Multicultural London English and linguistic innovation

Paul Kerswill; 2, Arfaan Khan; 1, Eivind Torgersen;2

1: Queen Mary, University of London, United Kingdom 2: Lancaster University, United Kingdom


Our previous large-scale variationist study of the English of London teenagers demonstrated effects of ethnicity and geographical location on the realisation of phonetic and grammatical variables (Cheshire & Fox, 2006; Cheshire et al., in prep.; Torgersen et al., to appear). That study was concerned to test Wells’ (1982) assertion that London is the source of innovation in British English speech. Linguistic innovation was indeed found among young inner-city “non-Anglo” speakers specifically and among inner-city speakers with dense multi-ethnic friendship networks generally. We found convergence in parts of the vowel systems between inner and outer city, e.g. the anti-clockwise short vowel shift (Torgersen & Kerswill, 2004). Some features were found to be spreading to London’s hinterland, such as reduced H-dropping (Cheshire et al., in prep.) and reversal of diphthong shift (Torgersen et al., to appear). This supports the claim that London is the centre at least of accent innovation in the south-east. However, certain features were not found to be diffusing, especially near-monophthongal qualities in the vowels of FACE and GOAT, DH-stopping and the innovative quotative this is me (Cheshire et al., in prep.). These new features were only found in inner London. There was also reduced was/were levelling there (Cheshire & Fox, 2006) and non-Anglo speakers also had less was/were levelling than young Anglo speakers.

Because the set of innovative features were shared by many young inner-city speakers, regardless of ethnicity, we elected to refer to this apparently new variety, or rather set of varieties, as Multicultural London English (MLE). The linguistic, sociolinguistic and sociodemographic characteristics of MLE, as well as its acquisition, are the subject of our second large-scale London study, which extends the age range down to 4 and up to 40 years of age. In our paper, we summarise the findings of the earlier project and present new findings regarding the acquisition, diffusion and maintenance of the features across the lifespan. We conclude that the continued use of the features into adulthood is the key to understanding the influence of multicultural speech on British speech more widely.


Cheshire, Jenny & Fox, Sue (2006). New perspectives on was/were variation in London, Paper presented at NWAV35, Columbus OH.

Cheshire, Jenny, Fox, Sue, Kerswill, Paul & Torgersen, Eivind (in preparation). Ethnicity as the motor of dialect change: Innovation and levelling in London. In A. Lenz & K. Mattheier (eds.) Sociolinguistica 22. Dialektsoziologie/ Dialect Sociology/Sociologie du Dialecte. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Torgersen, Eivind & Kerswill, Paul (2004). Internal and external motivation in phonetic change: Dialect levelling outcomes for an English vowel shift. Journal of Sociolinguistics 8: 23-53.

Torgersen, Eivind, Kerswill, Paul & Fox, Sue (to appear). Reversing ‘drift’: Changes in the London diphthong system. Language Variation and Change.

Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Session: Paper session
Youth Language 1
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 13