You’re reading Gen:Blxck, a series exploring Black culture, history, family and identity through the generations.
Sit around the dinner table with two or three generations in many Black British families, and you’ll notice differences in the way we speak. It’s these contrasts, both big and small, that make the tapestry of Black British dialect so colourful and multifaceted.
Thanks to a cultural influence that’s touched almost everything — particularly the music landscape — the impact on British language, across all demographics, is undeniable.
Surely, then, if everyone is using our quintessentially Black British sayings, our emotive expressions, and our pop culture references, code-switching is on its way out for Black Brits?
Code-switching is the term used when someone switches from one linguistic code – a language or dialect – to another, depending on the social context or setting.
Despite more knowledge of Black British vernacular, code-switching isn’t on the way out, not yet. Vulture-like consumption of Black British language doesn’t automatically equal respect, understanding, or genuine acceptance.
It’s why headlines such as The Telegraph’s ‘Wagwan? Street slang to be Britain’s main dialect’ and the Daily Mail’s ’Wagwan with our beautiful language′ hit a nerve. Published earlier this year, both received criticism for their framing of Jamaican patois.
Since ‘Wagwan’ – or ‘Wahgwarn’ – entered the mainstream, there’s an element of mockery to its use among Brits who aren’t Black, especially among the white middle class. And it’s one of the reasons why code-switching still occurs.
“There’s ample evidence to suggest that in various contexts, both social and professional, many Blacks may feel a need to code-switch from their own accent to the standard variety, in order to assimilate or be accepted into those contexts,” says Dr Calbert Graham, a linguistics researcher at the University of Cambridge.
On the flipside, Dr Graham says: “More Black people are beginning to assert their identity, by refusing to conform to these cultural norms.”
Code-switching isn’t just about assimilation into majority white settings, though. It can also be about the protection of a culture that’s gluttonously absorbed – a necessary gatekeeping, when those with sticky fingers rarely acknowledge that they’re guests sampling the cake.
If you’ve ever slipped into Black British vernacular at work, it’s not uncommon for white colleague to feel like they can start butchering “Stormzy phrases”. While slightly amusing, the undertones are uncomfortable.
Why, if and how we code-switch will be different for each Black Brit. We’re not a monolith, after all, but there are common themes.
Amina Aweis, a 24-year-old tech accessibility advocate from Ipswich, says working from home took the pressure off a bit, because feeling constantly monitored at work creates pressure to code-switch. This isn’t just about time in the office, she notes, but also after work drinks and team-building activities.
As a British Somali, she adds: “Young Black Brits are more influenced by each other on language, rather than directly or primarily by their first, or second generation parents.”
As millennials or members of Gen-Z, some of us code-switch even when talking to our own Black Gen X or boomer relatives, because our lexicon is a far cry from theirs.
“The accents across Britain testify to [cultural diversity],” says Dr Graham. “We are now embracing this diversity more and seeing it for what it is: as endemic to Britain and not just exported from somewhere else.
“Black British accents are precisely that – British, regardless of their roots. Like all other accents within the British Isles, they can be found nowhere else in the world.”
“Black Brits tend to understand each other in essence.”
Arabic phrases, popularised by British Muslims, especially British Somalis, are now entrenched in the Black British vernacular. Aweis explains: “‘It’s all mad in the dunya’ translates to ‘it’s all mad in the world.’”
I’ve got Jamaican roots, yet it’s something I’ve been saying since I was a teen. Admittedly, I thought it meant something along the lines of, ‘It’s all mad in the gaff’. Not correct, but in essence, it conveys the same thing. Aweis says my incorrect interpretation is laughably, “such a British translation of the phrase”.
“Black Brits tend to understand each other in essence, even if they’re not sure of the direct translation of a phrase,” she adds.
Similarly, Nigerian pidgin sayings, such as “I can’t come and die” — an expression about not overworking yourself — have become commonplace.
DJ and producer Kwame Safo (aka Funk Butcher), who’s of dual Nevisian and Ghanian heritage, believes young Black Brits may feel less pressure to code-switch, because their default dialects have been popularised.
“Social media bridged a gap and expanded the accepted lexicon among white audiences,” says Safo, who’s in his early 40s and based in Dalston, London.
“Pop culture has now evolved, because there’s more engagement with different aspects of it, through the likes of TikTok and Instagram. That enables young people to be a lot more comfortable in their language use.”
So, when does co-opting go too far? It comes down to context.
A lack of cultural respect, awareness of power dynamics, and history means the line between familiarity breeding contempt, and familiarity sparking unity, is a shaky one.
It’s ironic – and cringeworthy – to see Middle England pick up words and phrases they once laughed at. Even more so, because it feels symptomatic of the growing trend: cosplaying as working class, for ‘cool’ points and to bury privileged roots.
“There’s sometimes an arrogance among non-Black Brits,” says Safo. “Where they assume they know everything, because of their proximity to Black British communities.”
But once a cultural wave takes off, “it becomes difficult to police”, he says. “That sort of language starts off in Black spaces, but then it becomes a socioeconomic thing,” he adds. “It filters into the schools, and the other communities who resonate. A first generation Albanian guy I play football with sounds no different to a lot of my Black friends.”
Linguistics experts at the University of York predict Multicultural London English (MLE) — which carries huge Caribbean, West African and Southeast Asian influences — will become dominant in the South East of England by 2066. It’ll take over from Already Estuary English (AEE), which blends cockney and received pronunciation (RP).
“They’re both part of who we are.”
South Londoner Charmaine Jacobs, 46, who now lives in Folkestone, Kent, is used to switching between both. As she’s got older, she says she’s switched into using Jamaican patois “more frequently than before, often mid-sentence”.
A DJ and teacher, Jacobs doesn’t see code-switching as a desperation to fit in, or to appear “professional”. But instead, just the way somebody who grows up with multiple cultural identities communicates in different settings.
“For me, it’s about adapting to different people,” she says. “Around my cousins, all of us second generation Jamaicans, the switching between patois and cockney English ramps up.
“South London cockney and Jamaican patois were the dominant dialects around us growing up. They’re both part of who we are.”
Among her white childhood friends, she swings towards AEE again, though it’s not uncommon for white working class Gen Xers to understand the type of patois British Caribbeans might use – “naturally, because they grew up hearing it around, too.”
She points out how our voices change, unconsciously, even when we’re at home. Both Jacobs’ parents came to the UK before 18 and though her father’s Jamaican accent has stuck, her mum sounds “posh and English”. Most of the time, at least.
“Classically, an accent can come out when they’re cross,” she laughs.
Any Caribbean diaspora child can attest to this. Similarly, if I really pushed my dad’s buttons as a child, it could evoke an accent so strong, I barely understood him.
When Jacobs is teaching at a college in Folkestone, her classes are usually majority white, yet MLE is entrenched in the way her students speak. “I think it’s definitely a music influence thing, the drill, the grime,” she says.
But her students don’t always have a solid awareness of what some phrases or words really mean, even when they’re derogatory. This circles back to consumption, without awareness of your role as guest, in a space that isn’t built for you.
Among young Black Brits outside the South East, the influence of MLE is still evident, which Safo attributes to music, too. “The young, Black Scottish working class even have their own spin on this,” he says.
Common iterations of classic British sayings are often Black-influenced. Like the “Ollie, ollie, ollie” variation of the “Oggy, oggy, oggy” chant.
British veteran MC CKP accidentally birthed his version of the Cornish and Welsh rallying call within the UK rave scene. He was quite literally calling over to his friend Oliver on the mic, during a set.
The quirks and nuances of how our family members sound is comforting; a safe space, even. It’s your otherwise British-sounding Jamaican dad, randomly dropping the aitches from the start of words. Or your grandmother, who has a heavier Jamaican accent, and migrated in the 60s, adding aitches, instead. She probably shrieks, “Lord, have mercy” at the slightest inconvenience, too.
Mother tongues of Yoruba and Igbo diasporas, within the UK, are far more expansive than English. This can leave some first generation Nigerians at a momentary loss when trying to convey something the English language simply doesn’t have a word for. It’s not reductively, because their English “isn’t good enough”, but actually, because the English language is limited by comparison.
The same might be said for first generation Ghananians who speak Twi, or Zimbabweans who speak Shona. Languages from across Africa are richer than what English allows for.
Will we ever see an end to code-switching? Who knows. But the shapeshifting of language across generations of a Black British family is something worth celebrating – and protecting.