The rise and fall of Jafaican

The study in a sentence

This case study explores different discourses ('ways of talking about') the multi-ethnic youth speech style which sociolinguists call Multicultural London English (MLE) - and which is often referred to as 'Jafaican' in print and broadcast media. It is an example of enregisterment: how a language variety becomes an index of a social group and, later, of a set of social characteristics.

Shop fire during London riots, 2011. Andy Armstrong CC BY-SA

The question

  • The new variety of English spoken by young people in ethnically diverse parts of London was originally given the derogatory label “Jafaican” by the media, in response to the inaccurate perception that it was a “fake” variety of Jamaican Patois, which it is not, although it does include some Jamaican words.

  • In response, linguists came up with the more neutral term Multicultural London English (MLE), which simply describes who speaks the dialect (multicultural communities), where it is spoken (London) and the language it is principally derived from (English).

  • The very act of naming, describing and comparing a linguistic style to other established language varieties in the public sphere (primarily by the media), leads to it becoming enregistered, that is, associated with the stereotypical social characteristics and practices of a particular community.

The quotation we cite starts at 1:20 into this clip.

In the case of Jafaican/MLE, the perceived relationship between linguistic form and behaviour reached its peak with the London riots of summer 2011. Many of the rioters were characterized as speaking MLE and displaying the attributes associated with it by the media, in particular, behaving violently and being black. Even though linguists have never associated either of these things with MLE – there is no relationship between behaviour and features of MLE, and MLE seems to cut across ethnicities – the media’s enregisterment of MLE was such that famous commentators such as David Starkey saw the use of MLE as directly correlated with violent behaviour:

The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion, and black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England, and that is why so many of us have this sense of, literally, a foreign country.

(David Starkey, Newsnight, 13 August 2011)

Key concept

  • In addition to referential meaning (the content of the message), language use commonly evokes social meanings. A listener will make assumptions about a speaker based on, among other things, the particular variety (RP, MLE, Canadian English, etc.) they use. This association of linguistic form with social meaning is called social indexing.

  • A social meaning is indexed by a particular linguistic feature when the use of that feature is stereotypically associated with a particular social group or identity. For example, for many people, the use of RP indexes a high social class, while the use of MLE indexes young urban speakers.

  • Indexicality can also go beyond association with a group and come to be associated with the perceived behaviour of that group. Starkey demonstrates this higher-order indexicality in his association of MLE with violence and bad behaviour.

What is Multicultural London English? Read more on Paul Kerswill's Multicultural London English page.

Who gets to decide how a particular variety of English is evaluated?

And how do varieties come to be socially indexed in a particular way?

Chart of when the term Jafaican was used in UK newspapers
Figure 1 (p439) from Kerswill, Paul The objectification of ‘Jafaican’ : the discoursal embedding of Multicultural London English in the British media. In: Androutsopoulos, Jannis, (ed.) The Media and Sociolinguistic Change. de Gruyter , Berlin , 428–455.


Paul Kerswill's chapter "The objectification of ‘Jafaican’ : the discoursal embedding of Multicultural London English in the British media" reports the results of a mixed methods approach:

  • search of entries for 'Jafaican' in the Urban Dictionary to get a feel for the range of possible meanings or discourses that could be in circulation

  • quantitative analysis using a commercial online database of English newspapers from the 1980s onwards to get a count of when and how often the term 'Jafaican' occurs, and a list of collocations (that is, which words are most often found before or after the term 'Jafaican')

  • discourse analysis of text samples, found via an online search of print and broadcast media

The answer

Use of the term 'Jafaican' varies over time, with the term first emerging in 2006 then falling out of use, but resurfacing in 2010 and 2011. 'Jafaican' is frequently collocated with the verb 'dubbed' (as in, "dubbed Jafaican") which suggests some writers recognise that it is an informal term.

The discourse analysis reveals a range of ways of talking about Jafaican in the media, including:

  • Negative: inappropriate in formal contexts; cultural threat to gender equality; bad language, challenging dress style and bad behaviour; hindering educational achievement and social mobility; a threat to the Cockney dialect

  • Neutral/positive: a natural linguistic development; a sign of belonging: are you ‘in the know’?; a norm in the British music industry; ‘foreign’, but not (yet) a threat

Classroom activities

thumbnail of lead in task

Lead in task

Comparing attitudes to 'Jafaican' in two blog posts from the Telegraph

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Extension task

Discourse analysis using a media pack of nine texts

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Jafaican > IMD

Meet the author

Paul Kerswill

Paul teaches modules in sociolinguistics including World Englishes and Advanced Topics in Language Variation and Change

Read the paper

Kerswill, P. (2014). The objectification of ‘Jafaican’: The discoursal embedding of Multicultural London English in the British media. In J. Androutsopoulos (Ed.), Mediatization and Sociolinguistic Change (pp. 427–456). Berlin: De Gruyter. download pdf