Tuesday 27 July 2010


More than two years ago (blog, 25 Mar 2008) I reported on the work being done by Jenny Cheshire, Sue Fox, Paul Kerswill and Eivind Torgersen on the speech of young Londoners living in the inner city. Traditional Cockney has given way to what they call “Multicultural London English”.

Eivind and Paul (pictured) have now kindly made available to me some sound clips of this new variety. I am not at liberty to let you hear any extended samples, but what I can do is let you listen to one or two words or phrases.

One of the innovations they identify is ‘k-backing’.

We’re used to the idea that velars tend to accommodate to the place of the following vowel, being somewhat fronter before front vowels and backer before back vowels. We routinely compare the initial plosive of keep with that of cool and perhaps use this to illustrate the notion of allophones of a phoneme.

The k-backing innovation is a kind of exaggeration of the backing of velars before back vowels. Rather than a mildly retracted k in words such as car, come, caught, many younger inner-London speakers have a very retracted plosive, perhaps even a uvular q.

Listen to clips of a young Anglo (= ethnically white) speaker pronouncing the phrases he's comi..., coming into it, yeah? and (a) parked car. This speaker has a multicultural friendship network. Note the backed ks, which are typical of such multiculturally-oriented anglos and of non-anglos. Anglos whose friendship network is Anglo-only do it just slightly less. Older people don’t do it at all.

No one knows where this innovation comes from.

= = =

In other news, the next International Congress of Phonetic Sciences will be held in Hong Kong from the 17th to the 21st of August 2011. The website has recently gone live here.


  1. Something similar seems to be happening amongst (some) young working-class speakers in Tyneside, which is overwhelmingly Anglo. Listen to the words with initial /k/ in the Tyneside Emgt ('Emergent') here. I can't help wondering if there is a connection with the slight retraction (if that is what it is) of /t/ and /d/ (as in 'thunder' from the same speaker), but how these things might be connected I'm not sure.

  2. It would of course be helpful to supply the URL: http://www.soundcomparisons.com/

  3. I've been doing a lot of work on uvular consonants over the years, both the local South Swedish ʀ for Swedish /r/, and the full range of uvular consonants (stops, fricatives and approximants) in West Greenlandic Inuit (with the guidance and assistance of the late Jörgen Rischel at Copenhagen University). While doing that, and becoming increasngly familiar with the uvular articulation, I realised I probably had examples in my own English speech, including those above (coming, park, car) but also with rounded back vowels (like cot, lock, caught, awk). I was born in the 1930s and grew up in a Thames Estuary community (Isle of Sheppey, Kent).

  4. I remember coming across this in the 80s in a forensic phonetics case I got involved with. The speaker was a white man, late 20s (I would guess) and from somewhere in Essex. The phrase that sticks in my mind is "Mark 4 Cortina" (the guy's car), which was pronounced [ˈmɑːq foə qɔːˈtiːnə].

  5. At this point this is purely impressionistic, but I believe this is happening in certain dialects of American English as well.

  6. I agree with Ryan that I might have observed this in AmE as well, but I don't have physiological data to back up the impression.

  7. In my idiolect, /k/ is [q] after my extremely dark (and invariable) /l/. This is probably part of why nobody can understand me when I say "milk" out of context.

  8. More linguists should do podcasts.

  9. Regarding physiological data, I have X-ray motion films of the South Swedish and West Greenlandic uvular consonants. The tongue body movement for uvulars is not towards the posterior part of the velum or the uvula but into the upper pharynx where a narrow constriction or occlusion is created. This is the same place where the vocal tract is constricted for [o,ɔ,ɤ]-like vowels.

    JW wrote “No one knows where this innovation came from”. The term “multicultural” is seductive and prompts one to think of sources in immigrant foreign languages or migrant accents of English.

    The process itself looks like straightforward assimilation. In West Greenlandic Inuit, there is anticipatory assimilation of vowels to following uvular consonants, /i/ being [eɤ], /u/ being [o] and /a/ being [ɑ].

    It appears to be the other way round in the quoted English examples, both anticipatory and perseveratory assimilation of /k/ to /oː/ and /ɑː/. Probably /g/ as well – got, morgue

    And how widespread is it? Now we’re talking about it the examples are tumbling in.

    And Daniel Jones did write (after describing the fronted /k/ of keep): “and a more backward k before ɔ (as in cottage)” (An Outline of English Phonetics §533). He didn’t actually say uvular, and he might not have accepted uvulars as possible “family members” of /k/.

  10. Funny. Jørgen Rischel is from the same hamlet as me. Small world.

    I didn't know he was a famous linguist, though. My bad.

  11. For Jörgen Rischel see:

  12. I have definitely noticed this amongst young Londoners ... maybe in boys more than girls??

  13. Thanks, prof Wood, that's where I found out that Jørgen was indeed the son of our old vicar Rischel. (Not that I ever knew either in person, but local history tends to be mentioned a lot.)

  14. I'm with Ryan in that i hear it happening to a degree in AmEng aswell, and with john cowan in that in my lect, my /k/ is frequently [q] after [dark] /l/. But ive never had trouble with people understanding my utterances of with [q]. my being in southern california. -mm

  15. I noticed this watching "Attack the Block" and started listening for it in Carribean dialects - most recently thought I heard it in an old Antiguan man's pronunciation of "come" and, to my surprise, a young Kingstonian Jamaican's pronunciation of "crisp." But that could be me inventing sounds to support my assumptions. Good to know they really do it somewhere.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.