Language ideology in the time of Brexit

Ruth Kircher
Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning

Great Britain has long been a prime example of a ‘standard language culture’: since the 18th century, language varieties there have been classified by whether they are considered standard or non-standard (Milroy and Milroy 1999). This dichotomy is based on an ideology in which the correctness and legitimacy of the standard are taken for granted, and in which Standard English is ideologised as a ‘neutral reference point’ for all descriptions of linguistic variation within British English (Milroy 2000, 82). In the context of the current political climate, my colleague Sue Fox and I were curious how one particular variety is viewed in comparison to Standard English – namely Multicultural London English. With its roots in London’s East End, where immigrants have traditionally tended to settle, this contact variety derived from various native varieties of English (namely the local Cockney dialect, other UK regional varieties of English, Standard English, as well as African, Caribbean, and Asian Englishes) as well as different learner varieties of English, Jamaican Creole, and further languages other than English (Kerswill 2014).

So how is Multicultural London English (MLE) viewed in comparison to Standard English? To find out, we compared representations of MLE in two corpora – one consisting of data from non-MLE speaking Londoners and one containing data from MLE speakers themselves (Kircher and Fox 2019a). One of the things we did was to determine highly frequent words and phrases in the corpora, because these are ‘understood to have a particular function within the society producing the texts’ (Vessey 2016, 5).

The most immediate finding to emerge was that the non-MLE-speaking Londoners used far more negative descriptors to represent MLE than the MLE speakers themselves did. Our data revealed that the frequently used negative descriptors could be divided into five semantic categories. 1) MLE as broken language: descriptors in this category included direct comparisons with standard English (e.g. ‘not the standard’) as well as terms such as ‘wrong’ and ‘ungrammatical’ – with the implication being that Standard English was considered the correct, grammatical point of comparison. 2) MLE as language decay: descriptors in this category portrayed MLE as ‘corrosive’ and ‘eroding’ – with the implication being that it was the standard that was being affected negatively by MLE. Notably, the non-MLE speakers displayed much higher frequencies of descriptors that fell into both of these negative semantic categories.  3) MLE as a secret code: MLE was also represented as ‘a sort of code’ used to ‘exclude’ others. Interestingly, only the discourses of the non-MLE speakers contained descriptors pertaining to this category. The same applies to the next category, 4) MLE as a fake variety: only non-MLE speakers represented MLE as an ‘artificial’ and ‘put-on’ way of speaking. Both corpora contained numerous references to the final semantic category, 5) MLE as an obstacle to success and social mobility. However, for the non-MLE speakers, these representations tied in with their (incorrect, cf. Drummond 2016) assumption that MLE speakers are unable to switch to a more standard variety in situations where this is required  – while for the MLE speakers themselves, these representations were linked with the frequent discrimination they experienced as a result of being non-standard speakers.

Notably, the MLE speakers themselves used more positive descriptors to represent MLE than the non-MLE speakers did. These could be classified into two semantic categories, namely 1) MLE as normal (e.g. representations of it as ‘a natural way of speaking’) as well as a catch-all of other descriptors pertaining to 2) MLE as a positive variety (e.g. ‘cool’ and ‘friendly’).

The representations of MLE in our corpora thus clearly reflected the standard language ideology that prevails in the British context – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. However, the non-MLE-speaking Londoners showed much stronger evidence of an undifferentiated internalisation and acceptance of the standard language ideology than the MLE speakers themselves. We also found that the non-MLE speakers’ negative views of MLE extended to the speakers of this variety, whom they represented as aggressive, uneducated, and unintelligent – despite the fact that our previous work has shown MLE speakers to be as heterogeneous in their characteristics as non-MLE speakers (Kircher and Fox 2019b).

We know that language ideologies often ‘become symbolic battlegrounds on which broader debates about race, state and nation are played out’ (Blackledge 2006, 25) – and that the standard language ideology in any context serves to create and maintain social hegemonic order. Given the current political climate in Great Britain, it therefore seems probable that the non-MLE speakers’ negative views of MLE and its speakers helped them ‘to reaffirm a prestige that they perceive as threatened by multiethnic urban communities’ (Wiese 2014, 20). We thus conclude with the words of Lippi-Green (2012, 334), who stresses that in order to effect change and prevent linguistic discrimination, our goal should be ‘to make people aware of the process of language subordination. To draw their attention to misinformation, to expose false reasoning and empty promises to hard questions’.


Blackledge, A. 2006. “The Magical Frontier between the Dominant and the Dominated: Sociolinguistics and Social Justice in a Multilingual World.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 27 (1): 22–41.

Drummond, R. 2016. “(Mis)interpreting Urban Youth Language: White Kids Sounding Black?” Journal of Youth Studies 20 (5): 640–660.

Kerswill, P. 2014. “The Objectification of ‘Jafaican’: The Discoursal Embedding of Multicultural London English in the British Media.” In The Media and Sociolinguistic Change, edited by J. Androutsopoulos, 428–455. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Kircher, R. and S. Fox. 2019a. “Multicultural London English and its Speakers: A Corpus-Informed Discourse Study of Standard Language Ideology and Social Stereotypes.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, online ahead of print:

Kircher, R., and S. Fox. 2019b. “Attitudes towards Multicultural London English: Implications for Attitude Theory and Language Planning.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, online ahead of print:

Lippi-Green, R. 2012. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

Milroy, L. 2000. “Britain and the United States: Two Nations Divided by the Same Language (and Different Language Ideologies).” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 10 (1): 56–89.

Milroy, J., and L. Milroy. 1999. Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.

Vessey, R. 2016. “Language Ideologies in Social Media: The Case of Pastagate.” Journal of Language and Politics 15 (1): 1–24.

Wiese, H. 2014. “Voices of Linguistic Outrage: Standard Language Constructs and the Discourse on New Urban Dialects.” Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies 120: 2–25.


Ruth Kircher is a researcher at the Mercator European Research Centre on Multilingualism and Language Learning, which is part of the Fryske Akademy in Leeuwarden (Netherlands). As a sociolinguist with a specialisation in societal multilingualism and language contact situations, her work focuses especially on language attitudes, ideologies, and practices (and how these are linked with social identities) as well as language policy and planning. Ruth has a particularly strong interest in these issues with regard to autochthonous and migrant minorities.


Twitter: @ruth_kircher



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