Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Learn to code-switch or "look like a knob"

...so says Emma Thompson, actor and ex-pupil of Camden School For Girls. Despite sounding like it should be an exclusive private school for the daughters of city bankers and royal equerries, CSFG is actually a north London comprehensive and therefore reflects - to some extent (exorbitant local house prices aside) - the social and ethnic make-up of that part of London. So when Emma Thompson went back there to a charity evening, she was struck by the slang being used by the pupils (says The Independent).

"I went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing 'likes' and 'innits?' and 'it aint's', which drives me insane," she told the Radio Times. "I told them, 'Don't do it because it makes you sound stupid and you're not stupid.' There is the necessity to have two languages – one you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity. Or you're going to sound like a knob."

Thompson's point about having two languages is a fair one, but to write off a few slang terms as  making you sound "stupid" seems to me to be a step or two too far. Fair enough, if you don't like those expressions, then you've got a right to say so, but to equate slang with stupidity is just narrow-minded. To make matters worse, Thompson then slips into her own generation's slang when she says that saying "like" and "innit" makes you "sound like a knob".

Why is it OK for Emma Thompson to mix her codes in the pages of a national publication, while it's apparently not OK for teenagers at her old school to switch codes? Sounds to me like the old prescriptivist stance that younger people's use of language is a degraded form: a crumbling castle idea, that Jean Aitchison effectively nails in her famous Reith Lectures.

The Independent has a good leader article on the story, which you can find here.


Becky S said...

It's very interesting that the furore surrounding ET's comments is largely taken from selected snippets of a Radio Times interview and, in many cases, used out of context to support certain journalists' own agendas. Good to see the media's not lost its touch at blowing things up out of all proportion ...

I can't comment in a fully informed way about this as I haven't been able to find the complete interview online, but it does seem on the face of it that it's a bit of a storm in a tea cup. I would think that the girls at ET's old school should have been speaking to her in a manner befitting any visitor to the school, i.e. in polite and professional terms. I could be wrong, but I didn't read it that she hated the terms being used per se, but disliked the frequency with which they were used, as well as thinking of her visit as an inappropriate context for that form of language.

She does, however, slightly defeat her own point by using the word 'knob', which is surely not quite the language one should be using in an interview for a family magazine!

Dan said...

Yes, that's true. In fact the early versions of the interview extracts seemed to foreground her comments about cosmetic surgery, rather than the slang things.

David Crystal, in the BBC World Service interview, says that she's talking sense - pretty much as you've suggested here - and that if we can code-switch we're ok.

It has led to some interesting discussion though, I think, with the Telegraph taking a refreshingly descriptivist stance and several people pointing out on various message boards (the TES included) that "like" is actually being used in quite new ways (as a quotative) rather than just as a filler.