Lilly Singh’s Use of Black Speech Styles: ANTH 2420 Paper


Assignment 2: Language, race, and ethnicity in Toronto This assignment aims to use course readings on language, race and ethnicity to inform your analysis and understanding of the social meaning of language varieties in Toronto. Lilly Singh, the YouTube star and late-night talk show host from Toronto (and York University alumna!), uses various speaking styles in […]

Lilly Singh’s Use of Black Speech Styles/“Toronto Slang”

Toronto residents, mainly those of a younger generation, frequently use characteristic slang phrases and words. The latter comprises an informal style of speech that one mostly associates with the city. Toronto slang has cultural roots in the heart of Toronto’s solid immigrant community (Deol, 2020). Immigrant culture has effectively influenced the mosaic that Toronto presents as a city. The city has people from all backgrounds who speak different languages. However, Toronto slang has developed to be a powerful means of equalizing people of all social statuses and lifestyles. It enables them to communicate with each other in a meaningful and heartfelt way. Toronto slang majorly derives from Jamaican Patois, Arabic, and Somali. Although it is incredibly important that celebrities like Lilly Singh are introducing Toronto slang to a new global audience, it is crucial to remember where this beloved dialect was born and acknowledge the diverse culture that gave rise to the given vernacular as a way of generating a cultural mosaic.

Style Characteristics

Similarly to other dialects and languages around the globe, Toronto slang is rule-governed. Ahearn (2017) argued that linguistic systems such as African-American English (AAE) had their own pragmatics, phonology, semantics, syntax, and morphology. Arguably, the Toronto slang is not an exception in this regard, given the fact that it is a Black speech style. Considering Ahearn’s (2017) description of AAE, three features of Toronto slang are evident in Singh’s speech in her video “What a girl’s facial expressions mean.” The first is copula deletion, which entails excluding the conjugated form of “to be.” In such scenarios, it is grammatically correct to say, “she happy” instead of “she is happy” (Ahearn, 2017). Copula deletion adheres to rigorous rules and is not haphazard or random omission. The guidelines are comparable to those of Standard American English (SAE) which enables speakers to be aware of when it is suitable to use a contraction. Overall, Ahearn has demonstrated that copula deletion, like contraction in SAE, follows rigorous and careful rules in AAE.

The second grammatical form a person can find in Toronto slang is double negatives. For example, in her speech, Ahearn asserts, “I’m not tell you what a girls facial expression really mean” (Singh, 2014). In this respect, Ahearn has used two negatives in her speech to turn the sentence positive. According to Ahearn (2017), the use of double negatives is not automatically illogical or grammatically incorrect given that it can be traced in English back many centuries, and its usage was common for Shakespeare and Chaucer. The last feature of Toronto’s slang speech style is the reduction of final consonants. It differs from other English dialects in its syntax, morphology, and phonology. Based on some people’s language ideologies, such pronunciation variances are considered unsuccessful, sloppy or haphazard attempts to attain the SAE pronunciation. Nonetheless, the phonology of Toronto slang is rule-governed and, thus, highly regulated.

Mock Language or Language Crossing

One can consider Singh’s style of speech to be language crossing. She is using identity switches relating to language crossing to establish footing. The footing that Singh establishes through language crossing is the stance or alignment that she attains toward the utterance through her role within a locally transpiring participation framework. In this sense, the use of language crossing enables Singh to generate innovative participant context that attends to in-group social dynamics and local moral orders through subverting and appropriating non-local en-registered voices. The user can perform the persona of the television host by mobilizing a set of paralinguistic and linguistic markers, including phonological markers, grammatical structures, prosody, lexical items, contextualization cues, framing devices, and lexical items (Tetreault, 2009). In the end, speakers utilize language crossing to display their understanding and competence of the frame play in progress or to make it clear that they are aware of the fact that the transformation in footing has occurred.

Furthermore, language crossing is a specific form of code-switching in which Singh, in her style of speech, transgresses into a language in the social world that is not thought to belong to her group. In this sense, it is connected to the matters of overcoming, maintaining, contesting, and reinforcing social boundaries between ethnic groups (Tetreault, 2009). Therefore, as a speaker, Singh establishes footing in relation to utterance and toward the meta-pragmatic stereotypes on which utterance depends. The point, then, is that one can describe speech style of Singh as language crossing since it entails the shifting and transformation of dialects, accents, resources or codes whereby she has a user of language who is not necessarily a member of the group or linked to the group she is crossing. Therefore, via such crossing, Singh can incorporate a specific sense of movement across ethnic or social borders while raising issues of authenticity and legitimacy, which the interlocutors need to negotiate during their encounters.

Through the utilization of linguistic crossing, Singh tends to stylize, imitate, and fake her biological, linguistic repertoire. She adheres to the rules of the dominant language – Toronto slang – to replicate the native speaker of this language. As a user of Toronto slang, Singh tends to pretend that the code of the out-group is a part of her own inheritance as she aims to become a native speaker of the language she is crossing. Hence, the crossing is a preferred means of communication that allows the speaker to utilize the most comfortable language available to him or her (Tetreault, 2009). Language crossing establishes an opportunity for Singh to bond with other residents of Toronto. On the whole, language crossing functions as a “safe house,” which is a form of resistance strategy that Singh applies to control her reactions and emotions in non-threatening ways and conform to Toronto slang as the range of dominant linguistic and cultural norms.


Singh’s use of language crossing is perceived to index different social meanings of individuals based on their language, ethnicity, gender, background, and identity. For example, Singh is a Punjabi, Sikh, queer woman originally from Toronto. However, people from her background feel that she is hyper, and she achieves it by demeaning the caricature of Punjabi parents (Kaur, 2019). Her slang, enunciation of words, hand gestures, and body moves blend into aesthetics familiar to many Torontonians. One may consider it the impact of being raised around many regional cultures. However, others argue that she is clearly appropriating the culture of Black people and, at the same time, excluding them and their histories from the picture (Kaur, 2019). In brief, Singh considers cultural symbols like a costume while continuing to be ignorant of indentured labour and the history of slavery, from which these cultural elements originate.

Performative allyship Singh demonstrates entails devaluing the language and history of a culture and, thus, disrespecting the origins by claiming them to be hers while they are not. Appropriation and a previous steal of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a bright example of the abovementioned issue. Singh adopts a Caribbean accent, hip-hop slang, and braids. However, unlike Black people, she can ditch such specific markers of sociology and race whenever convenient (Simonpillai, 2019). Therefore, Singh has been getting much criticism for her regular code-switching. Her mannerism and clothing replicate the style and culture of Black women. For this reason, many people in good faith cannot assert being a fan of Singh. It is worth noting that she has built her brand and career around the appropriation of AAVE and Black clothing, such as the West African dashiki and hairstyle (Kuma, 2020). Therefore, it may be possible to state that she cosplays Black people in a certain way.


The Toronto slang as a speech style relates to Singh’s personal identity and voice in various ways. For example, her voice demonstrates a fundamental and potent part of who she is and how she expresses herself. Her voice has personality and character. It is the main way in which she makes contact with her audience. Singh’s voice has helped her form a personal identity because it makes her identifiable from others. In this sense, identity and language are connected at many levels. The reason is that language is a powerful concept to the extent of having the ability to be a force that fully models and forms an individual’s identity. The usage of phrases and words considerably influences the character and thoughts of a person. Furthermore, language is a tool that can greatly assist in creating new experiences and relationships. Posture, tonality, and attitude play a major role in making an impression on an individual when they converse with another person. Formal language with a stiff posture and clean presentation offers a respectful and firm impression on the audience. Thus, language does not only include phrases and words but also refers to posture and speech presentation.


Ahearn, L. M. (2017). Living language: An introduction to linguistic anthropology. Wiley Blackwell.

Deol, A. (2020, March 8). Opinion: The revolution of Toronto slang. The Varsity. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

Kaur, R. R. (2019, March 25). NBC is playing it safe with Lilly Singh. Now. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

Kuma, H. (2020, January 28). Not my representation. The Strand. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

Singh, L. (2014, May 19). What do a girl’s facial expressions mean? [Video]. YouTube.

Simonpillai, R. (2019, September 9). Lilly Singh talks late-night, Trump and cultural appropriation. Now. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from

Tetreault, C. (2009). Cité teens recontextualizing French TV host register: Crossing, voicing, and participation frameworks. Language in Society38(2), 201–231. doi: 10.1017/s0047404509090332

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