How teenagers keep reinventing language

Cast members from Sket

Ex-gang members were used as script advisers on a new British film about girl gangs so that the language would be authentic. How hard is it to write in the way that young people speak to each other?

"The word Sket means ho (whore) basically, someone who sleeps around. Some guys might call girls a ho when they're not actually, they're just trying to tarnish their name."

Antiqu'e, 24 - real name Janet - was one of the script advisers on Sket, a new film about girl gangs which is released next Friday. For the film-makers realism was key, so director Nirpal Bhogal approached a youth project in south London. This is where he met Antiqu'e, who believes getting the language right is vital. If it's dated, young people won't relate to it, she says.

"I got involved because I could bring that vibe to it, because it is a street film," she says. "Some of the language was out of date so we put forward ideas and gave alternatives, slang that we might use now. Like for a gun, you could say a gat but that's quite an old term. Most young people now would say stralley, a tool or a bucky.

Watch: Antiqu'e talks about street language and girl gangs

"The knowledge the film people had of the street talk, it's what you might have heard in films like Shank or Kidulthood. They needed to update to the times."

The film Shank was only released last year, which shows how quickly street speak can move on. To add to the complications, every region has its take on slang. While some words and phrases are UK-wide, there is no definitive list of terms that teenagers use.

Own intonation

For Ronan Bennett, writer of Channel 4's new drama Top Boy, the right language was also essential. The four-part series, which starts at the end of the month, is about young people living on the edge in east London. Being 55 and from Belfast, he admits that he knew little about how teenagers in the capital speak to each other.

"That's not my world," he says. "I went out with a recorder and asked kids to talk into it. I also did more formal interviews. It was a steep learning curve - I literally had to start from the word hello. When I asked them if they addressed a friend in the street by saying 'Hi', they just fell about laughing at me."

Cast of the Inbetweeners Slang is also influenced by age and background

Antiqu'e understands why.

"We would never be like, 'Hi, what's going on?'. We would be like, 'Yeah wassup, wagwan?', or maybe, 'You alright bruv?' or 'Wassup cussie?'."

When the script was done, Bennett and director Yann Demange went through it with the actors in workshops. Many of them were local teenagers without any previous acting experience and they knew what worked and what didn't, he says.

"With a drama like this, it's essential the language feels authentic. We never compromised. We never went for intelligibility over realism."

Marc Sutcliffe was asked to play the character Sparks in Sket after advising on the script. The 25-year-old from south London had previously spent five years in prison.

"I read through the script and I thought that certain bits of it were nothing like what it's trying to portray, so I gave Nirps [Nirpal Bhogal] my ideas and views on what it should be," he says. "We had a chat, he asked me about more of my ideas and basically they offered me a job."

Slang from around the UK

  • Wagwan - what's going on
  • Gyaldem - group of girls
  • Skeng - a knife
  • Showa - something good
  • Shan - unfair
  • Peng - looking good
  • But - mate

Getting the language right has probably never been so important - or more difficult. While teen and street talk is nothing new, it has never been so pronounced as it is today, says Tony Thorne, editor of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. And it's not just a collection of words anymore.

"Slang is about people creating an identity, and that's what teenagers have done," he says. "They have created their own language and are proud to use it."

A popular form of slang used by youngsters is what has been dubbed "multi-ethnic youth vernacular" by language experts. It is heavily influenced by Black and Asian speech and has evolved into a genuine dialect, with its own vocabulary, accent and intonation, says Thorne.

While it is largely associated with London, it didn't only originate in the capital. It developed in other multicultural cities like Birmingham, he says. The rise of mobile phones and social media has enabled it to spread. Other regional slang has also gone nationwide, adds Thorne.

One example is the word lush, which was mainly used in Wales and the West Country, and means something pleasing or desirable.

No 'daddio'

Georgia Lester, 22, has written for Channel 4's teen series Skins, set in Bristol, and now writes for the channel's youth soap Hollyoaks, set in Chester. She says regional variations in slang often create the biggest challenge.

"What's really hard is that the same word can mean different things in different parts of the country. It can mean something good in one part of the UK and something bad in another. You have to make sure the dialogue you are using is right for where the character lives.

Cast of Skins Young people have developed their own language

"I was a teenager when I wrote my first episode for Skins. But I'm from north London and the language I used wasn't always the same as a teenager from Bristol. It's tricky to get language right even if you're the same age as the people you're writing for."

Lester says the writers of Skins had weekly meetings with local teenagers to try to get the dialogue spot on. They would invite them in to talk about their lives, allowing them to also get story ideas.

It's not only for gritty dramas that writers go to such lengths. When Joe Cornish was making his sci-fi film Attack the Block, in which a gang of hoodies encounter extra-terrestrials, he embarked on a year-long tour of youth clubs in London to interview young people about how they spoke.

Iain Morris, one of the creators and writers of hit comedy The Inbetweeners, says you have to nail language whatever genre you're writing for.

"We didn't want our characters going round saying the equivalent of 'daddio', so we worked hard to try to make it authentic," he says.

Cast members from Top Boy There are many regional variations in slang

He and co-creator Damon Beesley went back to their old schools to listen to youngsters speaking. They also made a list of the words they wanted to use and got a friend who teaches sixth formers in Bristol to run it by his pupils.

Morris agrees that regional variations mean there is no definitive list of terms that teenagers use. The important thing is to make sure it's authentic to the particular characters. So it is how they would speak to each other and to their parents, taking into account age, location and background.

"If you got in six teenage script consultants from six different parts of the UK, you'd get almost six different variations on how they spoke," he says.

And even if they're from the same area there is not always a complete consensus.

"The one we couldn't agree was on 'butters' - for someone who's ugly," says Antiqu'e. "I prefer 'busted', like your face is busted, but they kept 'butters' in, I think."

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