What is the Relationship Between Language, Race & Class in London?

By Chloe Alexandria • 

Opportunity, social mobility and economic success is determined by one’s ability to fulfill the linguistic expectations of a white British society. Living in London, I often witness the ways in which English speakers are favored, seen as the norm and given access to linguistic capital. It is through the British empire and generations of European oppression and genocide that English usage has gained primacy across the globe. English is viewed as synonymous with wealth, intelligence and class which directly coincides with the history of whiteness and white supremacy.

The British educational system, media, politics and the workplace all serve to reinforce the superiority of “White Englishness” specifically in who gets to define what is professional, therefore what race, accents and in result ways of communicating are inferior, unintelligent and wrong. 

In 2021, South London School Ark All Saints Academy banned students from using Black British English in “formal learning settings”. Such linguistic racism demonstrates the reproduction of social inequality in social institutions which in this example rely on elitist, classist and anti-Black racist ideologies around Blackness and intelligence. The racial hierarchy is maintained through such policy in schools by the white professional class but also through housing, employment, healthcare, legal and economic discrimination as they continue to push “societies inferiors” into the periphery.

Historical patterns of migration shape how young people speak today. Black British English, also described by some as “Multicultural London English” has gained its dominance and usage across the United Kingdom through its pioneers within African and Caribbean communities.

Academics have linked Black British English’s origins to the migration of Black people during the 1950s post-war period and the need for a workforce to rebuild the economy after the war. However, it is important to note that Black communities have lived in the United Kingdom (UK) for generations prior dating back to the Anglo-Saxon period. Our influence goes beyond what is currently referenced in recent works around the history of language.

Transporting to the present day, obvious words which spring to mind within the lexicon of Black British English include “mandem” and “galdem” which are linked directly to Caribbean creole. Other terms such as “nuff”, “dutty” and “crep” are used in Black British English which demonstrate the undeniable influence of Jamaican Patois speakers in the UK. Black British English is also shaped by West African creole and the creativity of African communities with terms such as “Sha”, “Nyash”, “Wahala” and “abeg” illustrating the indisputable influence of African communities. Such terms are commonly used within Nigerian languages which vary in usage based on ethnic groups in Nigeria.

With the internet becoming an integral part of communication it is easy to observe the global impact of the Black diaspora on language. The African American community specifically is dominating fashion, music, film and overall all areas of popular culture, therefore it is no surprise that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) influences Black British English and how Black people all over the world speak. This is evident in the following phrases: “hatin”, “period”, “it’s giving”, “baddie”, “opp” and “bae”.

Due to the entrenched stigma around AAVE and the systematic violence directed against African American people on a daily basis, this aspect of Black British English is something I believe we should be mindful of if we use it. That being said, it’s clear who sets the trends. Black communities are constantly accused of “basterdising English,” which demonises not only our cultures and expression, but also our identities.

Being a second generation immigrant from Jamaica and Monserrat, I have often been asked to speak Jamaican Patois by non-Caribbean people around me. Growing up, I was encouraged to speak English and not speak what was considered “informal”. Regardless, I did pick up some Jamaican Patois from my parents and wider family through using the terms, “dutty”, “bare”, “mash up” and “jook,” which I regularly use in conversations today. Sadly, it feels that the classist and anti-Black racist perception and treatment of Black Jamaicans inside and outside of Jamaica has created a context in which parents like my own discourage their children from learning Jamaican Patois in hopes that they will experience success and opportunity and culturally assimilate into the ways of the white dominate group.

During university, I used to work part-time at a local museum located in the city. One day, having a conversation to pass the time, my colleague chuckled at my sadness of not being able to converse in Jamaican Patois stating “If you had a Jamaican accent they wouldn’t have hired you.” I recognise the privilege that comes with speaking English with a London-British accent and the status and immediate audience this brings.

In Secondary school, I used to speak with more Black British English and overall communicate in a way that is seen as working class phonetically. Once I graduated and went to university, I felt an immediate shift. Without explicitly realising it at the time, the drastic change in the demographic of my classmates compared to my South London school and the acceptable communication styles encouraged within higher education meant I also ended up losing that working class part of my identity in how I communicate. People would always mock students who would pronounce words like “society” and “water” with a working class twang so like a lot of my peers in certain spaces, I learnt not to.

Today, as an adult, I try my best to hold onto my identity in how I speak, my mannerisms and how I interact with those around me. Sadly, it feels as though there are aspects of my identity linguistically that are lost and I won’t be able to get back. That being said – it is important that we encourage our children, our peers and people around us to hold onto their identities in how they communicate. It is important to emphasise that we should not have to change a thing about how we interact with each other to live freely, which is fundamentally about who we are.

Chloe Alexandria is a Black Caribbean writer from London. She regularly discusses a variety of subjects through writing and video essays online. This includes social commentary, film/tv reviews and reacting to events in popular culture under the YouTube channel, “Mate, I’m Not Magic.” Politically, Chloe identifies as a working class Black feminist, which ultimately informs her opinion on a variety of subjects.