Friday 2 July 2010

cockney then and now

Thanks to Amy Stoller for pointing us to a video clip of Julie Andrews being coached for her Cockney accent for the film of My Fair Lady, 1956. (The dialect coach is American…). As Amy says, “it was clearly staged for the cameras to publicize the show, but is a find nonetheless”.
That kind of stage Cockney was, I think, always a little too good to be true. But in any case that sort of Cockney, Cockney of the kind I describe in my Accents of English book, Cockney as researched by the likes of Eva Sivertsen, is disappearing from the traditional area within earshot of Bow Bells in Cheapside as a result of demographic changes. Its speakers have largely moved out to outer boroughs and to new towns in Essex and Hertfordshire.

Yesterday’s London Evening Standard (now a freesheet and much improved on its earlier, paid, version) carried an article on the subject.
As its traditional speakers emigrate to Essex and Hertfordshire, the 650-year-old accent is dying off in London, to be replaced by multicultural London English, heavily influenced by West Indian patois, Bangladeshi and remnants of old cockney. The dialect won't die off altogether. It will survive in the descendants of those Home Counties émigrés. You can hear it happening today: teenagers in Essex speak like Henry Cooper and Barbara Windsor; in Lambeth, they are more likely to sound like Ali G.

The article is written on a popular style but based on serious academic research by Paul Kerswill and his team working on “Multicultural London English”. (Blog, 16 Nov 2006 and 25 Mar 2008)
Cockney in the East End is now transforming itself into multicultural London English, a new, melting-pot mixture of all those people living here who learned English as a second language. Ever since the 1960s, these areas of London have become home to immigrants from the West Indies, the Indian subcontinent and many other places, from South America and Africa to Central Asia and the Far East. Some of these people spoke the kind of English typical of their original countries. Others couldn't speak English, so children were speaking their native language at home but were learning English at school.
“This means that children were no longer learning their English dialect from local cockney speakers but from older teenagers, who themselves had developed their English in the linguistic melting pot. Out of all this, the new English which we call multicultural London English emerged, and this is the sound of inner-city London we hear today.”
This hybrid, known in slang terms as “Jafaican”, is a mixture of cockney, Bangladeshi and West Indian. Its leading fictional exponent is Ali G; a genuine user is Dizzee Rascal, the 24-year-old rapper, born in Bow, and a supporter of the cockney football team, West Ham.
The newspaper article chooses, perhaps wisely, not to attempt any description of the phonetic changes involved in the switch from the old Cockney to the new mLE, but entertains us instead with a Jafaican glossary.

Creps — trainers
Endz — area, estate, neighbourhood
Low batties — trousers that hang low on the waist
Skets — derogatory term for loose girls ...

I have to say, though, that young Londoners I encounter don’t seem to use most of these expressions, at least when speaking to me: only ɑːks for ask and ˈɪnɪʔ innit as the universal question tag.


  1. Research since the 1960s has well established that AAVE-speakers accommodate themselves to the standard dialect when talking to non-hostile white authority. Possibly a similar effect is distorting your individual perception of mLE.

  2. Julie Andrews was being coached for the original stage production on Broadway, not the film! She was the only one of the three leads in the Broadway hit not cast in the movie version of My Fair Lady, in which Eliza Doolittle was played by the always-lovely but completely miscast Audrey Hepburn. (The other two leads were, of course, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway. Andrews received the Oscar that year for her performance in the title role of Mary Poppins, while Hepburn was not even nominated.)

  3. Something similar to what you describe re Cockney has happened to the classic Noo Yawk accent. Much of Brooklynese has migrated to Long Island and Staten Island, although it is not dead in New York - not yet.

  4. I suppose I should have said "the rest of New York," since Staten Island is actually a borough of the city. BUt it doesn't really count. (That's a joke, folks - sort of.)

  5. Does anyone know of freely available corpora for either "traditional" Cockney or Multicultural English variety?) (I know the British Library sources as well as Corpus of English Intonation in the British Isles, but was looking for others).

  6. @Amy Stoller: ...also, Brooklyn is technically part of Long Island.

  7. @Mollymooly,
    The two are not mutually exclusive. Brooklyn is certainly a borough of NYC even though it (like Queens) are "technically" on Long Island. For most people, however, Long Island is really only Naussau and Suffolk counties.

  8. And is the London accent becoming fashionable in pop music? You can clearly hear a glottal stop in "getting", "late", "but" and "don't" in "Memories" (2:27 It's sung by Kid Cudi, an American rapper.

  9. @Pedro:

    Glottalling of /t/ is endemic in the younger generation over here in Northern California.

    I remember my initial surprise when a teenage girl working in a Starbucks, who by every appearance was locally raised, touted [glʉʔn] free cookies!

  10. So there are still young speakers speaking a Cockney-like accent in the Home Counties? That's kind of strange, considering that the popular belief in England is that the Home Counties are home to extremely posh accents.

  11. vp: It's one thing to glottalize your t before syllabic n, and I agree that that is becoming quite common in North America (words such as getting, gluten). But do the locals in your area say [leɪʔ], [ɡɛʔ], [bɛʔɚ], [sɪʔi]?

  12. @Pedro and VP,
    I think glottal stops have always been possible in AmE for the contexts you describe in at least some parts of the country. A lot of Americans, for example, would pronounce "button" as [bʌʔn] (and I imagine the person singing "getting" pronounces a syllabic n rather than a velar plosive at the end). There might be some difference among parts of the country or among speakers within those areas, but the appearance of a glottal stop in these examples is not really all that remarkable in AmE per se. I would accept the influence of London accent on American speech if the glottal stop appeared in a context where it doesn't typically occur. So, for instance, if an American used a glottal stop in a word like "butter" or in "lot of" (where Americans would use a flap), I might be inclided to attribute such an influence.

    @Anonymous (above),
    You might find Joanna Przedlacka's Estuary English useful in answering this question.


  13. Oh, this is a useful off-topic turn. There's a rather widespread misconception among the, erm, wider public (i.e. language peevers and sociolinguists, those perverts) that there's little (or in fact no) glottalisation in American English. This even extends to my fellow (NNS) pronunciation teachers.

    In my experience, this is blatantly untrue, so I wholeheartedly support anonymous, luke and vp above. But very little has been published on this -- probably fewer than five articles. The amount of attention in the literature that glottalisation in the UK has received is larger by several orders of magnitude. One reason is, of course, the social importance that is attached to it in the UK. Glottalisation seems to be far less sociophonetically marked in the US.

    So, more comments, please. Or maybe our host would be so kind as to write a whole separate post about it?

  14. @wiserk,
    (Joe again, by the by, I really do need to get a Google identity)

    Try Google Scholar if you are looking for articles on the subject. There is certainly a lot of information on the subject. It took me less a minute to find three articles: "Glottalization of word-initial vowels as a function of prosodic structure," "54,000" American Stops," and "Insights into spoken language gleaned from phonetic transcription of the switchboard corpus" (all of which are freely available).

  15. For @wiserk read @wjarek

  16. @Joe anonymous: It's not that easy. I'm familiar with all of these. The first deals, as the title suggests, with the glottalisation of vowels (aka "hard attack"), and refers to rather well-known work by Pierrehumbert on the same topic. What we're talking of here is glottalisation of /t/. The second and third article give rather basic statistical data, without any sociophonetic discussion whatsoever. The third even says, "Perhaps the most interesting observation is the relatively high frequency of the glottal stop [q] in spontaneous speech", which sort of supports my question. The major sociophonetic work in the field that I'm aware of is Roberts, J. 2006. "As old becomes new: Glottalization in Vermont". American Speech 81: 227-249. And the author complains of the scarcity of research into /t/ glottalisation in American English...

  17. @wjarek
    Ah, I see. Sorry, I didn't realize what you were asking for. My bad.


  18. I don't know if there is glottalization of /t/ in North American English, but there are many unreleased /t/'s. Those two things sound similar to me for some reason. I'm American by the way.

  19. In my experience, Am.Eng. speakers usually realise /t/ as a glottal stop when:

    /t/ comes before a consonant

    /t/ comes before /ən/: cotton, written, important etc.

    when /t/ comes before /ɨn/: gettin’, writin’, mountain etc.

    I’ve only ever once heard an American realise intervocalic /t/ as a glottal stop: to[Ɂ]al. The speaker was a man in his fifties from New York, and was interviewed in the BBC programme Stephen Fry in America (I can’t find the clip online unfortunately).

    I’m yet to hear an American who always realises word-final /t/ as a glottal stop, as happens in, for example, the vast majority of English English speakers born after WWII.

    By this, I mean that no matter whether /t/ comes before a consonant (he hi[Ɂ] me), a vowel (he hi[Ɂ] us), or is utterance-final (I found i[Ɂ]), it is realised as a glottal stop.

    For example:

    Do you have a YouTube (account)?

    Yes I do, bu[Ɂ] I don’t use i[Ɂd].

    (05:20 onwards in this vid):

    She realises the /t/ of "but" as a glottal stop, even though /t/ comes before a vowel, but when utterance-final, she realises /t/ as [Ɂd] (the most common realisation for utterance-final /t/ in North American speech).


    Another noteworthy feature of what, in my experience, occurs in the speech of a minority of speakers of English from the USA, is L-vocalisation, a consistent feature of this speaker’s speech: (

    (However, /l/ + /w/ usually = [w w]: always [ˈɑːwweɪz]; the hole [hoʊw] was three feet deep etc.).

  20. I wonder how that comes (but never took the timt to look into it), given that the consonant that is pre-glottalised or entirely replaced by a glottal stop is so different in the older stages, with a range from [tʰ] to [ɾ].

  21. See now here for a BBC interview with Paul Kerswill.

  22. I've never been able to understand a difference between a Cockney and an Essex accent. Some people get very passionate that there is a difference, but they can never tell me what it is. Can anyone here tell me?

  23. @ other anonymous
    I don't think there is a difference. But it's kind of like telling people in Queens that they don't sound any different from people in Brooklyn. You're only going to make people angry. I agree that people insist that there are differences, but somehow they can't ever manage to tell you what those differences are.

    As the article said, Cockney is now spoken in Essex but it isn't spoken in London so much. So there is now a difference between Essex and London accents.

  24. How widespread is 'aks' for 'ask'? There's a lot of it in our data from young Londoners. But does it occur in other words with the same structure, e.g. task, mask, whisk, tusk? Geographically, 'aks' is found in Ghanaian English (perhaps not the most acrolectal versions), West African pidgins, Caribbean Englishes and creoles, and African American (Vernacular) English.

  25. The funny thing is rather that so many words with the same (or similar, e,g, 'wasp') synchronic structure have diachronically been so subject to this metathesis, and 'aks' is merely a celebrated survivor.

    BTW even allowing for the fact that the Julie Andrews clip is an even more fake promotion of the fakery of film, show, and every stage back to the original, her fake incompetence is insufferably arch, isn't it? And isn't it pretty obvious that her coach is fake too?

  26. @ Paul Kerswill: that's just an older pronunciation. Look at the Survey of English Dialects! It expanded across the country.

  27. Black History Month event in Cardiff last weekend - bass guitarist in band, from Barbados, who doesn't say "aks" (unlike the lead singer/guitar from St Kitts who does) said "ventricolist" - so we had a long chat about the history of metathesis. He's now thinking of saying aks instead of ask - probably not but not bothered any more about getting the order differently from the majority, in Cardiff anyway.


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