The Evolution of Language

[Editor’s Note: A few terms in this blog may need a little explanation for our US audience. A “solicitor” is a lawyer; a “council estate” is what Americans would call “public housing”; young men who wear hooded sweat shirts are termed “hoodies” and generally the term has an association with those who are “up to no good.”]

After watching Adam Deacon’s Anuvahood in the cinema the other night (Twitter users: @Anuvahood or @RealAdamDeacon – also star of Kidulthood) I joked endlessly with my cousin on the way home. The story was about a culturally diverse group of working class friends growing up on an estate (or ‘block’ as Americans would say) in East London in the present day.

We joked because of the funny things that happened in the film, but we joked more about the way the characters spoke. We mimicked their style of talking, because we found it funny. “Fruitella’s are badman sweet ya get me?!” hahahah.

So this film was hilarious for us but because we both grew up in or in uncomfortably close proximity to council estates (areas of high poverty and high crime – think E-C demographic, if that kind of social scale even exists still) this film had melancholic and politically sorrowful undertones for us both. However, what I couldn’t help but be fascinated by were these young Brits way of talking. And I know the language used to be uncannily true to life because, as I say, I grew up in these areas.

I thought, “Bloody hell, every market researcher I know should be watching this! Every advertising agency!” After all, these are the very 12-25 year olds we want to talk to. They’re the ones buying (or being bought for) PSP’s, X-Boxes, Nike hoodies, Adidas creps (a term now in use for 12 years by British youngsters meaning the trainers or ‘sneakers’ for our American readers) and mobile phones. They are extremely brand savvy and believe me, they understand trends more intrinsically than you and I put together, and they don’t need to use any fancy graphs and data. They also understand what brands mean to each other more than I ever did growing up, and yet, their language is almost completely foreign to me, so I can’t imagine how foreign it would sound to you, especially if you’re not a Londoner.

What’s also worth noting is that the way they communicate with each other face to face is much more assertive (occasionally bordering aggressive) and the way they communicate with each other ‘digitally’ is quite basic. They’re sending each other SMS’s, BBMing each other but certainly not emailing each other.

This is for two reasons: with high unemployment rates in areas like the ones depicted in Anuvahood, the likeliness that these young people have a work e-mail address is pretty slim. And as laptops (with or without internet access) are considered an unnecessary luxury, they probably don’t have personal e-mail addresses either.  Why are they deemed unnecessary? Well that’s for another blog.

These kids aren’t on Twitter and haven’t even heard of Linked In. Example: I gave a talk about utilising social media for careers at my old school in North London last December. A regular, run-of-the-mill comprehensive secondary school. I asked, by show of hands, how many of the 17 and 18 year olds I was talking to (there were about 150 in the room) had heard of ‘Linked In’. My eye-sight is pretty bad but I’m sure 4 of them raised their hands. Yes, we can take into account that some of these students were too introvert to raise their hands but still, we’re talking minorities here.

And yet, this is the next generation! These are the kids that will be adults, writing papers about how the youth of today talk and they’ll be (hopefully) taking over our research jobs. These are the kids that are buying into the Apple brand, admiring sports stars and their clothes and placing a huge social value on dressing head to toe in branded goods. They get kudos ‘on road’ (‘on road’ means when they walk the streets in their neighbourhoods) for wearing the latest Nike caps from Footlocker, and will even keep the tags on the cap to prove its authenticity.

But the bottom line is, language HAS evolved. It is now a rich array of culturally diverse words. Words that have been completely made up but derived sometimes of an onomatopoeic nature, or from another language entirely. Reason being that these British estates are so culturally diverse. You can live next door to a Jamaican family on one side, a Turkish family on the other, a Pakistani family, Hindi, Muslim, all in one level. So words like ‘shank’ (to stab someone with a blade) have an onomatopoeic nature, while words like ‘ting’ have been drawn from a typically Rastafarian way of talking.

And not only has language already evolved, but it’s evolved from the bottom up (working class up through to middle class). News reporters are now using words like ‘beef’ in their reports (beef meaning problem, like ‘What’s your beef?’ means ‘What’s your problem?’) and the Oxford English Dictionary has included words like ‘Oops’ (ok it’s not slang, but it’s a start). It’s these small but more and more frequent linguistic acceptances that will allow this change to be widely recognised.

So if, as Market Researchers, we want to study the opinions of this kind of audience, wouldn’t we gain a much deeper, detailed view of how they feel towards brands, services and concepts by speaking the way they do, and speaking to them on the devices they use?

By speaking ‘all posh,’ using dictionary standard English and fully spelling out words, are we not subconsciously alienating the very people we want to open up to us? Without wanting to, we’re highlighting a difference of class and education levels…and that’s just over email surveys… forget face to face when a suited and booted moderator walks into the room. (Rolls eyes)

Allow me to give you an example:

When I was about 14, my cousins mums friends son (I’m Greek, family is always big. Let’s call him CMFS from now on) got into some minor trouble and had to give a witness statement for a London court of law. I was fortunate enough to have his statement read out to me, which was utterly littered with slang. “Two two’s now ya get me, we were on road and I was like ‘boom ting yeah, where’s my boy at’, but my boy was missing, nowhere to be seen.”

We laughed so hard when he read it to us, but why? Looking back, we enjoyed the juxtaposition of language and class. It was like ‘Hood Rat’ (boy in hooded sweatshirt who hangs around on the street) vs. Middle Class Solicitor.  It was shocking that he had the gutsiness to do that too, which made it even funnier through shock-value. But why did he do it? CMFS said he wanted to annoy them. But let’s go deeper into it shall we?

What was it exactly that would have annoyed them? Answer: That no matter how highly educated the solicitors were, no matter how high their pay, and how ‘posh’ their jobs, he had something they couldn’t understand. Language. One of the most powerful tools we can use. It was a language that the solicitors could make no sense of whatsoever, to the point where sometime later, they asked him to revise his witness statement into a language ‘more appropriate to the court’. CMFS 1, Solicitors Nil.

How clever of him I thought. He made them feel so uncomfortable by highlighting the language and class divide without even consciously meaning to do so.

So please, I urge you to watch Anuvahood, not just for the funny-factor but because it is an educational experience teaching us that the (British at least) working class mass market has a new language, which needs to be understood because surely we don’t want to look like old, out-of-touch fogies asking respondents to revise their open ends, coz we don’t get them, ya get me?

This article originally appeared on the ESOMAR RWConnect blog. We are grateful for their permission to repost the article on Research Access.

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About Betty Adamou

Betty Adamou is the founder of Research Through Gaming (R.T.G.), which can be found at http://www.researchthroughgaming.com. She is also the editor of GameAccess.com.

Comments

  1. Hi Betty,

    When I first read the title of your post, I thought you’d weave in Chomsky or Steven Pinker – or perhaps Susan Blackmore’s discussion on memes: a subject in which I have a deep interest. Instead, I found it a tongue in cheek and more personal (as well as pleasant) post – which I thoroughly enjoyed. Yes, language is evolving and for us researchers this evolution is both significant (especially when we work across different cultures) and sometimes unsettling (try and argue with US colleagues not to refer to individual questionnaires as ‘surveys’).

    What is more, for some of us in the above 50 demographic, it is a bit too much to take in at times – especially if you include in this discussion the proliferation of internet slang (omg, lol and the like). But as a father of a 16 year old daughter, it is something that I can’t afford to let by-pass me. Perhaps, I’ll watch Avunahood with her.

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