Grime hasn’t just changed London’s musical landscape – it’s changing the English language. John Z. Komurki explores how…
For over ten years, an exciting new bit of grammar has been in use in parts of London: ‘man’ as a pronoun. Emblematic of “Multicultural London English” (MLE), it is a sort of hybrid function, quite alien in nature to conventional English. It can stand in for any of the usual pronouns so depending on context “man wasn’t there” could mean “I wasn’t there”, “you weren’t there”, “he wasn’t there”, etc.
It seems likely that the origin of ‘man’ in this new incarnation is Jamaican Patois1. There are several reasons to think this, not least that Patois is one of the main roots of MLE. As author Jeffrey Boakye puts it in his unmissable Hold Tight: Black Masculinity, Millennials & the Meaning of Grime (2017), “A whole generation of adolescents now speak a language that ties them to a black British heritage stemming from the Windrush diaspora.”2
There are a series of other similarities and overlaps. In Patois, ‘man’ can mean ‘people in general’, and serve as an impersonal pronoun, as in: “People can’t fool me – Man kaan fuul me.”3 Then there is ‘mandem’, a word usually used as a noun, ‘the mandem’, referring to a group4, which by extension invokes or induces a sense of communal identity. It also serves as a generalised pronoun, as in “mandem knew”, “give it to mandem”, etc. Finally, there is Dreadtalk, the argot of the Rastafarians, in which the pronoun ‘I-and-I’ can stand for any of the others, although it is most common as a plural. Rasta linguistic philosophy as one of the many sources of contemporary London English.
MLE is no longer solely a London thing, however, having spread in recent years to various other parts of the UK. Nevertheless, it is probably a safe bet that most non-adolescent British people’s first contact with ‘man’ came via last year’s runaway musical sensation, the song ‘Man’s Not Hot’ by Big Shaq (aka Roadman Shaq). Shaq is an alter ego of comedian Michael Dapaah, who follows Ali G and People Just Do Nothing in using Patois-inflected London speech to parody wannabe-badmen. The song is about someone who does not feel hot under any circumstances. The man in question, however, is the speaker himself5, as the song makes clear:
I said, “Babes, man’s not hot.”
Note that Michael Dappah is of Gambian heritage but speaks a heavily Jamaican-inflected English; even ‘roadman’ is Yardie terminology. This underlines another point of Boakye’s, that Grime music (the genre which ‘Man’s Not Hot’ both mocks and perfects) “is a point of reconciliation for otherwise disparate black identities.”6 In an analogous manner, MLE is a melting pot of diverse linguistic heritages.
Grime is an excellent place to see MLE in action. The two evolved alongside each other, and the music has played a role both in establishing and advancing MLE as a mode of speech in its own right. Mark Greif says of US hip-hop that “It communicates as language does, because essentially it is language, not just song.” Grime, like hip-hop, also plays a role in standardising that language, drawing its speakers closer together.
In that sense, grime do(ye)n Wiley’s autobiography Eskiboy (2017) is a snapshot of how MLE is spoken today. Doubly so, in that it is in fact more of an oral history, clearly a faithful transcription of the artist’s spoken words. As you might expect, it also provides us with a wealth of examples of ‘man’ in its different forms:
Meaning ‘I’ – “In 1998, 1999 garage came around… I didn’t go, man was into bashment.” – “I even did a track in Dutch for them. Man learned Dutch!”
Meaning ‘he’ – “Titch in the middle on a mad ting. Man was sweating, you get me.” – “I just want man to be free. If he hadn’t gone to jail, Crazy Titch would’ve blown up.” – “As soon as he turned up, everyone left the pool. Man was just chilling doing breaststroke on his own.”
Meaning ‘we’ – “Since ’99 man have had a great run…”
Meaning people in general – “Badman ting. When man just rush out and spray bars. Just mad.” – “It’s not even a bad-mind ting. Man run psyches on man. We’re not going to fight or nothing.” – “I work in a world where you’ve got man who just want to see you down.”
There are also multiple examples of ‘man’ functioning as something else, as in this case, where it seems to stand for ‘anybody/nobody’ – “They didn’t care about major labels, they don’t jump up for man, they weren’t gassed about anything.”
Or here, where it seems like it could equally stand for a plural noun – “I know a couple man who would have just let it go.”
One take-home from these examples is that ‘man’ goes further than slang typically does. Formally speaking, slang tends to work by substituting one word for another (‘butters’ for ‘ugly’, for example). ‘Man’ does something much more profound — it changes the underlying grammatical structure of English in order to make it express a different reality, one which ‘standard’ usage of the language perhaps fails to reflect.
‘Man’ suggests a different conception of social life, one according to which cultivating a tight-knit group of peers can be both a pleasure and a necessity. Skepta’s track ‘Man’ is the anthem7 of this existential reality. “I don’t know why man’s callin’ me family all of a sudden,” he opens, “Like hmm, my mum don’t know your mum / Stop telling man you’re my cousin.” Then the chorus:
Man get girls with the gang
Man eat food with the gang
Man talk slang so the feds
Can’t work out what I just said to a man
It is impossible to know, here, what ‘man’ stands for, whether ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’ or ‘we’. The truth is, of course, that it stands for all of them at the same time.
‘Man’ thus verbally enacts a logic of solidarity and identification. It expresses a more communal vision of social life than conventional British culture typically admits. The English language has often corresponded to an atomised, individualistic approach to things. To make it reflect their reality, speakers of MLE, like speakers of Cockney or Polari before them, do more than adopt an accent: they hotwire the grammar itself, making the language do things it wasn’t really built to do, like celebrate and foment a non-hierarchical model of sociability.
It is not every day that we have a chance to see a linguistic shift of this nature take place in real time. Language moves fastest at the margins.8 It is more porous there, and people speak it more innovatively, more playfully, less hindered by a sense of verbal propriety.9 The ‘standardised’ approach to the language, however, would rather you think of English as perfected and immutable, something you speak either well or less well.
In the UK, marginalised forms of English have not historically been given space — indeed, their speakers often could neither read nor write, and their voices and grammars have come down to us only through scattered folk songs, or the works of poets like John Clare. Grime too constitutes the voice of people who have been systemically excluded. The difference is that today the musical and cultural mainstream is taking notice. The increasing prevalence of ‘man’ and MLE generally is just one aspect of this cautiously heartening tendency.
John Z. Komurki lives in Berlin; he is currently writing a book about cassettes. komurki.eu
1. Interestingly, German has the pronoun ‘man’ which can likewise mean “one, someone, a person, you, they, or people”. So the new London ‘man’ could correspond to a latent possibility, a vestigial feature in the language.↩
2. P. 328↩
3. This example is from the excellent ‘Grammaticalisation in social context – The emergence of a new English pronoun’ by Jenny Cheshire, as far as I can tell the only academic study on the phenomenon. @ me for the PDF.↩
4. c.f. ‘la banda’ as it is used in contemporary Mexican Spanish.↩
5. Recently, on stage, Jeremy Corbyn was asked to recite the chorus of the song; he rendered it as “The man’s not hot.”↩
6. P. 329↩
7. At the end of Episode 8 of The Pengest Munch, a hipster keeps on trying to take pictures of the Chicken Connoisseur, who just turns his back and quietly sings this song.↩
8. “By making English the language mainly of uneducated people, the Norman conquest made it easier for grammatical changes to go forward unchecked.” Baugh and Cable – A History of the English Language (1978)↩
9. “My friend, the writer Steve Hanson, once told me his Lancashire high school classroom was ‘full of little Mark E Smiths’ evolving their own bizarre slang and tall tales. This collective propensity to daydream and experiment with language has a long working-class history. It’s an implicit challenge to the pressure of speaking ‘properly’ and settling into the drudgery of your expected role.” David Wilkinson – ‘Northern white crap that talks back’: The Fall’s Mark E Smith spoke for weird Manchester’, The Conversation. My thanks to the writer Martin Jackson for this reference, and to him and linguist Kate Riestenberg for their comments on earlier drafts of this piece.↩