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Is that English or not?!?

11 czerwca 2018, poniedziałek,

English is spoken all over the world and this has created a lot of varieties and accents in English. However today I would like to discuss the interesting phenomenon that occurs sometimes when what you are hearing may sound like English words but the words in context seem incoherent and make absolutely no sense to you whatsoever. This can happen as a result of speakers using highly specialized jargon, sophisticated slang and English that has become a pidgin or creole language. I am going to discuss 2 that I have had direct contact with, namely Cockney Rhyming Slang and Sierra Leonean Krio.

Two young men walking down the street © Mat Wright, British Council

You telling porky pies?

The particular variety of rhyming slang that developed in East London follows a strange and seemingly random pattern. A pairing of words or a short phrase is chosen that rhymes with the source word. So if one wants to say ‚face’ the Cockney rhyming phrase is ‚boat race’.

whistle and flute – suit
dog and bone – phone
trouble and strife – wife
apples and pears – stairs
porky pies – lies
mince pies (or mincers) – eyes

To further complicate the issue, very often the phrase or pairing is shortened to only the first word. So as an example the following sentence is very conceivable:

I saw him at the rub a dub (pub) wearing a whistle with this horrid boat race so I got on the dog and called my trouble and she thought it was telling some porkies. I couldn’t believe my mincers.

There are always students who question the practicality of teaching and learning Cockney Rhyming Slang but as a bit of fun in a lesson I always say „Why not?” It is treated as somewhat of a novelty among Brits to talk about your trouble and strife and telling porky pies. The most popular phrases are quite well-known in the UK while some more obscure ones may not be. One thing is for certain, for people ‚in the know’ it is always good for a bit of a laugh.

Why dey dia so?

In 2007 I had the opportunity to do some volunteer work in a place called Mabuveh village outside of Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was a work camp where we were building a school. It was a very rewarding experience and one that changed my life. While there are many tribal languages such as Mende, Temne and Kono, as many as 97% of the country knows and speaks Krio, an English based creole language. It is a uniting factor for all ethnic groups.

It was a language which stemmed from freed slaves from Nova Scotia, Jamaica and the UK who were repatriated to Liberia and Sierra Leone. But it is not only based on English, it has been affected by tribal languages as well as sprinkled with other European languages such as French and Portuguese. It has it has very strict grammar rules and sounds so logically English but yet so peculiar and tricky to understand. I like to say that while I only know a few fixed phrases, I can understand about 30% of it when it is being spoken.

woman – uman
women – umandem (woman them, them being a common plural marker)
want to – wan fo
children – pikin
How are you? – How de body?
sabi – know
boku – many (from beaucoup)
dia – expensive
kushe – Hello (African roots)
tif – steal (to thief sth)

Imagine the conversation:

A; Kushe sa. Mi wan fo buy wata.
B: Tree eighty five
A: Are you de craze? Wetin mek it dia so? Maybe I go tif it.
B: You go now and be gladi I no call polis.

You can see how it is almost a snap to passively catch what is going on but something just seems a bit off. Also despite being so nearly English one wouldn’t be able to reproduce Krio sentences on instinct alone. One would have to study the rules and get a hold on the new lexis (terminology) and grammar rules.

So near…yet so far

So there you have 2 examples of varieties of English that are capable of leaving the English native speaker completely lost. It is a testament to how close to English these variants are that they are a whole lot easier to pick up than new languages would be. I would hazard a guess that with a bit of studying to get the vocabulary and rules and then a whole lot of practice one could be speaking Krio and Cockney Rhyming slang in no time at all.

For a bit more contact with these varieties check on Youtube or films. Cockney Rhyming Slang features heavily in the film Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels and Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Danny Archer speaks Krio in Blood Diamond.

Have you ever had contact with these or any other kind of specialised English? Let us know in the comments below.

Incoherent – lacking logic or meaningful connection
Conceivable – believable
Testament – something that serves as a sign
Pidgin – a grammatically simplified form of a language used typically by non-native speakers of other languages for the purpose of communication with each other


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  1. Instead of Pidgin I prefer Globish.

  2. Most people in Poland speak Polglish:)