Wednesday, 17 April 2013

estuariality

I had a phone call a few days ago from someone trying to get in touch with David Rosewarne. The caller thought I might have his contact details. I was unable to help, since as far as I remember I have only met Rosewarne once, and that briefly; the last I heard of him was that he was working in Malaysia, but I do not know where he might be now.

David Rosewarne’s great claim to fame is that in October 1984 he coined the expression “Estuary English”, in an article published in the Times Educational Supplement.

In doing so he gave expression to the widespread perception that Daniel Jones-style RP was gradually losing its status as the unquestioned standard accent of educated English people. Or, putting it a different way, that RP was changing by absorbing various sound changes that previously had been restricted to Cockney or other non-prestigious varieties.

Two years earlier, in my Accents of English, I had written

Throughout [London], the working-class accent is one which shares the general characteristics of Cockney. We shall refer to this accent as popular London. […] Middle-class speakers typically use an accent closer to RP than popular London. But the vast majority of such speakers nevertheless have some regional characteristics [emphasis added]. This kind of accent might be referred to as London (or, more generally, south-eastern) Regional Standard.

I added the warning

It must be remembered that labels such as ‘popular London’, ‘London Regional Standard’ do not refer to entities we can reify but to areas along a continuum stretching from broad Cockney (itself something of an abstraction) to RP.

So Rosewarne’s observations in a sense contained nothing new. He muddied the waters unhelpfully by referring to details of vocabulary and grammar (which have nothing to do with “a new variety of pronunciation”). But the name he coined, Estuary English, was taken up quite widely, gaining resonance eventually not only with journalists but also with the general public, to such an extent that we can now expect to be readily understood if we describe someone’s speech as “estuarial”.

The estuary Rosewarne was thinking of was of course the Thames estuary, which in a geographical sense might be interpreted as extending from Teddington near Kingston upon Thames (the point where the river becomes tidal) down to Southend-on-Sea (where the Thames enters the North Sea). Rosewarne’s original article says “the heartland of this variety lies by the banks of the Thames and its estuary, but it seems to be the most influential accent in the south-east of England”; though later writers, particularly Coggle in his Do you speak Estuary? (1993) implied that it covered the entire southeast of the country. It was left to my colleague Joanna Przedlacka to demonstrate that it did no such thing (see her 2002 book Estuary English? and this summary). Przedlacka demolished the claim that EE was a single entity sweeping the southeast. Rather, we have various sound changes emanating from working-class London speech, each spreading independently.

Rosewarne’s suggestion that EE “may become the RP of the future” led to credulous excitement in the EFL world, particularly in central Europe and South America.

It was in response to media and academic interest in the topic that in 1998 I set up a website “to bring together as many documents as possible that relate to Estuary English, as a convenient resource for the many interested enquirers.”

One thing I did myself was to consider how we might agree on a phonetic transcription scheme, which would be needed for pedagogical purposes if we seriously wanted to teach this putative new accent. See this article. But no one followed this up by criticizing my proposals or suggesting anything better.

All the excitement gradually died down. I last had cause to update the website in 2007. By the time I retired, in 2006, this was my one-page summary of the issue. EFL teachers, meanwhile, mostly know that we just need to update our pedagogical model of RP in the minor ways outlined in LPD.

10 comments:

  1. Someone at Essex Uni produced this map, which indexes how similar dialects were to that of London in the Survey of English Dialects. Notice how the east coast has a band of Londonisation running up.

    Times have changed since then. I've understood "Estuary English" to denote a common non-RP accent in most counties of the south-east. For example, I can't imagine that there is any trace of traditional speech left in Sussex but that doesn't mean that everyone there speaks RP. Instead there is a variety more similar to Cockney than to traditional Sussex that is effectively their local accent. Does this sound right?

    Accents of English deals only briefly with the south-east outside London (e.g. Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Berkshire). Was this because their local accents were on the brink of extinction at the time and you weren't sure what would happen in their place?

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    1. @Ed: That map is by Hans Goebl from the university of Salzburg, and is from The Computer Developed Linguistic Atlas of England. It doesn't represent similarity to the Cockney accent; it represents similarity in terms of the answers (lexical, morphological) to the SED questionnaire, and since the Cockney answers in the SED are very similar to Standard English in these respects, the map roughly represents how standard each dialect was (lexically, morphologically). So it has nothing to do with Estuary English really, although it does reveal some interesting patterns of dedialectalisation in the Midlands.

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    2. No, Ed, it was because of my ignorance: I didn't know much about them (beyond the obvious), and no one had published any research into them. That's why Przedlacka's PhD work was so ground-breaking.

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    3. @ Warren: Thanks for that information. I wasn't sure if "London" referred to the SED site at Hackney or to something else (probably the 1 in the "313 + 1 SED sites" at the bottom of the map). However, I argue that it is relevant to Estuary English. Isn't the idea that areas of the south-east used to have different dialects but now there is not much variation? This map shows an era before dialect-levelling in the south-east. You wouldn't get this level of difference from London now.

      @ John: I understand. It would've been impossible to cover everywhere evenly. Perhaps some future researcher reading this will research the rural south-east's speech.

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  2. @Ed - this is entirely anecdotal, but I think there is at least a trace of a traditional Sussex accent in Sussex. A few years ago I was at Plumpton races and noticed a few - very few - people speaking what sounded to me like a sussex accent. Even marginally rhotic. I also have some reltatives by marriage whose vowels sound very Sussex to me (tho non-rhotic)

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    1. Yes, my sentence "I can't imagine that there is any trace" was probably going too far. A problem is that dialect-speakers are only likely to speak dialect with their friends and family. Shorrocks said of his work in Bolton that some people feel very nervous about speaking to strangers because they're embarrassed about how broadly they speak. I can believe this is the case for some people, but we'll never know how many.

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  3. As for supposed Sussex "cockney", that is my own accent. I was born and brought up in Brighton in the 1950s to the 1980s. So my natural speech is so-called "estuary". We were sometimes said to be speaking "cockney" but now I live in south-east London - where distinctively London accents are alive and well it is obvious that I do not have a London accent. My vowels are mearer to RP - or possibly even Sussex - than most of my neighbours, but I glottalise /t/ even more than they do, I have less th- fronting, and am if anything even more npn-rhotic. (typical Brighton council estate).

    I imagine a triangle with marked RP at one corner, oldstyle cockney at another, and underlying local accents at the third. (in my case East Sissex, for most of my Lewisham and Deptford neighbours it would be Kent). Most south-east English accents are somewhere in that space. That is what "estuary" is.

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    1. That's interesting. I imagine that the speech of Brighton might be mixed owing to the large number of incomers to the city. A similar thing applies to Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire.

      If Wikipedia is right, David Blanchlower went to school in Brighton yet his speech doesn't sound very southern to me.

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    2. According to Wikipedia, the economist David Blanchflower went to the same school as me! He's older than I am and I can't remember ever meeting him though.

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