19 December, 2009


Voices of the Multiculture

One of the many alleged benefits of London's vibrant hyperdiversity is the vast number of languages in daily use in the capital. This is not always the unalloyed delight it is made out to be. Languages differ widely and seemingly arbitrarily in the way they make use of the available phonetic resources. This can lead to confusion, annoyance and at worst conflict when the conventions of the speaker's language have a different significance in the language of the hearer, intended or accidental.

It is in the realm of prosody and at the shifting boundary between prosody and grammar that this is most striking. To a British ear, the Australian practice of using a rising pitch at the end of a declarative sentence is both confusing and irritating. It turns every sentence into a question, as if the speaker is constantly challenging or ridiculing everything you say. This lends a certain retaliatory satisfaction to that rather nasty old joke,
— Why do Australians always go up at the end of a sentence?
— To compensate for the fact that their ancestors went down at the beginning of one.
I increasingly hear the European Finno-Ugric languages (Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian) in my travels around London. These languages are characterized by enormously long words with the stress uniformly on the first syllable, followed by an inordinately long tail of syllables all pronounced at an even pitch and stress level. To a British ear it sounds mechanical, like a speak-your-weight machine attempting to read the shipping forecast.

Being in a railway carriage with a family of Hungarians is like being trapped in a room with half-a-dozen impressionists all rehearsing their Steve "Interesting" Davis impressions. The experience is a peculiar mix of the soporific and the infuriating. I recall sitting in a railway carriage opposite a Finnish or Estonian woman who was making an interminable mobile phone call in a loud and penetrating voice. After a while not just the monotonous stress and pitch patterns but even the carefully differentiated vowel lengths and the scrupulously geminated consonants were getting to me so that by the time we reached London Bridge I was ready to strangle her.

Chinese is another language at odds with the English ear. Pitch in Chinese is mostly lexical, not prosodic. A syllable pronounced with a rising tone represents a totally different word to that same syllable pronounced with a falling or dipping intonation. Perhaps the difference between 'horse' and 'chamber pot', for example. The language is also largely (but not totally) monosyllabic, which affects sentence rhythm and stress. The overall effect is totally alien to the English-speaking ear. Walking through London's traditional Chinatown in Soho, I passed a three-generation Chinese family who were undoubtedly just chatting as they made their way to the shops. As my English-attuned brain tried, involuntarily, to process it, their conversation sounded like a blazing row that was about to erupt into violence.

But what prompts me to post on this occasion is an experience on the train yesterday, where a young man of North East Asian appearance was making a prolonged mobile phone call in a loud and high-pitched voice. He looked Burmese or Thai rather than Han and the language he spoke, though clearly grammatically tonal and monosyllabic, did not appear to be Chinese. But what a language! Nasal, tonal in a curiously aggressive way and interspersed with consonants that seemed to be gulped rather than spoken. It grated. And interestingly, not just with nasty old racist xenophobic thug Edwin, either. For once, there was a majority of White people in the carriage, most of whom appeared visibly irritated by this man's voice. One male passenger seemed to be on the point of going over and thumping him when, fortuitously and thankfully, the phone call came to an end.

Do I have a point to make? Perhaps that hyperdiversity is more socially and culturally expensive than people fondly imagine. Living in a city of 400 languages, or whatever the figure actually works out at, is stressful and simply tiring in unexpected ways. Something else to add on that famous "benefits of immigration" balance sheet, mayhap?

Speaking of 'voices of the multiculture', what do you think of the 'Get Me Blad' pidgin English that's replaced cockney as the voice of da yout as London has become more and more, erm, vibrant?

Ugly and charmless, isn't it?

Yes. Very. Almost as ugly and charmless as the personage from which it issues, usuall...

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