Prejudice surrounding youth language?

By Rob Drummond

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the ways in which some young people face prejudice because of the way they speak and use language. The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that I found myself explaining the project to someone at university who has no involvement with language or young people or anything related to the work we are doing, and framing it in the reality of linguistic prejudice seemed like an accessible way in to what we are researching. This is nothing new for me – the idea that the language of some young people is looked down upon is so central to the reasons for starting the project that it is second nature to describe it in these terms. However, what was different this time was that the person I was talking to asked what evidence I had that young people do indeed face this prejudice. I then explained about newspaper articles such as this one in the Daily Mail, and this one in the Telegraph, and of course the musings of Lindsay Johns, and she immediately seemed to be aware of the kind of things I was talking about; but she did get me thinking about what constitutes evidence in this kind of context.

The thing is, I know there is underlying prejudice in relation to the language of young people, but I am unsure how I know, or whether I just think I know. Maybe I only know because I have been looking for it – looking for articles like the ones above in which people explicitly write about the ways in which young people are making themselves unemployable due to the way they speak. But there aren’t actually that many. Sure, the ones that are there are very strongly worded, and Lindsay Johns alone does a great job of demonising urban youth language, but is that enough to claim prejudice, now, in 2015? After all, Lindsay Johns himself has been pretty quiet on the topic for the last couple of years.

Of course I could look at the online comments below the articles to get a wider viewpoint. Sure enough, these are filled with poisonous views about how ‘stupid’ young people sound these days with their ‘fake Jamaican accents’ and their ‘innits’ and ‘bluds’ and how this limits their chances of getting anywhere but the dole or prison. But does this constitute prejudice in any meaningful way? Yes, prejudice undoubtedly exists in these comments, but do the views represent actual people (as opposed to anonymous commenters) who young people will actually come into contact with? Are the views expressed here having any effect (is effect necessary for prejudice to be real)? You can find hate-filled comments against pretty much any section of society of you look hard enough online, and doing so seems a bit like cherry-picking evidence to suit your argument – something that sits uncomfortably with most researchers.

I did try (and am still trying) to gather data myself on people’s attitudes towards the language of young people by launching an online survey. While it is generating some fascinating and useful opinions, I am fully aware that the self-selecting participants are far more likely to be skewed in favour of open-mindedness when it comes to issues of language variation and change purely on the basis of the kind of people who follow me on twitter, visit this site, share the link, and are willing to take the time to respond. Or maybe I’m wrong and this is a fair reflection of society – that people generally do welcome language change, and see youth (s)language as a positive thing.

My colleague on the project noted how interesting it is that we haven’t actually come across talk of prejudice at all in our research so far. This again made me worry that I was making a big deal out of not very much. But then again, would we expect to come across prejudice, given that we have spent our time with a) young people who have generally not had to deal with job interviews yet and who do not tend to read opinion pieces in the Telegraph or the Daily Mail, and b) adults who clearly enjoy working with these young people and who are familiar with their use of language? And even if we caught up with them two years down the line – how might we expect any prejudice to manifest itself then? Do we expect them to be explicitly told they didn’t get the job because of the way they spoke in an interview? Unlikely.

So where does that leave us? I am still convinced there is an underlying prejudice towards some young people because of the way they speak. In the same way that there was (and still is, but to a lesser extent) prejudice against regional accents in the UK. Part of this belief comes from the recognition I almost always get when I explain what it is I do, and part of it comes from always being aware of comments in newspapers, online, and on twitter about the issue. Maybe I simply need to make more of an effort to collect all of these comments when I see them and build up evidence that way. I could then balance this against the generally positive views on language we get from the young people and those who work with them, and the varied responses from my own survey. Our research does not depend on there being prejudice, far from it; but if there is prejudice, it would be good to know in order that we might be able to challenge it with what we have found.

So, I’ll leave you with a small task. If you read this, and have a view, please let me know by commenting or emailing I’m especially interested in three things:

  1. Whether you feel some young people face prejudice because of the way they speak.
  2. Whether you feel I am making a mountain out of a molehill.
  3. Can you think of an approach to identify the evidence one way or another?

I should point out that I am not looking for examples of why some young people shouldn’t face prejudice because of the way they speak – we have more evidence than we know what to do with to show that young people are able to use and manipulate language in the most sophisticated ways, and that they are equally able to use contextually appropriate ‘standard’ language when they need to. I’d just like to know if the prejudice exists.

‘Youth slang’ in the official Scrabble word list

By Rob Drummond

Last week I was invited to appear on BBC Breakfast TV to discuss the fact that Collins has added 6500 new words to the official Scrabble word list. I was asked to appear simply due to the fact that I am a ‘language expert’ and this was a language-related story, but I soon realised that there was was actually something of a link to the work we are doing on this project. The fact is, of the 6500 newly added words, there were only about ten or so which kept popping up in the media stories, and almost all of these could be seen as slang, especially ‘youth’ slang. Of course this will have had a lot to do with the press release from Collins themselves, but I imagine the various media outlets could have looked a bit further if they had been inclined to do so.

So why is this particular choice of illustrative words of interest? Clearly the story was set up in no small part as a marketing strategy, and Collins must have anticipated that highlighting these sorts of words would generate the kind of outrage that would fuel the sharing and commenting needed to deem the activity a success. And they were right. If the stories themselves were relatively impartial, the comments below the stories showed honew-words-blog-header-340w unhappy some people were at this ‘dumbing down’ of Scrabble. And these opinions weren’t always restricted to the comments – the story in The Telegraph included  the following quote:

Sue Bowman, membership secretary of the British Association of Scrabble Players, said the compilation was “an abuse of the English language”.

But of course people were only responding to that small subset of new words that could be seen as modern/youth slang. Also within that list of 6500 new words is coqui, a type of tree-dwelling frog, oxazole, a type of liquid chemical compound, and vape, but these were mentioned much less in the news stories, and hardly at all in the comments. There is, after all, often a fine line between what is considered slang and what is considered jargon (sexting, hacktivist, tweep?), and the latter is infinitely more prestigious than the former.

Personally, I think the focus on words such as shizzle, lolz, obvs and ridic speaks volumes about the type of prejudice that surrounds ‘youth language’. I tried to make this point in the BBC discussion (there is rarely enough time to go into much detail) by suggesting that the reason it is the slang words that people are complaining about, despite the fact that they are used far more frequently every day than some of the other words, is purely because of which section of society they are associated with. Anyone who knows anything about the language of young people is well aware that in the hands of expert users it is no less complex or expressive than any other language. Some of these slang words have subtleties of meaning and use that are lost to outsiders, yet they are routinely dismissed as being of no value. And it is this perceived lack of value that I think is such a shame, as it reflects the extent to which young people themselves are often undervalued.

I should point out, apart from the person quoted above in The Telegraph, the real Scrabble experts seem to be in favour of the changes. For them, new words mean more ammunition in what is, after all, a game. Indeed, the scrabble expert who appeared on BBC Breakfast with me, Allan Simmons, was keen to explain how language is always changing, and that many established words would have been seen as slang at one point. And it should be remembered that these words are simply being added to the list of acceptable words in a board game, they are not necessarily being added to a dictionary as such.

All in all, the addition of a few new words in the official Scrabble word list clearly nothing to get worked up about. However, in its own small way, I think it does highlight a deep-seated linguistic prejudice in our society in which youth language is routinely looked down upon and dismissed as uneducated or ‘bad’ English.


Thoughts on Lindsay Johns and ‘Ghetto Grammar’

By Rob Drummond

Last week in my final year undergraduate Linguistics class we listened to Lindsay Johns’ 2013 contribution to BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought programme, on the subject of what he calls ‘Ghetto Grammar’. I hadn’t listened to it since around this time last year, and I’d forgotten just how much I disagree with much of what he says, as well as how he says it. My feelings against his views have probably strengthened over the last year due to the fact that I am spending more and more time working with young people from very similar backgrounds to the ones Lindsay Johns himself talks about. [I should say, I’m not the first person to comment on this programme, see for example the excellent points made by Dan Clayton here and here.]

Johns’ basic argument is that language is power, and that by using slang rather than standard English, young people in Britain’s urban centres are in danger of doing themselves a disservice when it comes to participating in the world of university and jobs. So far, so good. I can’t see anybody disagreeing with these sentiments – they show a common sense attitude towards the fact that we live in a society in which there is a more or less broadly recognisable standard form of the language, and this is the form that is expected to be used in situations such as job interviews, college applications and so on. Unfortunately, Johns goes on to provide a lot more detail.

The first target for Johns’ criticism is the language itself, which he describes as ‘moronic’ and the type of speech ‘which makes you sound like you’ve just had a frontal lobotomy’. I just don’t get this. I don’t understand how anyone can spend time with young people speaking street slang [this is Johns’ term, so I’ll use it here] and not appreciate that is has its own unique sophistication and complexity. At its best, when spoken by expert users, it is no less rich and expressive than so-called standard English. I use the term ‘expert users’ deliberately to highlight the fact that just with any variety of language, there are people who are more or less proficient in its use. Many people use standard English clumsily or in an unsophisticated way, yet they generally don’t come in for the same degree of criticism. Admittedly, some regional varieties of English come in for a hard time, yet I doubt if someone would be able to appear on a serious Radio 4 programme and claim that people from Birmingham sound like they’ve been lobotomised.

Johns also takes great delight in attacking ‘left-wing academics, liberal commentators and educators’ who assert the legitimacy of street slang. He says that

Contrary to the risible notions promulgated by cultural relativists – often white, liberal, middle class ones – notions which are deeply patronising, obnoxious and offensive, not to mention viscerally racist, of accepting black kids from Peckham speaking in inchoate street slang because they deem it to be the “authentic rhythms of Africa”, I tell my mentees “We don’t live in Timbuktu, or the south Bronx; we live in England, so speak proper English.”

Again, it’s hard to know where to start. I think I can say for absolute certain that no linguist, however relativist, white, liberal, or middle class they may be, has ever used the term ‘authentic rhythms of Africa’ to describe urban youth language. Yes, most would argue for its authenticity and legitimacy as language, but I fail to see how this is in any way racist, especially given the far from straightforward role ethnicity appears to be playing in its use. Surely the statement ‘we live in England, so speak proper English’ (whatever that might be) is far more in danger of being seen in those terms.

But in many ways, these two arguments – against the language itself and against apologisers for it – are predictable and superficial. People have always complained about the deterioration of language in the younger generations, and people (especially regular contributors to the Daily Mail and the Conservative party conference such as Johns) have always had a go at lefty liberals. What is far more damaging is Johns’ complete disregard for the notion of code-switching, or the ability of young people to be able to use standard English when necessary. [I must admit, I myself have my doubts as to the value of the term ‘code-switching’ to refer to this linguistic practice, as it implies the speaker is making a complete switch from one variety to another, just as a bilingual might do between two completely different languages. More realistically, it is a process of using particular linguistic variants or patterns of linguistic features which shift the overall nature of the variety being used. However, that is a technical point of terminology.] To disregard the idea that young people can and should be able to shift their language to be more appropriate in different contexts makes no sense at all. After all, this is precisely what most of us do all the time to a greater or lesser degree as we negotiate our way through our day to day lives. For some, especially those who by accident of birth and upbringing happen to naturally use a standard variety of English and then also work in an environment where this variety is expected, this will involve only very minor adjustments; but for others, where upbringing or home life contrasts with work life, the shifting will be more substantial. But this skill is a fundamental part of successful human communication, and it is precisely this skill that we should be encouraging young people to acquire.

Johns disagrees, and sees things very differently. Rather than encourage code-switching/shifting, he simply wants to change the way the young people who he works with in Peckham speak. Instead of seeing the inherent value in being able to adjust one’s language in order to fit the context, he wants to teach the young people to abandon their natural way of speaking and use what he sees as ‘proper English’. He sees success as being achievable by young people being able to use words such as ‘ubiquitous’, ‘judicious’, and ‘ephemeral’ in everyday conversation, and he sees acceptance of street slang as ‘a wicked betrayal of young people’. Changing the way young people speak, he argues, is the only way they will be freed from ‘ghettos of the mind’.

Once again, I don’t know anybody who would argue against the value in acquiring the ability to operate in standard English. But to encourage the abandonment of one’s own natural way of speaking (and it is a natural way of speaking, see work on Multicultural London English) in the process is a spectacularly short-sighted and potentially damaging way to go about it. Language is so inextricably linked to issues of identity, community, friendship, and social practice, that to stigmatise and attack a particular way of speaking so strongly is to stigmatise and attack the very young people who use it. This seems a very strange way to go about empowering young people – to go out of your way to denigrate the very communities of which they are part. If the overall aim is to pluck a few young people from (often deprived) urban backgrounds, get them to turn their backs on where they came from and embrace a new identity and a new way of speaking, then fine. But if the aim is to improve young people’s chances in life by giving them the skills to operate linguistically successfully in different contexts, then surely the way forward is to encourage the ability and awareness to code-switch/shift.

Lindsay Johns himself speaks very eloquently, and I have no doubt that he is the model he would like his young people to emulate. But while it would undoubtedly be advantageous for a young person to speak like Johns in a  job interview (perhaps with somewhat fewer flowery adjectives) it would simply not be appropriate for that same person to continue that way of speaking when he or she was back with their friends. And this is the point Johns fails to grasp again and again – there simply is not one singular ‘better’ way of speaking, there are ways of speaking that are more or less appropriate in any given context. Just as standard English is the favoured option in a job interview, street slang is by far the best option when the job interview is over and the young person is back to the day to day practice of interacting with, and negotiating their place in, their social networks. It is Johns’ failure to appreciate this that is betraying young people, and not their inability to use words like ‘ubiquitous’.

We live in a society in which prejudice against the way people speak is widespread and normal. But just as with any form of prejudice, the answer is not to simply accept it and change the way we behave just so we can fit in with that narrow-minded view. Surely the answer is to raise awareness as to the value of language diversity, while at the same time being realistic enough to equip all young people with the tools to successfully negotiate an imperfect world.