Teenagers speaking Urdu and Punjabi on the number 11 bus...

Post date: Feb 08, 2012 9:7:3 AM

Languages interact when they come into contact with each other - that's pretty well-known. Just look at the way French and Dutch influence one another - despite the reluctance of some speakers and organisations to admit it - on either side of the language border in Belgium. Similar phenomena occur all along the Romance-Germanic language border, in Luxembourg, France, Switzerland and Italy. Immigration also brings languages into contact with one another: here in the UK, many languages are used at different levels and in different environments within society. (This has always been the case, as speakers of the Celtic languages will be quick to point out).

When "language contact" occurs, speakers of one language, for whatever reason, often begin using words that originate from another language. This can be seen happening today in the West Midlands, as well as in London, where teenagers with no links to the Caribbean have adopted and adapted terms that were traditionally considered the exclusive preserve of speakers of West Indian patois.

Despite the fact that South Asian languages are a closed book for many people in the UK, due to their use of a different script and lack of similarity with the major European languages, some youngsters, particularly in the West Midlands, have also begun using Urdu or Punjabi words in speech, even though they have no connection with the language through their home life or ethnicity. This is surely not a surprise, in the light of what we know about language contact, and given the prevalence of these languages in Birmingham and the Black Country.

So what makes speakers of one language use words from another? In this case, individuals may begin to experiment with Urdu or Punjabi words and expressions to ingratiate themselves within a peer group, or to exclude another group (adults, authority figures, another "gang"). Or perhaps they do it just for fun. There may also be specific environments (for example playing cricket) in which a few words of Urdu or Punjabi can be very useful for the purpose of "joining in", or to express concepts not readily available in English.

For the moment, there appear to be only a very few words and expressions involved, most of them related to teenage socialising or to cricket. The phenomenon may grow, or it may not - words and expressions found to be ineffective or unattractive by groups that use them are quickly dropped.

Whatever the reason, and whatever the extent to which it occurs, the next time you hear a white or Afro-Caribbean teenager or cricketer shouting "Shabash, shabash, well bowled" or saying "Qassme" ("I swear") when telling a story to friends, or the next time you hear a white goalkeeper in a mainly Sikh hockey team yelling at his team-mates in Punjabi with considerable relish, I hope you can crack a smile, and enjoy a process of language exchange which has enriched the English language and British culture enormously over the years (think of the terms of French, Gaelic, Irish, Hindi and, yes, even Urdu origin that we use today).

In fact, white British English-speakers using Urdu and Punjabi words merely represents the continuation of a process that has been going on throughout the history of language. You should try it, too, by getting an Urdu or Punjabi speaker to teach you a few words - it's fun!

The number 11 bus, by the way, is Birmingham's legendary "Outer Circle" route, reputedly the longest urban bus route in Europe, and used by thousands of schoolchildren, commuters, students and shoppers daily. It's possible to ride round the route for hours on a bus pass or day saver, providing cheap entertainment for thousands of youngsters. Many labourers in the West Midlands building trade have two criteria for accepting work: how much does it pay? and does the 11 go there? You can hear dozens of languages, and, sadly these days, everybody else's music. To paraphrase somebody or other, All human life is on the 11.