Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The cultural capital of the urban youth

Ever wondered why some white kids in the sticks want to "talk black" when the nearest they've been to a pimped ride is their uncle's tractor, or why middle class professionals come over all geezerish when they're talking to a plumber who's come to fix their corner bath, or why some young black people in South Africa dress and talk like Californian gangstas? It's cultural capital innit?

It's an idea first put forward by the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and it relates to a commodity which someone possesses - usually money, education or connections to a social network, but possibly something less tangible too, such as "cool" or "prestige" - which others value and want. Wikipedia will tell you more here.

So it's interesting to read this article in last week's Times which explains how a particular variety of street slang spoken in working class urban areas of France is influencing the mainstream. I know this is an English Language blog, but if it's happening in France it's probably happening in some ways here too... fo shizzle.

What is it about non-standard varieties that makes Standard English users want to adopt it? And does this mean that non-standard varieties are being looked on more favourably than in the past? It's a tricky one to answer.

On one level, the middle and upper classes have always raided working class speech practices for a bit of "flavour" - hippies appropriating black American vernacular, skinheads staring at the rudebwoys, Tim Westwood being a dork - but it's often been a sort of class tourism (take some of the poor people's words for a bit of a jolly jape and then get the hell out of their ghetto, like man) in which the wealthy, comfortable classes can pick and mix before getting jobs with daddy's firm in the city. On another level, there's been a genuine cross-fertilisation of ideas and language from Joe Strummer of The Clash to recent collaborations between middle class indie rockers and grime artists like Lethal Bizzle.

So, does any of this matter? Yes and no. You still need Standard English to get ahead in this society, I would argue, but if you can code-switch into it from your normal sociolect - be that Cockney, Black British English or a multi-ethnic youth dialect (MEYD) - you'll probably be ok. And after all, there has to be something to be said for peppering your Standard English with a few markers of "realness" just to keep the middle classes on their toes...

For more on Verlan see here
For more on MEYD see here

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties and Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

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