Flying the flag

His infamous video now part of the Interwebz fabric, David Starkey’s “whites have become black” Newsnight melt-down (during which he sounded like a mad advert for OMO) garnered enough hubris and comment to fill Broadcasting House with carpets of Daily Mail and Telegraphs. At the core of his concerns, amongst rather extreme and obvious prejudice, was a subject more commonly expressed amongst the wider population than the commentariat realise; don’t just think the weather and house prices keep the English chatting all day long. If there’s one thing we like talking about, it’s how we talk.

Why does the English language produce such extreme reactions, instantly flinging up the shields and swords as quickly as tabloid newspaper journalists scarper towards a fishmonger with Lb. Oz signs on his stall?

In very broad-brush terms, the English language retains its strength and influence by virtue of its powerful ability to soak-up influences and alter its appearance. Very few major languages can change and alter so quickly – or to such divisive reaction amongst its native speakers. The rapid rise of communication models exacerbates the pace of change; mostly for good, keeping English as the language of sport and music, politics and business. Moreover, the language of culture, and as such the living record of how communities, their people, and ultimately their country, is developing.

That the language amongst young people in London is changing should be only a shock to journalists needing to extend columns by 200-words or more before the next print run. As traditional Cockney has moved across and out of the capital, so new ways to talk have moved in. “Hinglish”, “Jafaican”, “Caribbenglish”. Broad, solt-ov-di-urth East End accents now exist laced either with the coarse consequences of age, women and song, or the semi-conscious adoption of immigrant slang. And lo, it has been thus for generations.

We think nothing of “klutz” or “Kitsch” being naturalised English words, so why the immediate post-riot condemnation of ostensibly Black British slang, by Starkey and others? Is one assimilation less difficult to criticise than the other?

Analysing the use of certain phrases from black culture – from “safe” and “blud” to “break it down” – brings to mind one of my long standing points of reference in matters political or socio-linguistic. “Context is all”. The showing off amongst friends by younger people borrowing street slang is no more concerning than the 13 year old me flicking to page 53 of the English-French Dictionary in Mrs Cunliffe’s classes for a quick glance at the swears. As British immigrants grew older, made their homes and families here, it makes just as much sense for their language and dialects to be adopted as it would any outsider in a new town. Ever spotted accents altering your own speech in a new town? Or your almost unconscious adoption of new words or phrases after speaking to a mutual friend?

Starkey tapped into a much repeated concern amongst traditional, older generation Englishmen; that somehow, all of a sudden, what was ”our England” exists only in dreams and flashbacks as a consequence of allowing the language to adopt the traits of those who chose to learn it, share it, make it comfortable on the tongues and in their hearts. Somehow, England the place, the myth, the language, must retain its isolated state off the coast of civilisation until the right kind of revolution improves the lot of us all. It’s a stance I have never understood, and can never accept. There is a massive difference between accepting the new forms of modern English as the result of our nation’s strengths and attitudes on the one hand, and criticise the inappropriate use of the language in a disrespective manner on the other. I would rather moan at the teenage “like, you know, whatever” speech influenced by Paris Hilton, far more dangerous an influence than third-generation British Asians swapping three languages or more in beat poetry or rap.

As with any bloke getting into older years, some language use amongst people these days passes me by completely. I’m utterly lost at the speed with which the language of my teenage years has been lost to the archives, if they have indeed been recorded at all. Each generation will advance further away from the language of their parents, and their grandparents before them; there is no “English” to be protected, only the tangible exchange of sounds and words between the ages. The 2011 English riots have their causes and consequences in politics, poverty, aspiration and adversity; from which music and speech will flourish and through which the language of these islands will strengthen and grow.

Yes, the looters and murderers and thugs are prize-draw idiots who deserve criticism for their actions. Don’t try to connect too many dots – this was largely apolitical reactions to political malaise. The language of the youths who perpetrated the most violent, destructive crimes is not important. What they have to say is the manner to judge them. In trying to make politics out of patois, Starkey has shown he really is living in the past.