English Pigeon


Welcome to da club.

When the sun never did set, if you found yourself on a ship far out at sea, westbound along the Atlantic hypotenuse, then chances are you would be black and you would be in chains. Your hell-ride to the new world ends with you being bought into a cotton plantation, where your new master soon decides to adopt the policy of mixing up the ethnicity and language of his purchased slaves to prevent mass insubordination. Henceforth, you cannot speak the same language as your co-labourers. This prompts the beginnings of the make-shift jargon which scholars will come to call ‘pigeon’: a borrowing of the bits and pieces you manage to pick up from another’s tongue. Now add this to the picture. You’re a very young child. So young, in fact, that you don’t even have a full grasp of your first language. And, in addition to being separated from those who are able to speak that language, you are also grouped exclusively with other children – generationally isolated. The only contact you have with a fluent language user is through your white taskmaster who speaks to you in the pigeon version of his own language so that you’ll better understand him (like when someone dumbs-down their english while on holiday in France). Historically, for children on such a plantation, what results from this is a swallowing of incomplete english and, precisely because it is an incomplete form of english which did not allow for any nuanced expression of thought, the children innovate and add grammatical complexity to fill the gaps.

When this happens it’s called “creolisation”. I have taken the above scene from Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct. Language is instinct. These children reacted to their environment instinctively and appropriated what was once their oppressors to serve their own needs. In doing so they create something entirely new. What results is more than a separation. What results is a successful divorce. A language standing on its own two feet.

“Welcome to da club.” Or. “Welcome to the club.” These coarsely tangential sentences seem to have the same meaning but there are important distinctions. For a start, you wouldn’t write the former example in an essay. Also, the latter example is less fun, doesn’t carry with it the same excitement, doesn’t reference that Manian song ‘Welcome to da club now’ (awful, so awful) and doesn’t allow for the comedic genius of saying “club” as “clube”.

Although the sun has set on the British Empire we island folk still refuse to nod-off. Where are we when we should be sleeping? If at Uni. In da club.

Hitting the dancefloor are many different types of sweaty revelers, the bobbers, the flailers, the singers, the swingers, the movers and the grovers; but peer through the crowds and in the corner, sitting or leaning, can be seen a curious bunch of cool-kids who don’t yet have a name. They are pretty well-off males and females, and they call each other booze-dodgers and dooze-bodgers, gym-rats and pigeons… terms which contradict each other when cross-examined but aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Fun and games. But in years to come the likelihood is that their fun lingo will just be another piece of lost slang. So what should we call them? The terms which they use on each other as individuals are the only self-descriptive language used by the group, however none are meant for or suited to being the group eponym. Some of you have already come across the type of people I’m talking about and so have no need for a group-name; but, for those of you that haven’t and are wondering who on earth I’m talking about and are thinking that if I don’t bloody-well start making sense soon you’ll jump ship, the group does have some helpful commonalities. During photos they pose with baseball caps and gang-signs. They wear expensive but pain t-shirts with the sleeves long over the elbow. When they do dance, they dance to heavy beats.

All of this they do with a hint of insincerity. Baseball caps indoors are an American expression, the gang signs are taken from what is perceived to be ‘black culture’, the t-shirts are akin to what you’d find being worn at a rap battle in a motel garage in Leeds, and even their love for heavy beats – given the universality of music, you’d think they could more honestly associate with music – seems to be danced to with a sense of something they are not. What is this not-identity? Sprung from the milieu of a young generation without a sense of Englishness, it is a growing wave of harmless and sporadic mimicry that is busy creating a unique culture. There she goes! The English Pigeon. Highly speckled.

Is this odd? Well, there never is purity in culture, for there never is purity in language. The english language as it’s meant to be spoken today was once pidgin experimentation. While it seems natural to add the “ed” to create the past tense, such as in “He hammered”, it might originally have been something more like “He hammer-did.” Why does “ed” make any less sense than “did” to describe something in the past? When you start think about it, it actually seems to make more sense to use “did”. The same can be said with the forms of the english language which are contemporaries to one another. Some argue that BEV (Black English Vernacular) is actually more accurate in some respects than standard english – it leaves less room for confusion and misinterpretation. It wouldn’t be cricket to plagiarise another example from the same person, so I’ll just point you in the direction of Chapter One in The Language Instinct for a fuller account of BEV. In summary, standard english doesn’t exist outside the prejudices found within our heads.

In attestation of the way standard english often fails us (or else it’s solely my inability to write coherently – language, after all, isn’t thought) some people might have misinterpreted my sentiment; are currently enjoying my line of inquiry too much. Think that I intend to end the piece by paying homage to cultural relativism? It is time to clarify and disappoint. My point is that whatever those nameless clubbers come to be called, they are creating their own culture and not stealing someone else’s. What does this mean for cultural appropriation? The truth of syncretism is that accusations of appropriation are all too basic because while the cliché that mimicry is the highest form of flattery is only half-the-time true, it is also the case that only very rarely is mimicry, mimicry. Think pigeons, not parrots.

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