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Language and Ethnicity

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English

If someone asked you to describe your identity, where do you think you'd start? Would you mention where you were born and where you live? Would you mention who your parents are and the languages that you speak? If so, these are factors that contribute to your ethnic identity.

Ethnicity is an important social factor for many people. Our ethnic background influences both our cultural and language practices, meaning that it can become a big part of our identity. Language is therefore a way of expressing our ethnicity and identity.

In this article, we will discuss the relationship between language and ethnicity and explore language contact, creoles, and pidgin languages. We will also look at the most prominent theorists in the field.

Language and ethnicity in linguistics

Language is a vital part of our everyday lives. We use language to communicate with others, whether this be in the form of speech, writing, or gestures. It is often highly structured and complex, following specific grammar rules and social conventions.

Language has many uses, such as:

  • to express ideas
  • to argue
  • to give orders
  • to express feelings and emotions
  • to find belonging

Ethnicity definition

What is ethnicity?

Ethnicity refers to our social identity, involving factors such as cultural practices, nationality, language, religious beliefs, and familial bonds.

When a group of people shares a common culture, language, ancestry, etc. they are said to belong to the same ethnic group. There are thousands of ethnic groups around the world, each with its own unique identity and variety of language.

Nationality has a strong link with ethnicity, as citizens of a country often share the same social factors related to ethnicity (culture, languages, religion etc.). However, there can be multiple ethnicities within one nationality. For example, India is a nation in which we can find multiple ethnicities, like Bengali, Hindi, Nepali, and many more.

Race and ethnicity are closely linked terms that can sometimes get confused. The main difference is that race refers to the distinctive physical characteristics of a person whereas ethnicity refers to social factors such as culture, tradition, and language.

Relationship between language and ethnicity

Language plays a huge part in defining ethnicity as it is a factor that can indicate where someone comes from and the social group that they belong to. This is not limited to the individual languages that people speak, but also to the varieties and dialects spoken within a language community.

For example, the cockney dialect of English is spoken in parts of East London and is a big part of the cockney identity. These language varieties don't just signal ethnicity, they also signal other important factors of identity such as economic class and geographical origins.

Dialect is a variety of a language that is spoken in a particular region of a country. It contains its own language features such as distinctive words, grammar, and pronunciation.

A person's dialect expresses where a person is from or is currently living. People may have a mixture of dialects that they use and these make up their idiolect.

Idiolect refers to an individual's unique use of language. Our idiolect is influenced by many aspects of our lives such as where we live, our education, friendship groups, hobbies, and so on.

Our idiolect can therefore express where we were born, where we currently live, where our parents have lived, the languages we speak, our cultural practices, and other key factors that contribute to our ethnicity.

Ethnolect definition

An ethnolect refers to a language variety that is specific to an ethnic group. Think of it as a combination between the words 'ethnic group' and 'dialect'. Since ethnolects are spoken by an ethnic community, they are an important expression of ethnic identity. An example of an ethnolect is African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It's important to note that AAVE can also be considered a vernacular, a dialect, a sociolect, and even a language in its own right.

African American Vernacular English (AAVE for short) is a variety of English (or 'ethnolect') linked to African American speakers. It is a non-standard dialect spoken predominantly by black Americans and has its own features in terms of grammar, accent, lexis, etc. For example, contractions (e.g. 'y'all') and double negatives (e.g. 'I ain't gonna do that').

Certain vernacular varieties, such as AAVE, are sometimes viewed as 'low-prestige' varieties as they stray from the standard form of English which is often seen as 'correct'. People who use the AAVE dialect therefore frequently face linguistic discrimination. This means that people may experience unfair treatment based on the language that they use.

It is important to remember many vernacular varieties of English, including AAVE, are no less 'correct' than any other form of English. Language creates a sense of community and belonging for many people and these varieties have rich, cultural backgrounds, becoming a big part of a person's identity.

Language contact, creoles, and pidgin

When people who speak different native languages or language varieties come into contact, they will often adapt in order to communicate. Language contact refers to the interaction between two or more languages that mix and influence each other. Language contact happened amongst people from different ethnic groups due to various factors such as migration and trade relations.

Intense language contact over a short period of time leads to the formation of language varieties called creoles and pidgins. These language forms often reflect the history of a community and its ethnic identities.

A pidgin language is a variety of language that develops due to the mixing of two or more different groups that speak different native languages. This usually occurs in a short period of time out of necessity, leading to the development of a simplified version of the languages that can be understood and used by both groups for communication.

A creole language is a stable, 'fully-fledged' form of language that often derives from a pidgin language. Creoles tend to have more regularised, 'simplified' grammatical systems, and contain rich vocabularies deriving from both of the original languages. They are learned as the native language of communities.

Many creoles and pidgins developed during the time of European colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular, 'The Scramble for Africa'. This is when European countries such as Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal expanded their territories by colonising countries across Africa.

The languages of both Africa and Europe came into contact with each other. The African people had to understand and use the colonisers' language, as well as each other's native African languages, leading to the emergence of Creoles. These were a mix of European languages, such as English or French, with the native language spoken by the colonised communities.

Jamaican Patois is a creole based on English and influenced by West African languages. It is mainly spoken in Jamaica as a native language. Jamaican Patois developed during the era of colonisation in the 17th century when enslaved people learned English varieties spoken by slaveholders. Modern-day Jamaican Patois sounds a bit like English but has different words, grammar, and Jamaican pronunciation

Haitian Creole is a creole based on French and influenced by West African languages. It is spoken as an official and native language of Haiti and, like Jamaican patois, reflects a history of colonisation. Despite deriving from French, Haitian creole is its own individual language.

Migration and immigration are other factors that influence the domain of language and ethnicity. The children of migrants/immigrants are often raised speaking both the language of their own birthplace and the language of their parents' birthplace. This means that, if a child is born in the UK, they have access to multiple forms of language including regional variants of English, Standard English, and the variant spoken by their parents.

Due to this, speakers may code-switch depending on the context of the situation and their linguistic needs.

Code-switching is when a person changes between two different languages or language varieties within a single verbal exchange.

The language that a person chooses to use may depend on the ethnic identity (or national identity) that they wish to express to other people. This can change depending on the listener and the social context. Code-switching is therefore an important way in which we can express our ethnic identity.

Code-switching may be used to show a sense of community and belonging within a social group. By using similar language, we show that we understand the social and cultural norms of a group and that we are part of it.

We may also code-switch to create distance from others and show that they do not belong to our social group. This is because other people can not be involved in the conversation if they do not understand the variety of language being spoken.

Language and ethnicity research

Multiple key theorists have explored the interaction between language and ethnicity. Let's have a brief look at some of them and their theories.

Language and ethnicity theories: Holmes Code Switching

Holmes is a sociolinguist who has studied many aspects of language and social groups, including language and ethnicity. In her 2017 book, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics,1 Holmes discusses code-switching, stating that it allows a speaker to convey emotion effectively by drawing the most appropriate vocabulary from other languages or linguistic varieties.

Holmes also observed that a person can still express their ethnic identity using their second language, even if they do not speak it to a native level of fluency. She found that second and third-generation immigrants in the UK, who were not able to speak the language of their community fluently, would still code-switch between English and another language to define a separate ethnic identity that is still linked to the language of their community.

Second-generation immigrants = the children of immigrants.

Third-generation immigrants = the grandchildren of immigrants.

Language and ethnicity theories: Kerswill- Multicultural London English (2008)

In 2008 Kerswill, along with linguists Cheshire, Fox, and Torgersen, conducted a study on a variant of English called Multicultural London English, or 'MLE' for short.2

The MLE accent and dialect originate from immigrants and are typically used by young, working-class people living in London. Despite features of MLE being seen in people from all ethnic backgrounds, it is particularly common in people who are part of a multi-ethnic social network.

A multi-ethnic social network consists of social connections (friends/colleagues etc.) that belong to different ethnicities.

Kerswill et al. suggested that ethnicity was not necessarily a determining factor affecting the variation of English used by their participants. Instead, they explored the effect of social networks on language use and how this interacts with ethnic identity.

Language and ethnicity theories: Gary Ives Bradford Study (2014)

Gary Ives’ carried out two case studies in 2014 that looked at the relationship between language and ethnicity. One in Bradford, West Yorkshire, and one in London.

In his Bradford study, Ives interviewed students from a school in Bradford which had a strong Pakistani influence. He asked eight teenage boys from a Pakistani background about their language use and code-switching. Their responses suggested that they found it was 'natural' and due to where they were born/live.

However, Ives found that code-switching between Punjabi and English was a conscious choice made by the British Asian boys (born in the UK with Pakistani origins) as a way to distinguish themselves from the 'freshies' (born in Pakistan and moved to the UK). Certain slang words like 'heavy' and 'bare', as well as Punjabi swear words, were typical of their language.3

Code-switching was therefore a way to emphasise group identity and exclude people from other ethnicities who wouldn't understand the language.

Language and ethnicity theories: Gary Ives London Study

Ives carried out another case study looking at language and ethnicity in a school-based in London. He interviewed students from various ethnic backgrounds, asking what words/phrases they felt set them apart from other areas of the country.

Ives identified key vocabulary such as 'bare', 'calm', and 'hype', which makes up a variety of language called Multicultural London English (or MLE for short). MLE was used by students from all ethnic backgrounds, including teenagers from a White British background who also used lexis with Jamaican/Afro-Caribbean origins.3

Ives London study, therefore, showed that language use didn't hugely depend on ethnicity but rather where you live and your group identity.

Language and ethnicity theories: Drummond (2012)

In his 2012 paper, Drummond studied the language of Polish immigrants.4 There were two sub-groups: those that had settled in the UK and intended to stay, and those who intended to return to Poland.

The Polish immigrants who wanted to stay in the UK and had positive attitudes toward their new community tended to adopt the local accent in an attempt to sound more like the local teenagers. However, those who intended to return to Poland tended to adopt non-standard features such as the '-ink' pronunciation instead of '-ing' that distinguished them from the locals.

Drummond concluded that the immigrant's choice in language 'can signal some kind of allegiance to one or another culture'. In other words, language reflected the immigrants' attitudes towards their Polish identity and their desire to integrate into UK life.

Language and Ethnicity - Key takeaways

  • Ethnicity is an important social factor and can be a big part of our identity.
  • Language is a way of expressing our ethnic identity and our idiolect can express key factors that contribute to our ethnicity.
  • Ethnicity refers to our social identity involving factors such as cultural practices, nationality, language, religious beliefs, and familial bonds.
  • Language contact can lead to the formation of creoles and pidgins.
  • Code-switching is when a person changes between two different languages or language varieties within a single verbal exchange. This can be a way to express ethnic identity.
  • Key theorists in Language and Ethnicity include Holmes (code-switching), Kerswill (MLE), Gary Ives (London and Bradford studies), and Drummond (Manchester study of Polish immigrants).

References

  1. Holmes, J., & Wilson, N. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (2017).
  2. Kerswill, P., Cheshire, J., Fox, S. and Torgersen, 'E. Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: the Emergence of Multicultural London English'. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151-196 (2011).
  3. G Ives, M Giovanelli, J Keen, R Rana & R Rudman, English Language: A/AS Level English Language for AQA. Student Book, (2015).
  4. Drummond, R. 'Aspects of identity in a second language: ING variation in the speech of Polish migrants living in Manchester, UK'. Language variation and change. 107-133. (2012).

Language and Ethnicity

Language and ethnicity are closely related – certain ethnic groups are identified by the language they speak, but there may also be many languages spoken by a specific ethnic group. Dialects and specific variants can also be a factor in identifying ethnic groups.

Language is part of ethnicity but the degree to which it defines an ethnicity is dependent on other factors.

Ethnic language is a dialect or variation of a language used by a specific ethnic group.

Language is a big part of culture, as a vector for many cultural practices and a means to signal emotions and cultural norms in communities and build social networks.

Language is a way of expressing ethnic and social identity. Sharing common language forms creates a sense of community and belonging within a group of people.

Final Language and Ethnicity Quiz

Question

Define Code-Switching.

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Answer

Code-switching is when a speaker alternates between languages or language varieties within the same speech exchange. 

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Who are most likely to frequently use code-switching?

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Answer

People and communities that are bilingual or multilingual are more likely to code-switch than people who only speak one language.

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True or False: code-switching only applies to swapping between different languages.

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False, code-switching can also refer to using different language forms within the same language (eg different levels of formality).

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What are the two key types of code-switching?

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Answer

  • situational code-switching
  • metaphorical code-switching

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What is situational code-switching?

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Situational code-switching is when the speaker switches codes to reflect different social contexts.

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What is metaphorical code-switching?

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Metaphorical code-switching is when the speaker switches codes in order to introduce a new topic that would ordinarily have fallen under a different conversational domain. 

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What are the four formats of code-switching?

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  • intersentential code-switching
  • intra-sentential code switching
  • tag-switching
  • intra-word switching

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What is intersentential code-switching?

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When the code switch happens at a sentence boundary/ when the switch takes place from one sentence to another. 

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What is intra-sentential code-switching?

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Intra-sentential code-switching is when the code switch occurs within the same sentence.

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What is tag-switching?

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Tag-switching is when the code switch takes the form of a tag question or tag phrase.

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What is intra-word switching?

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Intra-word switching is when the code switch happens within a single word. 

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List five reasons people might use code-switching.

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Answer

  • for privacy
  • to fit in
  • to find the right word
  • to improve expression
  • to create a sense of identity and solidarity with a community

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According to George B. Ray, why is code-switching important to African American communities?

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Code-switching allows members of African American communities to strengthen their collective identity and solidarity, as well as enable African American citizens to exist in a prejudiced society more easily.

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What is lexical borrowing?

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Lexical borrowing is when a speaker borrows words from another language because they lack the lexical terms in their own repertoire. 

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How is code-switching different from lexical borrowing?

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Lexical borrowing occurs due to having a limited lexical supply and is therefore a necessity, whereas code-switching gives the speaker more choices as to what words and phrases to use from what languages. 

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What is tag-switching?

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Tag-switching is when the code switch comes in the form of a tag question or tag phrase. 

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What is MLE?

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MLE stands for Multicultural London English, and refers to a linguistic code rooted in Afro-Caribbean culture.

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What's the difference between race and ethnicity?

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Race refers to a person's outward appearance and physical characteristic whereas ethnicity is more about cultural background and identity. There is some crossover. 

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What two studies did Gary Ives conduct to explore language and ethnicity?

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The London Study in South London, and the Bradford Study in Bradford. 

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Define Bilingualism.

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The ability to speak two languages.

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What does "identity" refer to?

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A collection of:

  • traits
  • characteristics
  • beliefs
  • values
  • backgrounds
  • experiences

that makes a person who they are.

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What question did Ives ask the teenagers in the London Study to elicit specific personal answers?

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"What sets you apart?"

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List 4 examples of MLE words.

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  • bruv (a close friend)
  • hype (excited)
  • bare (a lot)
  • switch (a mood change)

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What does Nominalisation mean?

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Nominalisation refers to the process whereby a word that is not a noun, is used as a noun. 

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What proportion of the students interviewed in the London Study were of Afro-Caribbean heritage?

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a slight majority

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True or false: White British students did not use MLE.

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False: MLE was used by students of all ethnicities.

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According to Ives London Study, is ethnicity a significant factor in language use?

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No, students from all ethnicities used MLE, illustrating that ethnicity was not the defining influence.

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According to Kerswill, what social classes are more likely to use MLE regardless of ethnicity?

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Lower socio-economic classes. 

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According to Kerswill, is MLE an inferior language form?

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No, Kerswill defended MLE and believed it was dynamic and rich, rather than inferior.

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In Drummond's study of the language of Polish immigrants in England, what two groups did he identify?

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  • Those who wanted to move back to Poland eventually.
  • Those that had settled in England and intended to stay.

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Which group of Polish people softened their Polish accents when compared with the other? Why?

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The group that wanted to remain in England softened their accents, possibly to make assimilation and acceptance into British life easier.

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What does MLE stand for?

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Multicultural London English

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Is MLE an accent or a dialect?

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MLE is both an accent and a dialect as it has specific pronunciations and vocabulary which make it differ to other accents and dialects.

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What is another term for MLE often used in the media?

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Jafaican

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How did MLE first come about?

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MLE first came about due to Caribbean immigrants settling in London.

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When can the first forms of MLE be traced to?

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The first forms of MLE can be traced to just after World War 2 when Caribbean immigrants settled in London.

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Since which decade has MLE been fairly common in London?

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Since the 1980s.

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What language largely influenced the features of MLE?

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Jamaican Patois.

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What type of language is Jamaican Patois?

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Jamaican Patois is a creole language that came about due to the mixing of English and West African languages.

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Which linguists did Paul Kerswill work with to research the rise of MLE?

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Sue Fox, Jenny Cheshire and Eivind Torgersen.

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Who historically used MLE?

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MLE was originally used by the descendants of immigrants settling in London.

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Who uses MLE now?

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MLE is now used by the youth of London usually part of multi-ethnic social networks, including people of both mulit-ethnic and white British descent.

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What areas of London do MLE speakers tend to be from?

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MLE speakers tend to be from less wealthy areas of London.

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What is a multi-ethnic social network?

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A social network is a group of people who share social connections. In a multi-ethnic social network, the members are of varying ethnicities.

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Is MLE associated with class?

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People of a lower class typically use MLE more than higher-class speakers. However, features of MLE do appear in the speech of higher-class speakers too.

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What's an accent feature that occurs in the vowels of MLE?

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Monophthongisation

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What is monophthongisation?

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This is the process where a diphthong vowel (two vowel sounds together) is swapped for a single vowel sound.

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What type of consonant dropping is common in MLE?

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G-dropping and H-dropping

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According to Fox and Kircher, what four things affect a person's attitudes towards MLE?

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  • A person's own English accent and dialect.
  • A speaker's first language.
  • A speaker's level of education.
  • The amount of contact a speaker has with MLE.

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Question

What other accent is a mild form of MLE viewed as favourably as?

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Answer

Received Pronunciation

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