Thursday, 8 April 2010

EE, yet again

Students around the world often write to me and ask for advice or help on research they say they are carrying out on Estuary English. Unfortunately many of them are not in a position to collect actual speaker data from people in the southeast of England, so their “research” has to be an armchair study.
They write to me because I was foolhardy enough fifteen years ago to launch a website on the topic of EE, with the aim of bringing together the material on the subject that I could find on line or, in most cases, put on line. A lot of it was journalism, usually more or less sensational, making wild claims about this new variety of English supposedly sweeping the country and ousting RP from its former position of preeminence. Later, when academics were able bit by bit to investigate the truth of such claims, I did my best to publish (or link to) their research findings. In my view the most important of these were those by Joanna Przedlacka, incorporated in her 2002 book Estuary English? A sociophonetic study of teenage speech in the Home Counties. ISBN 3-631-39340-7, pb. Bern: Peter Lang. This work, as I put it,
demolishes the claim that EE is a single entity sweeping the southeast. Rather, we have various sound changes emanating from working-class London speech, each spreading independently.

I summarized her findings for my UCL students here and here.

In Britain media interest in the EE phenomenon has now died down, and it is three years since I have had anything to add to the site (most of which is now eight to twelve years old, an eternity in web time).
Nevertheless, I still receive emails like this one from Ámbar Romero in Chile.
I'm interested in doing some research on Estuary English and Received Pronunciation in order to do my Thesis project… I would like to ask you if you knew or if you had any information about the percentage of usage of these 3 characteristics of EE that are mentioned in the literature i.e. L-vocalization, the use of the glottal stop in final position and before consonants, and Yod- coalescence in tonic syllables. Is there any comparison between RP and EE speakers regarding the use of this features? ...I would very much [like to] know your opinion on the current status of RP, if you think it is including or not some of the characteristics of EE and if the latter might replace it as the accent of EFL in the short term.

What can one say? Here’s what I actually said.
Please read (or reread) Joanna Przedlacka's work. The point is that there is no real definable entity “Estuary English”. You can't divide up the speakers in the southeast into those who speak EE and those who speak something else. So there can be no comparative statistics of the kind you ask for (“Is there any comparison between RP and EE speakers regarding the use of this features?”). All we can do (given money, time, and effort) is to estimate the proportions of the population of a given area who do glottalling, yod coalescence etc in given phonetic environments and in given styles of speech.

If someone uses a relatively high proportion of glottalling, you might say “Ah! This must be a speaker of EE.” If you define EE speakers as those who use a lot of glottalling, you will indeed find that EE speakers use more glottalling than RP speakers (etc). But this argumentation is circular, therefore unscientific. A scientific approach would be to divide your speakers up by social class or some other non-linguistic criterion, then establish the possible correlation of phonetic variables such as glottalling with the non-phonetic variables.

All we have is various sound changes in progress. Many sound changes seem to spread out from London and from the working class into the middle class (and defining social class is another scientific nightmare). These sound changes all move at different rates. This kind of thing has certainly been going on in English English for at least five hundred years.

The leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron, is an Old Etonian and an archetypal RP speaker. But political commentators have recently asserted (with what truth I do not know) that he has been trying to make his speech sound more popular by using glottal stops. How does that relate to "the current status of RP"?

For EE to be used as the sole or main pronunciation model in EFL someone would have first to define it clearly and then produce learning materials (dictionaries, textbooks etc) using it. I don’t see any likelihood of that happening. Rather, BrE-oriented ELT will continue to be based mainly on a modernized version of RP (aka Standard Southern British English or SSBE, the modish term at BAAP last week).

But I hope that we’re gradually getting the message across that students will benefit from being exposed to a wide range of different varieties of English, just as native speakers are.


  1. I wonder if there was the same kind of sensationalist 'reporting' and reäction during the great vowel shift.

  2. As an aside, I find it amazing how some vowels are shifting back to earlier Modern English or even ME, with the HAPPY vowel getting back its length, the /i:/ going back to [əɪ] and the /a/ back to [a].

  3. "the /i:/ going back to [əɪ]" - that's not a reversion to an older form. Current [i:] is in FLEECE words, and was [e:] before the GVS. PRICE words, on the other hand, had [i:], and shifted to [əɪ] and then [aɪ].
    So "the /i:/ going back to [əɪ]" is further progress along the same trajectories as in the GVS, not backtracking.

  4. Yes, my fault - I realised only after hitting "post comment". But take the minor [ɔː] to [ɒ] in some words instead. :-)

  5. Or the less marginal opening in DRESS. FACE used to be less diphthongal for a while, but probably not universally in RP.

  6. Here's an interesting comment from the Wikipedia article on Cockney:

    Th-fronting, L-vocalisation and T-glottalization can now be found in every county of England (with L-vocalisation being largely absent from Northern England), whereas before the 1960s the only feature that was common to all of England, except for much of East Anglia and North East England, was H-dropping.

    It's interesting how the consonants have spread more than the vowels. Perhaps people are more conscious of vowels and less likely to be affected by others around them.

    One politician who definitely adapts his speech is Ed Balls. Sometimes he sounds completely RP, then at others he adopts a short /a/ in BATH and tries to make himself more electable in Yorkshire.

  7. P.S. Just in case people don't get my last sentence, Ed Ball's constituency is Morley & Outwood in Yorkshire.

  8. I looked at that Cockney article. I found on it:

    "... the early dialect researcher Alexander John Ellis believed that Cockney developed due to the influence of Essex dialect on London speech."

    So maybe it's Essex that influenced London rather than the other way around. That sounds plausible. Young Essex people don't sound much different from old Essex people.

  9. The online version of the Daily Telegraph in its edition of the 15th of June 2009 has a video clip showing DC during a session with voters from Norwich. You can clearly hear a lot of glottal stops.

  10. @Anonymous: I think AJ Ellis was talking about "Essex" in the days of Mercia and Wessex. At one point Essex included most of London, so it's not surprising that the dialect of that kingdom affected Cockney.

  11. It's interesting to me too how FLEECE is going in the same direction that PRICE once went in.

  12. But on the other hand GOOSE isn't going where MOUTH was going in the GWS, probably because that spot is already occupied by GOAT. Instead, it's getting fronted, like it happened to Old French and early Classical Greek; but in those language (I guess, based on the spelling), former /ou̯/ took its place, whereas English GOAT is going quite in the opposite direction. On the other hand, THOUGHT has gotten somewhat closer in the last century, so I think it's a good candidate for taking that place.

    Hence, my prediction for the vowels which will be used in two or three centuries are:
    FLEECE ɤɪ, GOOSE iː (or yː if you want to sound posh), FACE e̝ɪ, GOAT ɛɵ (or ɞ in casual speech), THOUGHT/NORTH/FORCE/CURE uː, START/BATH/PALM ɔː, and so on. Too bad that I won't live long enough to see that.

  13. GOOSE: certainly fronted, but there's also the tendency for a diphthong, as with MOUTH during the GVS. Anyway, as FLEECE, it's not going back.


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