled. And before the priests of high culture complain of a "dumbing down" of English language and culture, they should remember that their venerated Chaucer bandied about "c--t" as if it were going out of fashion in The Canterbury Tales. It's what you say that matters; not the way you say it.

Posted on the web 1999 02 09. Thanks to John Maidment for scanning. JCW

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