LONDON TALKS and the Tower Hamlets community

Getting ready for the Festival of Communities

Over the last months, I have interviewed 60 Londoners about their knowledge of and experience with London dialects to find out more about how London dialects are ‘enregistered’, i.e., socially and culturally constructed, for individuals. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see hundreds of East Londoners react to the project at the QMUL Festival of Communities in Tower Hamlets.

Together with my two helpers, Caitlin and Marc, I prepared three tasks, similar in nature to the questions I ask in my interviews. We played four different audio clips of London voices to visitors to our stall and asked them to locate the speakers on a map of Greater London – a task people were extremely happy and confident to do, which was interesting to see. The result was a map full of red (Cockney voice), black (London-based RP voice), blue (MLE voice), and green (Estuary voice) circles, crosses and dots. It will be interesting to analyse the maps. However, because we couldn’t use a fresh map for each individual, it is possible that some (not all) people were influenced by the existing marks on the map. Also, a few kids, and adults, circled random areas on the map for no obvious reason and without actually listening to the clips.

With the kids, we played many rounds of ‘Guess the Cockney Rhyming Slang’, based on a memory game. They enjoyed it more than some of their parents who, in a few cases, were ‘shocked’ that their kids struggled to work out rhyming slang expressions that were so familiar to them.

We also managed to ask some of my other interview questions to visitors, who then wrote their answers on post-its… another sneaky way to collect some data for my project.

We also handed out about 450(+) badges with London slang terms, asking people which of them they used or knew. Many were smiling at the familiar (and, to them, often overused hence annoying) terms and took several badges to give to a sister, friend, or cleaner, because they associated a term with them. In one case, a lady came back to our stall saying: “I put it on my Instagram, and my friend said she wants one, too!”, but there were also some teenagers who, surprisingly, weren’t familiar with any of the slang terms, apart from innit.

I have previously noticed that contrary to many other city dialects, London dialects are not really ‘commodified’, i.e., there is no widespread merchandise involving dialect or slang terms. The London souvenir shops cater mainly for foreign tourists and there seems to be no mainstream market for dialect periphernalia signalling local identity. The success of our badges, however, suggests, that there might be a demand that hasn’t been met.

To sum up the last weekend: the turnout was great and it felt like a privilege to be able to properly connect with the Tower Hamlets community over a topic which was more interesting and engaging to people, including kids and teenagers, than I had ever imagined. The QMUL Centre for Public Engagement did an outstanding job in drawing in local families and giving back to the community that is home to the university. Seeing how it all worked out gave us many ideas for other public outreach events and I’m looking forward to next year!

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