Sunday, 30 March 2014

It's her personality man's looking at

I don't mind how my girl looks.. it's her personality man's looking at 


London English has a new pronoun. Young people living in multicultural areas of the inner city use man as an alternative to I. Sometimes the meaning could be indefinite: in the caption to the picture Alex’ man pronoun could perhaps be replaced by you (in its general sense of ‘anyone’) or even one; but in other examples, like (1) below, man refers quite unambiguously to the speaker. Here Alex is telling his friend what he’d said to his girlfriend, who had annoyed him by bringing along her friends when he had arranged to meet her.


(1) didn’t I tell you man wanna come see you  . I don’t date your friends I date you (Alex)

How has this new pronoun developed? One relevant factor is that young people in multicultural areas of London now use man as a plural noun as well as a singular noun. Look, for example, at (2) and (3), where the number thirty-six and the adjective bare, ‘many’, show clearly that the noun is plural.

(2) what am I doing with over thirty-six man chasing me blud (Alex)

(3) and I ended up hanging around with bare bare man (Roshan)

Man is not the only new plural form of the noun: mens, mans and mandem are also heard in London, as well as the expected men. Mandem seems a straightforward borrowing from Jamaican Creole. The other forms result from the way that children acquire English in linguistically diverse inner city areas – in an unguided, informal fashion, in their friendship groups.  Many different varieties of English are used in these groups, resulting in much linguistic variation and linguistic flexibility (click on ‘Multicultural London English’ in the list of terms on the right to see our other posts on this new variety of English).

As a plural noun, man always refers to a group of individuals: either to people who are there with the speaker (e.g. you man are all batty boys, said by a young speaker to his friends) or to a group of people that the speaker has just been talking about. This paves the way for the development of the pronoun, since this is exactly how pronouns are used: I refers to a person who is there (the speaker), while he or she refer either to another person who is there or to a person the speaker has just mentioned. Since the plural noun man refers to a group of people, speakers can present themselves as symbolically belonging to that group. So when Alex uses man to refer to himself, as in the caption to the picture, he presents himself as a member of the group of people who think that personality is more important than looks. This gives his opinion more authority, by implying that there are others who feel the same way he does. In the same way, in (1), above, Alex refers to himself as man and by doing so portrays himself as one of a group of like-minded people who would also feel this way.

Another factor that helps explain the emergence of man as a pronoun is that the discourse-pragmatic form man is very frequent indeed in multicultural inner city London. Like other discourse markers, man has many functions, but the chief one seems to be to express emotion (as in (4)) and to construct solidarity between speakers.

(4) aah man that’s long that’s kind of long (Roshan)

Because man is used so often this way, the connotations of solidarity may spread over into its other uses – including the new use as a pronoun. So, in (5), below, Dexter is telling his friends how upset he was at not being able to use the plane ticket he had bought, because the police had arrested him. He uses you know to involve the other speakers, reinforces the fact that he had paid for the ticket himself by saying paid for my own ticket (rather than simply I’d bought a ticket), highlights the amount of money (a big three hundred and fifty pounds) and says explicitly that he was so upset. Here, using man to refer to himself is just one of many ways to emphasise the experience and look for solidarity and support from the listeners.

(5) before I got arrested man paid for my own ticket to go Jamaica you know . but I’ve never paid to go on no holiday before this time  I paid... a big three hundred and fifty pound .. I was so upset (Dexter)

In the data analysed in this paper it is almost exclusively male speakers who use the new pronoun, suggesting that it retains the meaning of the noun man. It has not yet, then, become a fully-fledged pronoun like I: only when both male and females refer to themselves as man will this have happened.

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Cheshire, Jenny (2013) Grammaticalisation in social context: The emergence of a new English pronoun. Journal of Sociolinguistics 17 (5): 608-633.

doi. 10.1111/josl.12053

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire



1 comment:

  1. Jeremy Collins1 April 2014 15:51

    First person pronouns can be specified for gender too, as in Thai, hence your definition in the last sentence is overly restrictive. Otherwise interesting!

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