Lindsay Johns: Ghetto grammar robs the young of a proper voice

I was writing about teen slang the other week. You may recall there was a quiz. Now, I love slang. And teenagers  in particular love slang.  But I have to admit there’s a time and a place. And what’s worrying is there seems to be a whole generation of kids who don’t know when to drop the innits. Because no-one’s told them they should.

One of the things I found shocking during the recent London riots – apart from the wanton vandalism – was the linguistic capabilities of many of the yoofs that were spoken to by the media. There was one kid they interviewed who finished every half garbled and unintelligible senetence with ‘ya get me?’. No mate. I don’t get you. Oh and by the way you don’t live in the Projects in Baltimore, so why talk like you do. He may have had a very valid point about social injustice, poor education and the lack of affordable housing in the Capital but I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. How will he get on in an interview I wonder?

A couple of weeks  ago I read a brilliant article by  Lindsay Johns in the Evening Standard about this very same subject. It’s a good read. Here’s the link. Ghetto grammar robs the young of a proper voice.


  • Ben Locker
    Posted at 11:38h, 02 September Reply

    This question fascinates me. But I think the problem isn’t just that kids don’t know when to drop the innits – they don’t really know what to replace them with.

    It’s not just kids, either. There are plenty of middle aged people who – while not using patois – have little idea about how to use language in formal situations. The scope of their language is brutally limited.

    I don’t think the solution is in agonising over slang. It’s in asking ourselves tough questions why we’ve allowed people to grow up unable to express themselves in anything other than a limited way.

    And then we need to do something about it. (Answers on a postcard!)

  • Andy Nattan
    Posted at 11:47h, 02 September Reply

    I think Ben’s right here. It’s not vocabulary, it’s formality.

    We all have different voices, even as a teenager. The way you speak to friends, teachers, parents is different, even if it’s just curtailing the swearing.

    The issue might be the fact that schools are becoming more informal. I certainly noticed it towards my time in high school (only ten years ago ;)) – younger kids were being more and more informal with the teachers and not being picked up on it.

    So when you’re growing up in a situation where you never need to be formal, you don’t need to expand your vocabulary to the point where you can make authority figures take you seriously.

    Innit, bruv?

  • Adam
    Posted at 12:37h, 02 September Reply

    i think it’s also important to remember that the we have created conventions doesn’t mean that society and culture are static. If Chaucer had been shown Macbeth he would have been horrified at Shakespeare’s bastardisation of the English language and the fact that he seemingly invented words at will to fulfil his needs (2000 words we use today he ‘made up’. If Shakespeare had read Irvine Welsh he would have possibly had the same reaction. Whilst there is a kind of time and place, that place is in flux – forever.

    • Richard Hussey
      Posted at 16:05h, 31 October Reply

      Adam, I agree up to a point – language (particularly English) evolves. But this should be so we can find easier and clearer ways to express ourselves. We shouldn’t be slaves to grammar – I see these as rules to help avoid ambiguity, but we also shouldn’t accept it when young people place themselves at such a disadvantage.

      I wonder whether there is a bigger social issue with young people accepting failure (and subconsciously choosing to fail) because it’s more comfortable than trying. Easier to say I’m not bothered (or bovvered) than to really test your ability. Social mobility is getting harder but the best schools and teachers do not accept low levels of ambition or self-esteem.

      However, I do think that English teaching and qualifications need an overhaul because we are not meeting the needs of students, society and employers.

  • Mike Robinson
    Posted at 15:32h, 18 November Reply

    Absolutely Richard – a lot of teachers don’t know how to use grammar correctly. Of course language evolves over time, but there’s a lot of ignorance being passed down from generation to generation because our elders don’t know any better. For how long have teachers been telling pupils it’s wrong to start a sentence with “and” for example?

    An excellent (and rather terrifying) book on writing well is Simple & Direct by Jacques Barzun.

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