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ON SPEAKING M.L.E.

REBECCA MEAD WRITES “Schoolchildren in the British capital have developed a dialect, Multicultural London English—and my American-born son is learning it.” This, from The New Yorker, February 6, 2022. It’s an interesting tale of linguistics and of a parent’s aspirations for her son

Backstory. Mead writes, “In the summer of 2018, my family moved to London, the city of my birth, from New York, my home for three decades. We wanted to be closer to my mother as she neared the age of ninety, and my husband and I were eager to expand the horizons of our son, who had just turned thirteen.” 

The “Year Three” Tate Britain Exhibition. “Year Three” at the Tate Britain is an ambitious project of British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen: He arranged an assemblage of more than three thousand class pictures of some 76,000 kids in Year 3, the British equivalent of our second grade. 

Part of the project was encouraging all the participating classes to see the assemblage at the Tate. This and the following © Steve McQueen and Tate/Courtesy Steve McQueen/Thomas Dane Gallery/Marian Goodman Gallery from The New Yorker, February 2, 2022.

Mead writes, “One purpose of the project was to instill in them the sense that the institution belongs to them, and not just to people like me, a middle-aged ticket buyer overhearing their squealed reactions: Look at this boy, picking his nose! Look, here are children with disabilities, in wheelchairs. Look, these children have a dog with them, a mascot—lucky them.”

Mead notices the exhibition’s “brilliantly simple conceit: displaying the heterogeneity—class, race, nationality, faith—of young Londoners at the age when they first develop an awareness of their own differences, and of the structures that bring them together or keep them apart.”

School is certainly a venue of bringing together kids of diverse backgrounds. 

Language, One Metric. Mead writes, “… as I listened to their voices at the Tate, I was struck by how similar to one another they sound. Sociolinguists who study the way that Londoners speak have identified the emergence, since the late nineteen-nineties, of a new variant of English among the younger generations: M.L.E., or Multicultural London English.”

Mead speaks with David Hall, a linguist at Queen Mary University of London. He tells her about “emergence of a new pronoun, ‘man,’ which, depending on its context, can mean ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘him’ or ‘them.’ As an example of generic-impersonal use, Hall gives the example ‘Man’s gotta work hard to do well these days.’ ”

Hall also talked about M.L.E.’s dropping of prepositions with the verb “go” or “come.” He gives an example. “It has to be some sort of familiar or institutional goal, like ‘I went pub last night,’ or ‘I went chicken shop.’ It can’t be ‘I went art gallery.’ ” 

This reminds me of years ago when R&T pal Joe Rusz taught me a Buffalo, New York, analogue of this: “Let’s take ride; go beer.”

M.L.E. Origins. Hall says, “It is difficult to say if there is a direct influence from Nigerian English, or Jamaican Creole, because they are all in the mix somewhere….  Normally, kids, until they are eight or nine, will copy their caregivers, and then they will match the community afterwards. But these kids are doing it very, very young. It is language change not from the outside but from the inside—they are building it themselves.”

Mead observes, “If you have an extremely mixed group—one whose members speak, say, ten different languages—speakers will settle on linguistic features that allow them to do what they most want to do, which is communicate.”

A Son’s M.L.E. At first, the Brooklyn-born Mead son was a London outsider saying “aluminum,” “elevator,” and “candy.” Now, though, “When my son calls me on his phone after school, to say he’ll be home later than expected, he says, ‘We’re going shop,’ just like his new friends say it… He used the expression at first with a slight self-consciousness, but in a spirit of openness. Gradually, it has become his default. He is accommodating himself to London, this new city to which he has been translated.”

A Mother’s View. “These days, I often walk past high-spirited gatherings of kids on Hampstead Heath—lounging on blankets with bottles of drinks that they aren’t old enough to buy, playing music on loudspeakers that they aren’t supposed to use here—and their vitality delights me. Their pleasures seem almost Arcadian; these hours whiled away in urban fields under open skies display a liberty that seems to me both wilder and more innocent than that offered by the sophisticated constraints of life in New York City.”

Mead is comfortable with her son’s becoming a Londoner: “I want him to get to know London like a new language that he’s mastered while his tongue is still flexible. But there’s something else that motivates me. A sense of displacement is so constitutional to my own being that I seem to have been compelled to make it my son’s inheritance. I have given him this questionable gift: a lost place to long for.” 

By the way, Mead’s piece in The New Yorker is drawn from “Home/Land: A Memoir of Departure and Return,” out this month from Knopf. I’d bet it’s a thoughtful book. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022 

2 comments on “ON SPEAKING M.L.E.

  1. sabresoftware
    February 13, 2022

    Dropped prepositions tended to be the norm in the past in some of the regional dialects throughout England. Just check out “Coronation Street” and you’ll probably notice it.

  2. Jack Albrecht
    February 13, 2022

    Ironically, I just proofed my son’s bachelor thesis on teaching English to non-natives, specifically Austrians, where he’s studying to be a teacher. His thesis deals mostly with rhotic vs. non-rhotic English and if and what is “correct” English.

    Displacement is very constitutional to my own being, but I chose consciously to not give that gift to my son. He lives in the same city his entire life, and except for his first few months that he can’t remember, and 9 years with my wife and me after I won custody, he has lived in the same district, at most 3 kilometers between all the homes he has known his entire life.

    He has traveled extensively but always had a “home base” here in Vienna. I think (hope!) that was the right decision for him.

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