Helping Americans understand “Attack the Block”

I recently saw the film Attack the Block, (and I absolutely loved it, by the way), which features a gang of teen-aged boys in their south London neighborhood struggling for territorial dominance against the police, a drug dealer…and recently arriving aliens.  Oh, it’s a great movie!

Moses, Ninja!

But some Americans may have a little trouble understanding the dialogue.  For the most part it’s in a dialect probably best described as cockney, and there’s a bit of unfamiliar slang as well.  For me it was very enjoyable and fun, and I think the main motivations and actions are clear even if you can’t catch or decipher every word, but I thought I’d post a few helpful hints.

First of all, interdentals [th-sounds, a voiceless θ as in “thin, thigh” or a voiced ð as in “then, thy”] are often pronounced as labio-velar fricatives, [so θ might become f, ð might become v].  That means “brother” comes out sounding like “bruvah”, (the r-deletion being a common feature among most modern British dialects).  And “thing” is pronounced “fing”, although not every single th-sound is converted to an f or a v.  Sometimes it is a d or a t instead, even for the same speaker.  It depends on the word, where the th-sound appears (and by what other sounds), and also probably just the mood or speed of the speaker.  Throughout most of the film, Moses says “fings” instead of “things,” but in one pivotal scene he says:

Yo, check it.  More.  (More what?)  Dem tings.

This is similar to the two ways that a speaker like myself might pronounce the word “often,” (with the t or without), and it really just depends on how fast I’m talking, and to whom, and whether or not I am stressing that word.  In any case, another feature that distinguishes the cockney dialect is the abundance of glottal stops.  Glottal stops are everywhere!  I might borrow a line from Biggz and say “It’s rainin’ glottal stops!” instead of “it’s rainin’ Gollums!”  A glottal stop [ʔ] is produced by putting the vocal folds together to completely cut off all air in the glottis, then releasing the air suddenly.  It’s the sound in-between the segments of “uh-oh”.   In the cockney dialect, t’s in the middle or end of a word are often replaced with a glottal stop.  So, you get lines like:

Leʔ us roll wif you, we’re bad boys!  (-Probs and Mayhem)

I killed dat fing.  I brought dem in da block.  I’ve goʔa finish what we staʔeʔ [“started”] (-Moses)

You’ʔ be beʔa off callin’ the ghost busters, love. (-Pest)

As far as slang, there was really only one that was unrecognizable to me, and that was “fam”.  It appeared at least twice, once towards the beginning when freshly mugged Sam makes a run for it and one of the boys tells Moses,

Eh fam, she’s ghostin’!

To which he repiles,

Allow iʔ.  (“allow it”, a line later repeated by the stoic Moses after a rousing speech by one of his loyal minions, “Moses versus the monsters! Kill ’em!  Kill all dem fings!)

The only other time that I noticed it, (mind you this is based on a single viewing), was when the boys are in Ron’s apartment discussing what to do with the body of the alien they’ve killed.  It’s suggested that it might be worth something, and somebody suggests:

e-bay, fam!

Otherwise the boys refer to one another as bro, bruvah, dude, or by proper name.  I consulted with an expert, (my cousin MD who grew up in England), and it turns out “fam” is a similar term to “bro”, short for “family” instead of “brother” and used in the same way to convey a close relationship with somebody that may not literally be in your family.

"Right now I feel like goin' home, lockin' the door, and playin' FIFA!"

Another terminology that may sound strange to American ears is “innit”.   This is a shortening of “isn’t it,” and it’s used much more generally than the same phrase in American English.  It can be used with any person to take the place of aren’t I/aren’t you/isn’t he/isn’t it/doesn’t it/aren’t we/don’t we/aren’t they/don’t they.  Sometimes it just means, “ya know?”  It’s a tag at the end of a statement.  As in:

You know what? I’m shittin’ myself, innit…but this is sick.  [sick meaning “cool” here, of course].


We’re heroes, isn’t it? [meaning, “we’re heroes, aren’t we?”]

Another little tidbit I noticed was that the character Hi-Hatz displays some interesting word choice, saying both,

We gotta learn them youngers tonight, this is my block!


I was gonna make you.  Now I’m gonna dead you.  This is my block, get me?

Creative, isn’t it?  But those aren’t patterns displayed by the other characters.  Although, I also loved the creativity of one of the boys when Hi-Hatz threatens that he’d better not use the word “alien” again, so he says “one a’ them big gorilla-wolf motha fuckas.”  That’s called circumlocution, folks.  My high school Spanish teacher was always trying to get us to “use circumlocution!” instead of looking up words we didn’t know.  She’d be so proud.

(on hearing Sam is a nurse): "Help me, then. I NEED this leg, I need it to run away from the aliens!"

Okay, I think that’s it for my “Attack the Block” dialect lecture.  I’ll leave you with another tidbit of cultural context; the reason the boys (and so many others) are shooting off fireworks throughout the night is that it’s Guy Fawkes Day, (November 5), a somewhat strange holiday to commemorate a failed attempt to blow up the British Parliament celebrated with explosions and fires.  The clue comes in a bit of dialogue when the boys triumphantly drag their freshly killed alien carcass past a group of their co-ed peers, and somebody comments “Halloween was last week, you know.”  (I must credit MD again for helping me figure this one out, although I should have “remember[ed], remember[ed], the fifth of November, the gunpowder, treason and plot.”).



Filed under language, movies, nerd

16 responses to “Helping Americans understand “Attack the Block”

  1. billy

    Just a small point; the caption beneath the second pic should end with FIFA, not fever. It’s a computer/ console soccer game. (Federation of International Football Associations.

  2. Pingback: Attack the Block | Digest Movies

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  4. Sweet Pea Brooks

    The part – High Hatz: We gotta learn them youngers tonight, this is my block! Meaning: We have to teach the gang who’s in charge of this block (area/territory) This being said after the gang crashes into his car.

    The part – High Hatz: I was gonna make you.  Now I’m gonna dead you.  This is my block, get me? Meaning: I was gonna make you is like saying I was gonna make you a “Made Man” like a drug dealer… Now I’m gonna dead you is like saying, “now I’m gonna kill you.”

    The language they speak is common in South London because of the multicultural influences – most commonly Jamaican/West Indian – called jafaken – like fake Jamaican

    Most of the movies dialog is common in reggae and hip hop songs. Similar to the soundtrack and musical score

  5. yung

    is it the same as c
    ockney accent in london?

  6. to pest i an girlfriday love from leannexxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

  7. alex i love you film love from leanne

  8. Matthew

    I enjoyed reading this. Just one thing, no one here (I live in London) would call that a cockney accent; it’s too different. Also, cockney accents would only be found in East London, whilst this accent is mainly associated with South London (although it can be found throughout London).

    • thanks for the input! is there a particular label you would use to describe their dialect?

      • Sonic

        It’s not cockney, there’s too much Afro-caribbean slang in the dialect. If you chided someone for talking ‘street’ in polite company they would know what you ment. You might call it ‘grime’ after the genre of music that it features in prominantly.

        And it’s FIFA. 🙂 There’s a new FIFA game out every year, the previous one gets discounted massively very quickly on release to the extent they can be picked up for a tenth of the price of a new console game. They clog up discount bins for years.

  9. Pingback: British Slang in The Casual Vacancy | pagelady

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