What is MBE?
The term Multicultural British English (MBE) describes the idea of an over-arching variety of English that is related to, and which arguably emerged from, Multicultural London English (MLE). The concept was originally developed following research carried out in Manchester, where it was observed that young people were using MLE speech features within their otherwise typical local or supralocal varieties. MBE is, therefore, a variety of English used by people in the UK which incorporates features associated with MLE alongside features from their local accent or dialect. More work needs to be carried out to determine the extent to which MBE can be found in different areas of the UK; however, anecdotal evidence would suggest that it is widespread, particularly among young people involved in specific social practices, such as grime music. In fact, it is possible to gather reasonably robust insights as to its similarities and differences across the country through analysis of the speech and performance of grime artists from different locations. MBE is the language of grime, and grime itself is a possible mechanism by which MBE has spread across the country.
MBE or MUBE?
MBE has also been referred to as Multicultural Urban British English, which is the label I first used in 2016. Labelling language varieties is notoriously difficult, as it represents an attempt to formalise something which is, by its very nature, fluid and changeable. Personally, I have deliberately chosen to drop the ‘urban’ element from now on, for two reasons. Firstly, I want to distance the label from particular negative, racialized, and from a linguistic perspective, unhelpful connotations that exist around the term ‘urban’. These connotations are arguably far stronger in a US context than they are in a UK context, but I feel they exist to an extent that makes the use of the term potentially problematic. Admittedly, the remaining label ‘multicultural’ is not without its own problems, arguably implying ‘non-white’ despite its efforts to be inclusive. However, for the sake of consistency, to demonstrate MBE’s association with MLE, and to incorporate MBE/MLE’s multiple linguistic sources, ‘multicultural’ remains. Secondly, while existing studies into MBE have focused on geographically urban contexts, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is far more widespread than this. So ‘urban’ in its strictly geographical sense is perhaps unnecessarily limiting anyway.
The fact that MBE is characterised by its combination of features of MLE alongside features of the local variety means that it is impossible to provide a single description. In addition, a central characteristic of MLE itself is that it is generally conceptualised as a ‘repertoire of features’ drawn from, or influenced by, various input languages and varieties. This means that the speech of individuals and groups of individuals will vary considerably, as they navigate the linguistic and stylistic options available to them. However, it is possible to describe some of those MLE features which appear to be relatively stable within a possible MBE. These include (adapted from Cheshire et al 2011):
- Monophthongisation (flattening) of the vowel sounds in words such as price, mouth, face, and
- Raised position (produced with the tongue positioned slightly higher in the mouth) of the vowel sounds in face and
- Lowered position (produced with the tongue positioned slightly lower in the mouth) of the vowel sounds in price and
- Very fronted (produced with the tongue further forward in the mouth) pronunciation of the vowel sound in goose. Think of the pronunciation of French tu.
- DH-stopping – using ‘d’ for ‘th’ in words such as them and
- TH-stopping – using ‘t’ for ‘th’ in words such as three or
- Article simplification – using ‘a’ for all indefinite articles, regardless of whether the next sound is a vowel. Using ‘thuh’ for all definite articles rather than ‘thee’ before a vowel.
- ‘Man’ as pronoun, as in man (I, he) did this.
- Use of pragmatic markers you get me, innit.
MBE speakers will use some or all of these features, but will also retain local or supra-local accent features. What will be interesting to explore in future research is what happens when an MLE feature is in opposition with a local feature (for example, what if a salient local feature happened to be a backed GOOSE vowel).
Local vs hyper-local
Although local and supra-local features are maintained, there is some research to suggest that MBE speakers might reject hyper-local features. For example, MBE speakers in Manchester maintain the supralocal northern English variety of the vowel sound in words like strut (to rhyme with put), or bath (to rhyme with math), but they may not use the more (stereo)typically local pronunciations of the vowel sound in letter (‘lettOH’) or in happy (‘happEH’).
Vernacular or style?
The extent to which MBE can be viewed as a vernacular (a natural, unconscious way of speaking), or as a style (consciously or subconsciously used to enact particular identities) is partly dependent on your own view of language and its relationship to other social behaviours. It is likely that both perspectives have some value. Language is always changing, and it is probable that MBE is bringing about some fundamental shifts in pronunciation. At the same time, it is undoubtedly the case that MBE features are available to be used as a stylistic resource, especially alongside particular social practices.
More details will emerge as further research is carried out. Watch this space.
Rob Drummond, Feb 2021.
Examples of MBE in Grime
Academic studies referring to MBE (or equivalent)
Drummond, Rob. 2018. Researching Urban Youth Language and Identity. Palgrave-Macmillan.
Drummond, Rob. 2018. ‘Maybe it’s a grime [t]ing. TH-stopping in urban British youth’. Language in Society 47(2).
Fox, Sue; Khan Arfaan, and Torgersen, Eivind. 2011. ‘The emergence and diffusion of Multicultural English’. In Kern, F. and Selting, M. (eds.) Ethnic Styles of Speaking in European Metropolitan Areas. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 19-44.
Paver, Alice. 2019. ‘Mashallah, bruv man’: Regional variation and multiethnolects in British Pakistani Men. Unpublished MSc thesis, University of York.
For the definitive academic description of MLE, see:
Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S. & Torgersen, E. (2011). Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: The emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15(2):151–96.
There are plenty of accessible articles and descriptions of MLE online. A great place to start is Tony Thorne’s website: