It’s not a word you’ll find in any dictionary, but it can be heard on the streets of London. A number of newspaper articles last week used it to describe a new multicultural dialect that is appearing among young Londoners, whether their parents are of Bengali, West Indian, Arab, Brazilian, or English stock. There’s no doubt that such a dialect has appeared or that the word exists; the fault lies in linking the two.
Jafaikan or Jafaican is a blend of Jamaican and African, created because the parents of most black Londoners came to the UK in the 1940s and 1950s from the West Indies, the majority from Jamaica. The blend also includes fake as its middle element — as a slang term it often appears online as a mildly insulting reference to black Londoners. It has also been used for a black equivalent of a Trustafarian — a well-off, middle-class young black Londoner of West Indian ethnicity. It looks like a black-on-black derogatory formation that has echoes of wigga, originally US but now also British, for a white person who imitates black culture. It seems that journalists have misunderstood the street usage and have applied it wrongly to the dialect.
A team of linguists are investigating this emerging speech form, as a three-year project led by Professor Paul Kerswill at Lancaster University. They prefer the neutral term Multicultural London English (MLE). That’s because its vocabulary is not wholly West Indian, though it’s based on Jamaican patois and contains few words of direct African origin. However, the popular neng, meaning excellent, is ultimately from the Mende language of West Africa, albeit filtered through generations of Jamaicans (it’s certainly not an Australian expression, as an inventive etymologist claimed in the Guardian).
Professor Kerswill commented in an article in New Scientist in December 2005: “A clear new vernacular is emerging in inner London, linking ethnicities, and forging shared identities — often around music like rap, hip-hop, grime or bangra.” One important shift is in pronunciation — older long London vowels are becoming shorter, so that face sounds like fehs; the traditional glottal stop in which t is swallowed in words like butter is now less obvious.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of MLE is that it seems to be displacing Estuary English, the slightly older dialectal pattern formed in London as a mixture of traditional East End speech and standard English. This became almost standard in the 1990s among radio and television personalities who wanted to sound classless and in touch with ordinary people.