Decoding different ways of speaking

I talked to Lanny in a coffeeshop in Lewisham. Lanny came to the UK from Jamaica as a teenager. He lives in Greenwich but works as a coach and swim teacher all over South London.

Even though he says Cockney can be heard in South London, ‘Bermondsey’ for example, to him it is ‘more of a regional accent’. Most of all, it is an in-group language that he hears frequently, but does not use. ‘They say drum meaning their house (drum and bass – rhyming slang for place), and we will use yard which could be ‘house’ or ‘country’, which I would class as coding’.

With ‘coding’ he means using words that have a secondary, in-group meaning, ‘phrases that you would tend to use and the individual in your group is aware of what you’re saying without you saying it’. He says that this kind of implicit meaning was ‘what I had to struggle with when I came to England. English people don’t finish a sentence in the sense that ‘I’ve heard this but it’s this guess’. You have to fill in the gaps and, oftentimes, the filling-in the gap is wrong’.

Multicultural London English is what he calls ‘street language’: ‘It’s taking West Indian language, mixing it with English, mixing it with Cockney to create a feel to what is being said. In other words, I’m trying to jerk your emotions rather than for you to listen to me’.

He says, with all the ‘fam’ and ‘bro’, it’s not about what is being said, but used ‘to try to pull you in into a comfort level that I don’t like. It’s too familiar. It’s not for me’. His kids never picked it up or ‘if they did, they didn’t bring it home’, and he also made sure they didn’t speak it at home. ‘You can’t get nowhere in the world with that’, he says with a laugh.

At home, he speaks Patois with his family. And, even though he speaks fluent English, he would describe his own dialect as ‘broken English’. But what he means is ‘trying to fit the words into the different groups’, adapting to the different speech communities that he encounters every day, and to fit ‘the code’.

Lanny and me in Lewisham.
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