She’d never been to China, and certainly hadn’t studied Chinese, so when Sarah Colwill, a British woman, woke up one day and suddenly found herself speaking in a heavy Chinese dialect, it was a mystery. Doctors eventually solved it, citing a bizarre medical condition called foreign accent syndrome in which the sufferer suddenly and inexplicably begins to speak in another language and accent. While that condition remains a rare anomaly, a diluted version – driven by immigration and mass media exposure rather than a neurological disorder – is reaching global epidemic levels.
Sometimes called the fake accent syndrome, it can be heard loud and clear in the malls of Dubai, on the Bollywood screen and in the leafy boroughs of London.
It’s characterised by people eschewing their native dialects in favour of an adopted one. Often this subtle speech shift occurs when many nationalities blend together in multicultural cities. Sometimes, however, people change their speech patterns consciously in an effort to sound ‘cool’, to fit in with their peers or to raise themselves above their perceived social stature.
In the UAE, there are more than 200 nationalities, and accents here contain hints of English, Arabic, Hindi and Tagalog. With so many different groups working and living closely together in the cities it is inevitable that dialects merge. Many residents were also born and educated outside the UAE and so bring with them different inflections, all of which add to the dialectic melting pot. Globally there is perhaps no better example of how speech and accents are constantly evolving in reaction to the movement of people than what we find here.
Languages are often seen as living entities. They evolve and they die. Some are more dominant than others and some are strong, while others have a short lifespan.
Most sources estimate that there are around 6,000-7,000 languages currently in use and many are endangered. The pace is somewhat debated. US linguist Michael Krauss estimated that 50 per cent of currently spoken languages will be extinct by 2100. Along with languages, smaller dialects are also disappearing. For instance Cockney in London has seen a marked reduction in speakers over the last decades and the Baltimore dialect spoken in Maryland, USA, has lost a large number of speakers.
However, as these dialects disappear they are replaced by new patterns of speech, just as diverse.
Immigration, for instance, often throws up new dialects as migrants learn second languages, which they speak in a different accent from the original. For example, Singapore and Malaysia are blending Chinese and English in ways that probably wouldn’t have been possible without globalisation. The result is so distinct it isn’t something that would cleanly fit in either language, instead sounding like a whole new pattern of speech.
While globally accents are evolving, in the workplace, where diction has a direct bearing on how speakers are perceived, dialectal homogenisation is still encouraged.
Filipino workers in Dubai secure customer service jobs because they are seen as having the most neutral accents, according to a 2011 BBC and IBM survey. Their English is easy to understand and so they secure most front desk, hospitality, reception and telephone operator jobs.
The drive to neutralise language for commercial gain is evident in any nation that has a large call-centre industry. In India, which has around 330,000 call centres in operation, workers were once trained in American and British accents. Now the preference is increasingly toward a neutral global accent. Much of the reason for this is that it allows workers to be moved around to serve various markets without additional training. By shedding accents, workers in the global service industry become more mobile.
This demand for accent-free speech has led to the creation of specialised institutes for accent neutralisation, where trainees repeat slippery sentences such as ‘Sachin’s sixes are superb’ and practise proper pronunciation; ‘Ahfrica’ not ‘Afreeka’. They also read aloud from Hollywood scripts such as Saving Private Ryan, and they learn to roll their r’s and soften their t’s.
Stephanie Davies is a behavioural psychologist and communication expert. She says that humans subconsciously judge each other by appearance and speech, even when they are trying to remain unbiased, and this has an impact on how people are perceived in the job market.
“Rightly or wrongly certain values are placed on certain communication styles,” she says. “People do not even know they are doing it on a conscious level but underneath the brain will be making evaluations based on the data it is receiving.”
It is this bias that many place subconsciously on speech patterns that has led to another manifestation of fake accent syndrome – the conscious adoption of another accent in an effort to further one’s social standing or to fit in with peers. This phenomenon predominantly affects teenagers and young people.
Examples can be heard all over the UK, America and the West. For example, the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames in the UK is quintessentially British. Ancient kings were crowned there. It sits on the banks of the famous river, boasts some of the most expensive real estate in Europe and has a history dating back more than 1,000 years. Think of a British stereotype and you’ll find it there. Red telephone boxes? Check! Fish and chip shops? Check! Statue of Queen Victoria? Check!
But when it comes to the typical upper crust British accent, something strange is happening in the borough. Mostly, the verbal soundtrack to this town is the formal clipped tones of posh Received Pronunciation with a smattering of Korean and Polish, thanks to the area’s growing immigrant population.
However, at 3.30pm each weekday when the local schools finish, the destination boards on the front of the buses that run through the town may as well read ‘Kingston, Jamaica’ as hundreds of secondary schoolchildren head home to their confused parents, bickering in an indecipherable language only they understand.
This dialect, spoken in an accent that is a hybrid of Jamaican and Californian, has spread across the British Isles like an epidemic of avian flu. It draws on influences from the West Indies to Mumbai, MTV and the Kardashians. Initially it was dubbed Multicultural London English by linguists but now, thanks to its dissemination outside the nation’s capital city, it is more accurately called Multicultural Youth English (or MYE).
This language infection usually begins when a child starts secondary school, aged 11. While the UK curriculum lists French, German and Spanish as language options, many children, exposed for the first time to large groups of older teenagers, begin to learn MYE as well. In its rawest form MYE is the faux Jamaican accent favoured mainly by boys and has been dubbed Jafaican.
A softer version, favoured by girls, draws on influences from US TV and has been called Amerifaican. It combines incomprehensible words and expressions delivered in a faux West Coast American accent. The final syllable in each sentence plunges off an intonational cliff. Vowels are stretched to breaking point and conversations become dotted with misused prepositions.
“What did you have for lunch today?”
“I had, like, lasagne.”
“Like lasagne? Do you mean cannelloni, or perhaps moussaka?”
“No, I had, like, lasagne.”
This teenspeak is dotted with words and expressions many adults are unfamiliar with. Anything exciting becomes ‘epic’, every triumph is met with an ‘ooosh’ and humour no longer merits a laugh, instead it is demarked with ‘lol’.
MYE has its own lexicon, which includes words such as blud (friend), cotch (relax) and creps (trainers). It originated in the ethnic melting pot of East London but variants have broken out all over the UK and beyond. It is heavy with inflections borrowed from many cultures; words are clipped and Indian, West African and Australian slang are also in evidence, as are new idiosyncrasies with unknown origins, such as saying ‘raaait’ instead of right.
Professor David Crystal, linguist and author of Wordsmiths and Warriors: the English-language tourist’s guide to Britain, says MYE has been formed with input from Bangladeshi and Jamaican immigrants, but it isn’t solely down to immigration. If speech were to follow the pattern of demographic change in the UK, Eastern European would be the dominant speech pattern. Instead, experts point to modern media and youth culture as the main spawning grounds for this new way of speaking.
Rap music, celebrities and movies are more influential than migration.
Teen dialects are nothing new. In the Sixties hippy speak, denoted by a drawling rising pitch at the end of sentences, spread across the English-speaking globe. In the 1980s British linguists began to notice teenage girls adopting Antipodean characteristics in their speech, as a result of the popularity of Australian TV shows such as Home and Away and Neighbours that were being shown in the UK for the first time. Popular culture has always influenced teenage speech.
“Because of its association with hip-hop, it’s heard as cool and fashionable,” says Prof Paul Kerswill, a linguistics expert at the University of York. “This leads young and some older people to pick up the slang and the style in their everyday talk, even though they may be middle class and not from the inner city.”
Teenage girls are more susceptible than others to this infectious vernacular, as Prof Crystal explains. “Groups and bonding are especially important to teenage girls, so if there is a feature that is perceived to be cool and fashionable, then you are almost certainly going to get it spreading in that particular age group. It is perfectly normal for kids to leave junior school, start senior school and switch their accent and dialect.”
And experts agree that MYE has spread faster than past teen dialects thanks largely to mobility between cities and also because of technology, which gives it a global reach and gives people access to more sources of language. Increasing numbers of children are communicating online across national boundaries and as the internet becomes more of an audiovisual medium this is bound to have a marked effect on the way MYE and other dialects travel.
This has led some to question whether languages, accents and dialects will one day disappear altogether as a result of globalisation, to be replaced by one dominant form of speech. As we become ever-reliant on the internet as a medium of communication, will we all one day all speak the same language and will it be Jafaican? The answer appears to be no.
Globalisation and the internet appear to cause diversification, rather than homogenisation.
And we needn’t be too concerned when our children start to adopt strange patterns of speech either. Studies show that teen dialects have a habit of dying out. Just give it a few years.