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 (http://www.bl.uk/evolvingenglish/maplisten.html) to find out more.