Where does the persecution of slang come from and why does it continue?

Guest blog by Catherine Emmanuella Koroma Whitfield, asks: Where does the persecution of slang come from and why does it continue?

Hood’, ‘ghetto’, ‘unprofessional’ are just a few of the phrases that have been used to describe the vernacular commonly used by young people from inner-city areas.

In 2021, a South London school came under criticism for trying to ban slang words such as ‘bare’ and ‘innit’ from being used in school.

The decision made to implement these measures by senior leadership at Ark All Saints Academy was widely condemned but remains in place. It is my belief that the imposition of these rules is just a continuation of colonial and discriminatory praxis.

Reading about the Ark All Saints case[1] and others like it[2], I began to consider where this condescension around language comes from and why it has been carried into Britain in 2022.

It is plainly obvious to those of us paying attention to the mechanics of racism that the demonisation of the above terms contribute to the cultivation of fear of the ‘other. These policies are steeped in anti-blackness, as we know that these colloquialisms are mostly used by people belonging to the black community and who are working class.

The implementation of rules like this provides further evidence of a persistent penalisation of blackness that many of us in the community have become accustomed to living in Britain. Anti-blackness is so deeply ingrained in British society that it goes without scrutiny or second thought that ‘black language’ is improper and should be discouraged in educational and professional spaces.

I was disappointed to read MP David Lammy’s comments on the move. In 2013, when a Croydon school implemented similar measures, he said he supported the move. Speaking to the Daily Mail[3] he said, “Too often I see young people going into job interviews or writing cover letters without being able to use the correct English”.

I am perplexed by the idea that senior – supposedly progressive – politicians like David Lammy would continue to push an agenda that sees how a student or young person presents themselves as a more acute point of focus than the content of their argument. With such a large platform Lammy had the opportunity to change the narrative and conversation to try and move away from the use of a superficial lens and towards something much more substantive. This opportunity was sadly missed.

For many first-generation immigrants this is not a phenomenon that was introduced to them in Britain. Because of Britain’s (as well as other countries’) colonial history, many of our native languages are still not considered to be the ‘correct’ way to speak in the West Indies or on the continent of Africa. In my country of Sierra Leone, Creole (or Krio, in the language) is widely considered to be second best to English and is yet to be instated as Sierra Leone’s official language, after 61 years of independence and despite the fact English is not commonly used.

The rule that the Camberwell school attempted to impose does not apply to everyone however. 400 years ago a man called William Shakespeare was given grace in creating an entirely new language and is extolled for his ingenuity and creativity for it to this day. We know that languages are not static and acceptable, commonly used vernacular changes all the time so it’s time we left the backward notion that there is only one way to speak legitimate English.

It is ironic to me that the word cuss – the first known use of which occurred in 1768 - was added to the list of prohibited words at Ark All Saints, as this is in no way a ‘new’ slang word. Furthermore, it is a derivative of the word curse which is commonly used in Jane Austen novels that nearly every student in this country is made to study for their GCSE English qualification.

If schools are seriously committed to eradicating the inflated number of black exclusions and closing attainment gaps between black and white students, then they must also be committed to forging a sense of community and embracing differences in schools. Exclusions and isolation in schools do not occur in silos and it is policies like these that so often lead to feelings of isolation and alienation within the student body. Besides, annunciating every word can get a bit long.



Catherine Emmanuella Koroma Whitfield

A freelance writer and activist with a specific interest in closing the attainment gaps that are so prevalent in educational institutions with the wider aim interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. Her specific area of interest is how policy can be used to achieve tangible change that will mean protection of minority groups.