Like many others, I’ve been pondering Emma Thompson’s comments about how young people speak. Apparently she went back to her old school in Camden and got annoyed at teenage girls saying “like” and “innit” and “aint” which she said made her feel “insane”.
The reports (based on an interview she gave to the Radio Times) don’t give much context on the circumstances in which Thompson made these comments, but her point seems to be that you need one language for use in any ‘official capacity’ and another for use with your mates.
Now, I have a lot of time for Emma Thompson, and if all she’s saying is that these girls should give more thought to how they express themselves in different settings, then that’s very sensible. But I fear she’s post-rationalising her prejudices here. For a start, were the teenagers talking to her in an ‘official capacity’? It seems doubtful. I think it’s more likely that Thompson’s right-brain went, “Ew, I don’t like how these girls speak,” so her left-brain went, “We have to reinvest in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal human freedom and power.”
The traits that Thompson highlights are not just examples of poor expression, they are examples of how young people in Camden speak. But Thompson seems to simply see speaking ‘well’ as a virtue, and fails to question whether it’s a sensible or fair way to judge people. As Owen Bennett-Jones pointed out on the BBC’s Newshour (jump to about 9:50), “It is a very old debate here in the UK, all wrapped up with attitudes to class.”
David Crystal of Bangor University says: “A chief use of slang is to show that you’re one of the gang… It’s not just a question of understanding. Slang is there in order to produce an identity, a group, a bonding sort of situation, and people like to use the language that’s appropriate to the circumstances.”
Rather than assuming that others should be part of her gang, Emma Thompson should think a little more about why we learn to look down on certain types of speech, and whether we should.