We will soon be lost for words

At first Nihal and I were slightly wary of each other and then I told him I wondered if an ageing Radio 4 presenter could learn “street”. He humoured me and gave me a lesson.

I flatter myself that I have a reasonably good ear for language. I reckoned I could get away with a bit of “Hey, man? how ya doin?” But, no, it doesn’t work like that. Street language is inventive and rich. Even a greeting in street is a complex business. “There’s a million ways of not saying anything,” says Nihal. “Two people could walk up and say: ‘What’s happenin? Cool, man. What’s goin’ on with you? Good? All good? Things are running? Peace. Safe’.”

Peace means “I’m outa here” (it’s a long story) and safe means “We’re safe with each other”; there’s no animosity. By contrast Nihal told me that if you want to insult someone in street you might call him “chief”. No one seems quite sure why. Of course there is a well-known dark side to contemporary street rap. But the point of this intriguing language, according to Nihal, is “to separate me from you”. He told me: “It’s like Latin in the church. Knowledge is power.” In fact, the moment older people do know is the moment the language dies. “Bling is a classic example,” says Nihal. “As soon as you hear commissioning editors at Channel 4 using it it’s dead.”

Meanwhile, our language continues to be taken over by pseudo-management speak that is itself in danger of becoming meaningless. Take the world of charity, previously known as the voluntary sector. It is now, gradually, changing its name to the Third Sector. Older volunteers are “totally exasperated” not just with the alien language but with what it represents: the transformation of their charity from the kitchen table and the rattling tin to the computer terminal and the huge mailshots. They don’t believe it helps them provide a better service.

This language is also entering our schools. Instead of simply teaching, teachers are now being invited to make a “personalised learning offer” to children. It’s more than just a dreary piece of business-speak. It implies that a child is a client or a customer, the figure to whom the “offer” is made. The children, in turn, are invited to be “co-investors with the state in their own education”. —John HumphreysWe will soon be lost for words (Telegraph)