Derek Denis remembers the exact moment, in 2015, when he learned the word mans. An assistant professor of linguistics at U of T Mississauga, Denis was speaking with students about the word man being used in the place of “I,” which researchers had begun hearing in immigrant neighbourhoods of London, England.
A young woman raised her hand: “But we have something just like that here.” The student sent Denis messages she had received from friends. Sure enough, there was mans being used for “I,” as in, “Mans has work in the morning, how about you?”
Denis was floored – as a biologist might be after seeing a newly discovered species of bird for the first time. The reason, as he explains, is that pronouns, linguistically, are like concrete. They hardly ever change. As other words move fluidly in and out of style, “I”and “you” and their cousins remain constant. This use of mans (like man in England) was completely new – and, in the history of the English language, quite rare. “Pronouns tend to be one of the most stable aspects of the grammar, so this was really cool to me,” he says.
As a linguistics researcher, Denis had become interested in what happens to language when immigrants from a wide variety of backgrounds come together in one place, such as London, New York, Paris or Toronto. What is emerging from these cities, usually from working-class neighbourhoods, he says, are “multi-ethnolects” – dialects of the local language that include words from multiple ethnic groups.
Denis has been studying the Toronto version of this phenomenon – Multicultural Toronto English – since 2015, and has become an expert in what’s popularly known as “Toronto Slang.”
He says mans is the best-known example of Toronto Slang, thanks in part to a Drake appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2016. In a sketch called “Black Jeopardy,” the Toronto-born musician says, “It’s really good to be here, dawg. I couldn’t take the TTC but mans made it over anyway.”
Where mans came from is a bit of a mystery: Denis says it has no direct analog in other languages spoken in Toronto. The earliest mention he could find was in the online Urban Dictionary, in 2006 (where it appears as manz); it doesn’t show up on Twitter until 2010. In an academic paper published in 2016, Denis writes that the most obvious theory is that the word came from London’s man, but he argues this is unlikely. Because London and Toronto have large Jamaican communities who use similar versions of Jamaican Creole, it’s quite possible mans/man evolved in each city independently, but from the same Caribbean language.
In four years, Denis has documented dozens of Toronto Slang words and phrases, which he tracks through conversations with people he recruits for his research. He also uses YouTube, which includes videos of people talking about Toronto Slang.
Many words come from Jamaican patois. But Somali and Arabic are also big influences, says Denis. From Somali (but originally Arabic), Toronto slang draws wallahi, meaning “I swear,” as in “Wallahi, mans didn’t take your phone.” Arabic gives us miskeen, a pathetic person or situation.
Borrowings from these three cultures are so prevalent in Toronto Slang partly because the city is home to many immigrants from these places. But there’s more to it than that, says Denis.
Word choices reveal more about us than simply what we’re trying to say. Our style of speaking, our pronunciation and the word variants we use – our “idiolect” – reflect elements of our background and how we want the world to see us. “There’s an aspect of Jamaican culture that’s cool,” says Denis. “So, taking words from that culture is also seen as cool.”
It can be controversial, too. Drake, for one, has been the target of criticism for using certain words (originating in the Jamaican or Somalian communities, for example) that some argue he doesn’t have an authentic claim to because he is not from these communities himself. Denis says he plans to explore this question of “cultural appropriation” in the next phase of his research.
Denis’s interest in Toronto Slang stems partly from the fact that he grew up in Scarborough, where many of the borrowed words originate. But he also wants to document a new dialect spoken by young people – especially those who are immigrants or the children of immigrants – so they’re not labelled as having a language deficiency. (According to Denis, this has occurred in the U.S. in the Black, Mexican-American and Indigenous Hawaiian communities.) “These kids are simply speaking the dialect they learned,” he says. “There’s nothing cognitively wrong with them.”
Although multi-ethnolects have emerged in several cities, Toronto Slang is uniquely Canadian, says Denis, reflecting our own cultural makeup. “We pride ourselves on being a multicultural society, and this is the linguistic result of that,” he says. “I think it’s something to be proud of.”
A Concise Guide to Toronto Slang
Mans: I, we, me, us, them – but also a general plural noun. Influence from Jamaican patois and London but homegrown in Toronto.
Ting: Thing, casual relationship. From Jamaican patois but a homegrown Toronto meaning.
Ahlie: “Eh” or “right.” A confirmational word. From patois.
Wallahi: I swear to God. Literally “by God.” From Somali (borrowed into Somali from Arabic).
Bucktee: General pejorative. From Somali word for drug addict (but derogatory, like “crackhead”).
Nize it: Shut up. A clipping of “recognize.” (“Recognize you’re out of line and shut up.”)