This part of what British historian David Starkey said in a moment of careless rage at the weekend caught my eye immediately after he had initially said that a ‘violent, destructive and nihilistic’ black culture had corrupted too many of Britain’s youngsters:

‘A substantial section of the chavs have become black. The whites have become black. Black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together . . . which is wholly false, which is a Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.’ (Read more)

Some phrases immediately pop out here: “nihilistic black culture”, “this language… which is wholly false”, “Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England…” It would take a very long essay to respond to the slight of “nihilistic” being used to refer to a culture which the British empire spent much of the last hundred years stealing from in form of artifacts that now decorate the British Museum and private collections over the country. No, the part that interested me the most was a claim that the Jamaican patois (1.) is a false language and (2.)  has been intruded (sic) in England (3.) is the cause of the violent culture among today’s youths black and white in England as well as a carrier of “black” culture. (Video here)

Coming from a layman, the false claim that any form of vernacular itself derived from English is so strange as to make an English speaking country seem like a foreign country seems silly enough, especially if that layman lives in a country that has some of the most unintelligible dialects of the same language in the world. But when a historian says it on national television to an audience already looking for a scapegoat in a national crises, then it takes on a totally different meaning more than just a rambling of the uninformed. What is more likely is that he was addressing his remarks not to the smart section of the populace but to the angry ones. I imagine a scenario in which any citizen of the United States would feel like s/he is living in a foreign country because all young people now speak in African-American Vernacular English as a result of a cultural movement. Highly unlikely. But that could be because the United States has evolved far ahead of Britain in its racial identity.

Yet, if that were the case, not only would it be an at least totally understandable social and cultural phenomenon, it would also be justifiable under one of the best known phonological facts: that language tend towards simplification. Most young people in America today have gone from using “You are” and “You’re” to using “Your” as a perfectly normal pronoun i.e. “Your the man of my dreams.” Other pronouns “he”, “she”, “it” have not yet undergone the same transformation. I have already started planning for a day when I would see the expression simply written as “Yor” while the rest catch up with the various forms of simplification: “Hez” “Shez” “Their” etc for “He is”, “She is” and “They are”. The ONLY thing it tells us is that humans like to make speaking easy and fun for themselves more importantly than anything else. It has nothing to do with skin colour, race or culture. Patois evolved howeve – just like other world creoles – as a pidgin made from an unusual contact of two strange languages. It is not by any chance an “easy” or “false” language. If its appeal has now spread to the level of popular acceptance within youths in a country far from its birthplace, it is more of a validation of its language status rather than its “falseness”. The English language as we know it today also evolved from the fusion of languages, dialects, and vernaculars from the old Germanic and Romance languages.

And we have not even talked about the (albeit annoying) false causality between speaking patois (or any vernacular for that matter), and gang violence. But then, David Starkey is not a linguist. He’s just a flawed historian, and more, even a poor speaker of English.

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