“I’m sorry your grandma passed away, I am yeah….”
The Making Of A Meme
In the internet age, before TikTok irrevocably changed the way we consume media, viral content was centrally sourced through the creaking bones of legacy media. Though we now live in an attention economy rife with staged media engineered to achieve virality, there was a time when candid, often unguarded moments migrated effortlessly off our collective TV screens and into a new fragmented domain of debate and scrutiny that is the internet. During this relatively slower pace of the information age, these viral moments were fewer and far between, and tended to dominate our attention for much longer, and therefore have deeper and more enduring impact.
In this world where life was still generated offline, that familiar impulse, when you saw a cringe or comical moment on national television, to join the communal warmth of the internet to mock, dissect and dismember it with your digital peers, was common. Many of those moments – be they from This Morning, Come Dine With Me or other TV staples that tapered into the millennial era, have regained traction through platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, entering a new, much more crowded ecosystem of attention-grabbing content – opening them up to younger and newer audiences and creating a common, emerging, internet vernacular (All ‘6 foot 2 in a hatchback’ of it…).
These clips, extracts and distillations of cultural events carry on in that same spirit that generated them; they are moments of common expression – be it disgust, humour, dismay or mockery – crystalised in popular memory. They immortalise these feelings and sentiments and cement them in our cultural muscle memory. The memes of today become our shared language and values of tomorrow.
The Politics Of The Meme
What’s worrying about this is that these moments which are ironically built upon shared sentiment are often exclusionary; in how they deride and sneer at any given person, symbol or culture. They epitomise the contradictory nature of ourselves as social animals, and our internet, in that our feelings of togetherness and solidarity are often built upon the barring of others. Our proclamations of other people’s or group’s moral or social inferiority come from a paradoxical assertion of our apparent superiority. It seems that the only way to create cultural unity is by manufacturing pockets of disunity. Even in this relatively ‘socially conscious’ epoch of youth culture, where we are arguably most conscious about offending, we are unable to resist a good ganging-up and cussing down of someone for some innocuous act, and the feelings of superiority it gives rise to.
In that same vein of contradictoriness, those memes which represent symbols of undesirability are often shared and scorned by those that claim progressive values, and are often subconsciously punching down based on race, gender or class. Very often the things we collectively and unquestioningly deride, mock, or laugh at serve as proxies for marginalised identities such as working class or racialised cultures – see the plethora of TikToks mocking white working-class culture and denigrating these aesthetics and lifestyle choices. Because we forget how ingrained we all are in a capitalist system which depends upon an underclass, and how this plays out along the lines of race and gender in common culture.
Of course, this instinct to trod on others to make ourselves feel taller is not confined to the online world – the entire fashion industry and the notion of exclusivity lay testament to this. But we can look at these cultural moments, the memes, internet discourse and the sentiment that they’ve spurned in the social laboratory of the internet, and learn a lot about what we try to suppress about us as a culture.
How A Young Girl From Yorkshire Changed The Way We Speak
Nowhere is this more apparent than the oft-quoted, always derided ‘I’m sorry your grandma passed away, I am yeah…’ A fateful exchange between two previously best friends, filmed as an almost negligible part of a Channel 4 documentary series called Educating Yorkshire, which documented the everyday lives of a secondary school in West Yorkshire. Though it probably does not require retelling, the now immortalised soliloquy was part of a mediation session in the portentous environment of a school teacher’s office – lending the broader context a disarming familiarity that may explain part of its universal appeal and contagion. As well as being shared online, clips of this young girl Safiyyah’s verbiage were circulated on WhatsApp alongside disparaging comments, all with an inbuilt air of arrogance.
We as a culture have become so literate in this apparently inarticulate babble, that it falls off the tongue for most people in the UK with internet access and a marginal sense of self-awareness. So uniting are those seven, now very pithy words that we have emblazoned them across tote bags, mugs, and other conveniently marketed products. It has become an anthem of sorts, one that denotes a shared feeling and positionality. Though we mock this rant’s apparent senseless nature, it spoke to many of us in a language that resonated with us and touched a common reflex.
When we look at the cultural ripples created by this monologue, we see they are the result of both those personal momentary instincts to denigrate and the long-term broader implications of our herd mentality. There was something about the parlance of this young, working-class South Asian girl that created this instant cultural tsunami. As we watched from our homes, what instinct was triggered as we heard those faltering words? And what does its enduring appeal say about our cultural attitudes towards the politics of language, expression, youth, urban and racialised culture?
The comedic value of Safiyyah’s speech comes from its apparent ‘base’ nature, the fact it appears so unthought-out, inarticulate and disarrayed. It is funny to the moral majority because looking down on it makes us feel the opposite – intelligent, coherent and cerebral. We feel smug in the knowledge that we recognise her speech as divergent and that makes us part of a majority that speaks ‘better.’ Like many markers of class and race, language, speech and diction are tools used to denote primacy as well as belonging and legitimacy. The inarticulate brute is a stereotype that plagues working-class communities the world over, despite it being based on a narrow, entirely classist and reductive understanding of language which privileges a singular type of speech and expression.
The Politics Of Language
There are of course generational implications to this. We know that language has a natural and beautiful elasticity, which means that younger generations will always adapt, change and mould it to suit their needs and make their mark on what is effectively a social contract. We also know this is almost always due to the anxiety of an older gatekeeping generation. While this creativity should be applauded, that inherent tension in the evolution of a living and breathing institution such as the fabric of language is a tale as old as time. A tale which now consumes canonical texts that we deem worthy of our educational time and cultural veneration, but which were shunned at the time of their inception due to their subversive use of language and tradition.
While part of the snobbery around language today comes from older, institutional generations deriding this new breed of expression, there is also a racio-liniguistic element to the brand of mocking Safiyyah fell victim to. This is rooted in colonial attitudes to language deeming English a sign of intellect, rather than an expression of a language as equal to any other.
The racial dimensions of the politics of language and expression sharpen the tools by which whole communities are oppressed for their often hybrid tongue. For communities in Britain for whom English is not their first language, it further labels them as “foreign”, providing an additional means for cultural mocking and political marginalisation. Lest we forget that at one point the British government rested the lion’s share of its effort to ‘de-radicalise’ Muslim communities through English language classes.
Socially, those deemed to have a poor mastery of the English language are considered less worthy, and politically the implications of speaking English ‘poorly’ are far greater – denoting an illegitimacy that should be ludicrous to all of us. Indeed, there isn’t a single political opportunity that passes where we aren’t reminded of the modern lore of ‘whole communities’ who don’t even ‘bother’ to learn the English language. This crime of being unable or unwilling to speak English hurts our most common sensibilities. The monster has a tongue, and it isn’t standardised English.
Language, and the implications of a speech that doesn’t conform to standardised norms, is something that educational institutions have an unhealthy preoccupation with. Currently the ‘word gap’ is a theory from which whole policy approaches have been adopted, which takes a deficit approach to the language of children from marginalised backgrounds, and which views any kind of expression that deviates from classical BBC English as aberrant and in need of fixing. Very often children who come from marginalised backgrounds are assumed to have home environments which are framed as not being as ‘language rich’. There is no evidence to suggest that working class and racialised communities are less expressive or use a narrower range of vocabulary – the only two possible variables to define richness. What’s left unsaid in this policy position, ironically designed to promote linguistic expression, is that it’s the kind of language that is considered unacceptable by these institutions. To the contrary, the code-switching and dual linguism required for children from both groups would point to a broader expressive capacity.
Given the need to ‘fix’ deviant language is ingrained in the institution of schooling, is it any wonder a documentary about British schooling produced such wide-scale mockery based on someone’s speech and expression alone? What measure are we using when we evaluate children’s speech and expression? And how can we as a society deem street slang or other forms of youth dialect as less expressive when they are providing the fabric by which children and young people navigate the complexities of the modern world? How are these forms of expression less beautiful when they are borne from the life, shared experiences and circumstantial quirks of a whole generation of people?
Perhaps our collective mocking of Safiyyah comes from the butting of these two language systems – the ‘knowing’ cynical world of the internet, which constantly masquerades as socially conscious and egalitarian, and the very real lived language of someone like Safiyyah who claims no such pretension and is constantly failed by those who paternalistically claim to represent and protect her? Is the self-referential, knowingly cynical and apparently virtuous language and value system of the internet intelligentsia really that much more different from those institutions they criticise and seek to reform?
Certainly, the language around ‘EAL’ (English as an Additional Language) children in primary schools needs to take into context the barometers by which we are measuring children’s progress and success, and the broader scale of those metrics. This is because speaking more than one language is objectively an achievement in itself, and this needs to be recognised in the institution of schooling. But also because even by those standards, children who are mentally juggling twice as many linguistic signifiers achieve equal academic outcomes by secondary school, a testament to the strength of multilingualism. This fact, and the achievement of dualinguism, appears only to be recognised for European languages. The weight that the English language and the right accent hold in modern-day Britain is both undeniable and shameful.
The Legitimate Tongue
For those of us from South Asian backgrounds, or those who potentially speak English as a second language, there is something undeniably familiar about Safiyyah’s staccato-like barrage. In particular, it speaks to the speed and acerbic capacity of Punjabi dialects that those of us familiar with some parts of South Asian culture will recognise. Its instant comedic appeal also speaks to a broader cultural legacy of English-speaking South Asians, and those cultural hang-ups of an ‘Apu’-like cadence. There is something endearing about the faltering nature of it to those of us who are or have been in intimate proximity with, non-native English speakers – an unease that is sadly bred by attitudes regarding English proficiency as a measure of worth.
There is a certain dimension to Safiyyah’s expressive language and tone that is almost a perfect marriage between that Punjabi pace and the unique insouciance that arises from growing up in the wilderness of British schooling. Many of us will be familiar with the need to appear emotionally unmoved and stoic in our youth due to the very British pressure in schools to appear impassive and nonchalant. Crucially, Safiyyah’s diction therefore speaks of a linguistic richness and wealth, and a social astuteness – not a deficiency as many of us removed from her context would frame and deride it for.
Part of the derision may indeed come from that defensive familiarity, that many of us from racialised backgrounds feel to not sound like Safiyyah. How pervasive cultural expectations have forced us to train the Safiyyah out of our speech, how that telephone voice that we assume more and more as we enter the public and professional world soon becomes a linguistic mask we willingly bear to appear presentable and accepted by the institutions we come to navigate.
How the threat of a mispronounced word, or a misjudged sentence, might expose our foreign tongue and potential to not belong. The modern-day, urban mother tongue, the dialect we sometimes think in, sounds much more like Safiyyah than many of us who lay a claim to ‘realness’ are willing to admit.
An Internet Culture That Could Do Better
That this clip has entered our cultural canon similarly exposes many contradictions. Many will point out the trend amongst Millennial and Gen Z audiences of assigning an ethical value to any given trend they may be drawn to or repulsed by. This is because we have become conditioned to see our likes and dislikes as a sign of our morality, rather than superficial preferences; denoting a constant need to feed our sense of superiority. Less, however, is written about how the inverse is true – how we ignore moral considerations when it comes specifically to our instincts for condescension and snobbery. We may want to focus on our capacity to be principled when it creates a positive self-image, but we are less likely to hold a mirror up to our darker, more insidious tendencies, or to probe into our less desirable side.
This is particularly the case for those who position themselves on the left – who will actively speak in favour of more progressive policies regarding language policing in schools for example, or against social and cultural attitudes that deem non-standard English-speaking dialects as deficient. While they might never mock someone like Safiyyah to her face, nor expect working-class south Asian girls to speak or be expected to speak in any one standardised way, there is something in them, and all of us, that sneers at this. It speaks of a kind of investment in an online world, where we hold a different, more contradictory and self-indulgent value system, and where despite the abundance of discourse so much is still left repressed and unexpressed – perhaps because unlike Safiyyah we don’t have the language, authenticity or heart to say it.
Mariya is a 33-year-old mother of two young girls with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally and in the UK. IG: @muswellbooks