Translating MLE.

Robert Booth reports for the Guardian on the linguistic situation in English courts:

Do you know your “tum-tum” from your “ching” and your “corn” from your “gwop” (gun, knife, ammunition and money)? Neither do police and prosecutors, who have begun consulting a linguistics professor to help decipher urban slang and drill lyrics used as evidence in criminal investigations. The complexity of inner-city dialects and the growing use of texts and social media posts in court evidence has forced detectives and lawyers in London, the West Midlands and Essex to seek translations, according to Tony Thorne, an academic at King’s College London, who has been studying youth slang since 1990. Thorne has compiled dictionaries of hundreds of slang words and a vocabulary of drill, a form of rap music which often deals with real-life violence. He said he has advised police on more than a dozen cases, including one where police believed the use of the word “plug” meant stab, but it was being used to describe a source.

The dialect has become known among academics as multi-ethnic London English (MLE), though is not limited to the capital. Last autumn, an image circulated of a glossary of “youth language” on a whiteboard in a Lancashire police station including “peng = attractive, feds = police, swear down = tell the truth”. Courts in places such as Northampton are also struggling to deal with its shifting meanings; schoolchildren in east Yorkshire are speaking the dialect, as it spreads rapidly through song lyrics and the internet. “I am advising defence lawyers, criminal prosecutors and police with interpreting and translating language which is being used in evidence,” Thorne said. “If they want to dispute evidence they need someone like me to translate. They put me on the list with translators of Hindi and Gujarati.”

Thorne has a network of informants including teachers, youth workers and grime and drill enthusiasts to help him, but admits there are holes in his knowledge and that it might seem anomalous that an “elderly white guy” would seek to be an expert in the dialect. […] MLE mixes white working-class English with patois, largely from black Caribbean dialect, but with some Arabic and Polish. It is rich in status words (badmanz – tough male, bozz – leader, wallad – foolish male) and relationship words (darg – attractive male, game – flirtatious, begfriend – sycophant, fam – group).

Thanks, Original Lars!


  1. I’m loving “begfriend”.

  2. Yeah, “begfriend” is a gem.

    “peng = attractive” – I love it, a loan from Cantonese. There are very few of those.

    “fam – group” – I wonder where this one started. It sounds a lot like the old gay expression “family” as in “Do you think he’s family?” and I have also heard it used in drag communities, though not exclusively.

  3. AJP Crown says

    I would have preferred the acronym MELE, I hope it’s not too late. There’s a Wikipedia article with much more vocabulary.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    I like MELE. When you’re streetwise, you’re melefluous. Or maybe mele-mouthed.

  5. AJP Crown says

    Thank you for your support. I remembered that mel is the Latin for honey. When I put ‘mele’ as a Latin word into google translate, I get gogokoak as the English translation. Gogokoak is the Basque word for ‘favorites’. What the HELL is going on?

  6. SFReader says

    They’d better record as much of it as possible now, because next generation will speak boringly standard British English

  7. fam is being taken up outside England, I’ve seen it from (younger) German and US people in informal (English-language) chats — first time less than a year ago, I remember being puzzled about it. (But recency illusion and all that, maybe I just missed it earlier or that crowd isn’t really with it).

    It is mainly used as a term of address, singular or plural, roughly equivalent to but more friendly than dude(s) or guy(s).

  8. ktschwarz says

    I’ve seen “fam” spreading within the last year too. It was used by Doctor Who toward her companions in the 2018 season.

    Language Log covered the same article, focusing on synonyms: “Hypersynonymy” in MLE?.

  9. austimatt says

    I’ve heard MLE more frequently referred to as “multicultural London English”.

  10. I had heard fam enough on British television shows that I thought it was ordinary British English.

  11. So I looked up fam in the OED, and it turns out to be of US origin:

    1. As a graphic abbreviation: = family n. (in various senses).
    1579 W. Wilkinson Confut. Familye of Loue To Rdr. sig. ☛.i Conferring with certaine of that Louely Fam. I was by them requested to set downe vnto them in writyng..those doubtes.

    2. orig. U.S.
    a. colloquial. A person’s family or relations. Often as the fam.
    1990 CBS News Transcripts (Nexis) 11 July We’ve got the whole family here… Hi, fam.
    1991 Washington Post 4 June c4/1 Pockets for cash, keys, driver’s license, pictures of the fam.

    b. slang. With singular reference, as a familiar form of address, chiefly to a close friend or member of one’s peer group. Also occasionally as a count noun: a close friend or trusted companion.
    Originally particularly associated with hip-hop subculture in the United States and now also frequently in British (chiefly London) usage.
    1996 ‘Lost Boyz’ Renee (transcribed from song) in Don’t be a Menace to South Central while drinking your Juice in the Hood (soundtrack) A yo, fam, I got a tender-roni girl.
    2003 Vibe Apr. 114/1 Big was like, ‘Yo, fam, you nice. Make sure you call me tomorrow!’
    2011 ‘Chyna’ Fam 400 She may not be bredrin any more,..but we’re back on speaking terms now. I see Smiles as an associate, not a fam.
    2014 N.Y. Post (Nexis) 13 Feb. 24 The suspect allegedly barked, ‘Yo, fams, you have a problem?’
    2017 London Evening Standard (Nexis) 26 June She was laughing in my face fam.

    c. A person’s close friends or trusted associates, esp. when considered as fellow members of a particular social or cultural group.
    Often used in social media contexts as a form of address to one’s audience.
    2002 H. Richards Hip-hop Story (2006) iii. xv. 104 Here is ma man Reaper… He’s new to the fam, but he is Cannibal at heart. Brooklyn born.
    2010 P. Osment Inside xv. 58 My bredren. People my own age who understood what it felt like to be me. That was my fam.
    2011 ‘Chyna’ Fam 58 The other girls [in the gang] were my sisters, my bredrin, my fam.
    2018 @haniImhome 15 July in (O.E.D. Archive) Fam!! Where was this energy for Yarls Wood , Grenfell and the Windrush scandal? People raising their blood pressure for transatlantic issues but not domestic issues.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    Like “feds” for what we Ancient Ones call “coppers” (as in “Stow it guv, it’s the Peelers.”)

    The Young People of Today are under the inexplicable illusion that America is Cool. I don’t know what the world is coming to. What would Erich Auerbach say?

  13. He’d probably say “Ein, freilich selten gewordener, glücklicher Zufall kann es einem noch heut gestatten als gentleman zu leben, und ‘niemand würde etwas dabei finden.'”

  14. John Cowan says

    I think it’s just American television that’s cool. And indeed until fairly recently there seemed to be a critical consensus that it was in a Second Golden Age. I don’t think this is just a matter of “The idiot who praises in enthusiastic tone / All centuries but this, and every country but his own”, either. A filter is operating similar to the temporal one that preserves classics and discards ephemera: the good (relative to some particular genre) is exported, the bad kept for local consumption.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    @Hat: Yes, he probably would. Very probably.

  16. David Marjanović says

    the good (relative to some particular genre) is exported, the bad kept for local consumption

    I’m told beer works the same way.

  17. John Cowan says

    Beer is rivalrous (if I drink a particular quantity, no one else can); television programs aren’t.

  18. Jim: “peng = attractive” – I love it, a loan from Cantonese.

    In Cantonese, peng means “cheap” (i.e. inexpensive) – why would this be the origin of a word meaning “attractive”?

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Easy: low prices are “attractive prices”..

  20. Well, yes, you could rationalize it that way, but why would you think it was the correct etymology?

  21. (And doesn’t show any trace of it ever meaning “inexpensive” in English )

  22. Yeah, I’m guessing Jim just made a wrong guess.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    I don’t imagine that what I wrote has anything special to do with “the” or “correct” etymology. It was a free association, with the following in mind:

    German billig, up until the 18C, meant only “fair” (in common sentiment) in contrast with “just” (in law). This is still visible in the fixed expression recht und billig. Now it means only “inexpensive” or “cheap”.

    Faint heart never won fair prices. Gotta bargain or litigate.

  24. “Begfriend” is indeed great – it’s like something from an over-literal translation of Beowulf.

  25. “Fam” as a collective noun for one’s in-group I knew from various online communities, but “fam” as address for an individual person was new to me. I assume that was mediated through utterances like “X is fam”.
    “bredren / bredrin” in the OED quotes – is that from “brethren”?

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