Get talking at the British Library

British Library

If you like words and stories, you’ll find eavesdropping particularly satisfying in Hackney. Just yesterday in the doctor’s surgery waiting room (always fertile ground) I listened to two women reminiscing about the childrens’ homes they grew up in, and the nuns who cared for them – ‘We used to think of ways to kill them’, said one. And on the 38 the other day I heard three women talking about what they were going to do that afternoon after a trip to Primark – ‘I got some well sexy gear today’ said one, twanging a hot pink g-string, ‘I want to get home and sort it all out.’

And you only have to ride a bus in East London around 4pm to hear school kids speaking ‘Hackney Patois’, which has been described in Urban Dictionary as a combination of East London cockney, Afro-Caribbean and hip-hop slang. One of its most noticeable features is the lengthening of vowels, so like becomes ‘laaaaahke’ and mobile phone conversations are ended with a long, softly spoken ‘Baaahhhh’ instead of ‘Bye’.

Being a relative newcomer, I can only listen in on this patter, and will never speak it myself – I think you have to be born here for that. The most useful made-up word I’ve adopted in the past few years is ‘Hangry’ – which (obviously) describes a state of extreme anger brought about by low blood sugar. Happily, although I live with someone (actually two people these days, apparently it’s genetic) who suffer from this quite badly at times, it’s more comical than dangerous and easily remedied with two words: ‘Eat something!’. I think of it as hanger management.

If you find this kind of thing fascinating, get along to the British Library for their free exhibition ‘Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices’ which is open until 3 April. They have looked at contemporary language, such as marketing speak – ‘at the end of the day they’re moving the goalposts’; text speak ‘2 b or not 2 b, that is the q’, among others, and placed these alongside the kind of texts they have unique access to – you know, Shakespeare quartos, the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, that sort of thing.

You can also record your own voice and have it archived as a record of how people speak in 2011. ou can record your voice to add to the collection as part of the exhibition – visit ( to find out more.

Visit or tweet using #evolvingenglish (link the #tag to
British Library

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