Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Starkey's "Norman Tebbit moment"

Amid the horrific mayhem and destruction of last week's riots, there were a few moments of grim irony - David Cameron deriding the violence of the British underclass shortly before "declaring war" on gang culture, a Labour MP criticising looters for their "naked greed" having made a claim on his parliamentary expenses the year before for an £8,865 flatscreen TV, Nick Clegg propping up a government who he'd previously warned the public about as being likely to cause riots on the streets - but surely the most bizarre moment of all was historian and TV pundit, David Starkey's appearance on Newsnight last Friday in which he blamed the riots on white people turning black, before clumsily reading out the text of a BBM he said represented the broken English of a looter.

Many media commentators struggled to find the right words to describe what was going on. Were the people smashing up shops and lobbing bricks at the police protesters or looters, scum or terrorists? The Guardian wasn't sure. Were these disturbances race riots, London riots, British riots or English riots? The BBC settled for England riots, which strikes me as odd, given that England weren't even playing. Were the young people using the term feds to describe the police showing the influence of US hip hop and mimicking the antics of the LA rioters back in the early 1990s? The BBC News magazine reflected on these issues and even got some linguists and lexicographers to comment, making it a more informative and nuanced discussion than many others.

But let's go back to David Starkey and his rant on Newsnight. Back in 1996, the linguist Jean Aitchison delivered a series of lectures for the BBC on language (which can be read here or listened to here) in which she talked about the worries that exist for many people about how language changes. In one example, she quoted the then Conservative Minister Norman Tebbit making a direct link between language use and crime:

"If you allow standards to slip to the stage where good English is no better than bad English, where people turn up filthy ... at school ... all those things tend to cause people to have no standards at all, and once you lose standards then there's no imperative to stay out of crime."

So, in David Starkey's diatribe against "Jafaican" I think we have this generation's Tebbit moment. Let's look more closely at what Starkey said and unpick why it's not only racist and wrongheaded but linguistically suspect too. The Independent quotes Starkey's words as follows:

"I think what this week has shown is that profound changes have happened. There has been a profound cultural change. I have just been re-reading Enoch Powell. His prophecy was absolutely right in one sense: the Tiber didn't foam with blood, but flames lambent wrapped around Tottenham, wrapped around Clapham.

"But it wasn't intercommunal violence; this was where he was completely wrong. What has happened is that the substantial section of the chavs that you [Mr Jones] wrote about have become black. The whites have become black. 

"A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion. Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together, this language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England. This is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country. 

"Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off, so you were listening to him on radio, you would think he was white." 

What strikes me as so twisted is Starkey's leap from the assertion that "the whites have become black" to the apparent linking of  "blackness" to "violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture". At that point in his argument, he makes no attempt to draw a distinction between skin colour and culture. Later, he offers some (feeble) attempts at mitigation, perhaps when he tries to argue that not all black people - David Lammy, for example - "sound black", but it's still a reductive and idiotic argument. Why? Because in Starkey's mind black = "violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture". And your degree of blackness can be identified by the way you talk...

From a linguistic standpoint, his assertion that the "Jamaican patois" that has "intruded in England" and is used by young people involved in the riots is "wholly false" smacks of desperation. As one Twitter user @vivmondo wittily put it, "Asking David Starkey for his views on youth culture is a little like asking Lady Sovereign for her views on Elizabethan shipping law" but even so he goes ahead and gives us the benefits of his massive knowledge. And that's before he launches into his freestyle, which has been remixed for your pleasure and delight in the You Tube clip here.

As Geoff Pullum explains on Language Log, Starkey's views about the insidious influence of Jamaican patois on the native language are ill-informed and wide of the mark. What Starkey quotes in his poorly performed rap is nothing like Jamaican patois and much closer to Multicultural London English (MLE, MEYD or what some dubiously call "Jafaican"). 

Even Katherine Birbalsingh (who normally gets my goat about as much as Toby Young and Richard Littlejohn) gets it right when she says that the language Starkey is talking about is "a kind of fusion of many cultures, including Cockney East End speech. One can also hear some Jamaican influence, general working-class London influence and so on. Does Starkey really believe that Jamaicans go around saying “innit”? “Innit” has a Cockney glottal stop in it! Interestingly, this accent not only is not Jamaican, but neither is it in American gangster culture. What MTV rapper sounds like our kids?".

In yesterday's Evening Standard, Sam Leith made a slightly different point about the language of  Starkey's rant. Annoyingly, he insists on calling the variety of English in question as "Jafaican" with all its connotations of affectation and mimicry, when any good language student knows that what is emerging in London and has been developing for well over two decades is an organic form of language that has its roots in a range of different varieties brought together by contact in urban areas. He can be forgiven though as he's not a linguist and doesn't claim to be an expert on language. Plus he makes some good points elsewhere. 

Discussing Starkey's claim that "so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country" he agreed that "(Starkey) touches an anxiety more people feel than admit to" before going on to say "it's actually a class and generational anxiety. It finds its most poisonous outlet in fears about race" and concluding by saying "Prof Starkey defended his position by saying that in times like this, "plain speaking" is needed. No. Careful, precise speaking is needed". 

Wise words indeed, and all the wiser because Leith - and Birbalsingh - notice that the people who use the language Starkey so derided are actually all around us: they are our students, our own children, us, our communities, not some alien race. To mark them out as a separate group because of their "wholly false" language use is to misunderstand and misrepresent both young people and the ways in which language works.

*Edited 16.08.11 to change title after inadvertently copying Stan Carey's MacMillan blog title from yesterday. Woops!

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