Why you probably already speak some Cockney
There's an underground campaign running to establish 3 of March as Speak Cockney Day. Dr Chris Strelluf from the Department of Applied Linguistics looks at some of the key characteristics of the Cockey accent and shows how many of us already adopt some of its traits.
I’m a sociolinguist, which means that I research the ways people use language to do things and the ways language does things to people.
As a rule, I cringe when people imitate an accent. Imitations are usually lousy, and invariably include some problematic stereotypes — think Dick Van Dyke stepping in time.
Bad imitations and rehashed stereotypes reinforce negative attitudes about accents, and these negative attitudes have real consequences for speakers of these accents. In the United States, for instance, researchers have shown that people are regularly denied jobs and housing because of their accents.
Cockney, of course, has a long history of being highly stigmatised. So it’s very likely to be subjected to lots of bad imitations that are potentially harmful to its speakers. If #SpeakCockneyDay doesn’t get farther than “’ello Guv’na” and “up da apples”, there will be much to cringe over on 3 March.
On the other hand, Andy Green, the man behind the idea for the day, recognises that a dialect is not just a way of speaking, but a central aspect of our personal and cultural identities. That is absolutely worth celebrating, especially when it means spending time with friends or doing things for charity to express innate generosity. If these are part of the culture that’s expressed through Cockney, then Cockney indeed belongs in the DNA of all Englishes.
Features of Cockney
The good news here is that, across Britain, many people can speak Cockney just by talking normally. Far from disappearing from the streets of London, features of Cockney are spreading into accents all over Britain. Wherever these features spread, they still may carry the negative social stigmas that Cockney has borne, and those stigmas carry adverse consequences for speakers.
If we can agree to celebrate Cockney speech, perhaps we can agree to celebrate Cockney features wherever they show up in British speech. If so, we can combat negative evaluations of accents and dialects and reduce the negative effects of these evaluations on speakers, while also celebrating the connections between our ways of speaking and our ways of living.
#SpeakCockneyDay is on “the ’fird of the ’fird” as a nod to one of the most salient features of Cockney: the replacement of the sounds traditionally associated with the letters th with the sounds of f and v. Linguists often refer to this feature as “TH-fronting.” TH-fronting is thriving throughout Britain (or friving froughout, if you prefer).
Researchers have found TH-fronting across England and well into Scotland and a 2016 article in The Daily Mail warned that the th sound would disappear in 50 years. TH-fronting is often stigmatised as “yuf speak” or, in the case of the Mail article, blamed on “foreign visitors.” The truth is, though, that TH-fronting is a clear case of a traditional Cockney feature spreading into other British Englishes. We should celebrate TH-fronting as one of the ways that Cockney is alive and well.
Linguists refer to the sound that occurs in the middle of a word like uh-oh as a “glottal stop.” This sound is made by quickly closing and opening the vocal cords to release a small burst of air. Imitations of Cockney will invariably include the replacement of t with glottal stops, especially when the t is in the middle of a word like better. This is often referred to as “T-glottaling” in linguistic research.
Cockney accents may extend T-glottaling to replace the sounds associated with p and k with a glottal stop, or may replace consonants at the beginning or end of a word with a glottal stop, or may reinforce a consonant by adding a glottal stop to it.
As with TH-fronting, T-glottaling has long been documented in a wide variety of British Englishes, and gives every indication of continuing to spread. As with TH-fronting, the spread of T-glottaling represents the continued vibrancy of Cockney in English, and should be celebra’ed.
If you wish someone “’appy March 3rd,” on #SpeakCockneyDay, you are demonstrating H-dropping. H-dropping is so widely attested in Englishes that it’s not really accurate to call it a Cockney feature (Donald Trump, for instance, is H-dropping when he pronounces huge as “yuge”).
H-dropping is widespread in the UK, documented, for instance, in both the West Midlands and the East Midlands. But while it’s not a “Cockney feature,” it is definitely a feature of Cockney. So celebrating H-dropping wherever it occurs is another great way to celebrate Cockney sounds.
These are just a few of the features that have escaped the East End to become part of the future of English. #SpeakCockneyDay is an opportunity to recognise the spread of these features, to celebrate perpetual vibrancy and innovativeness of English and its speakers, and to appreciate that we can now hear the Bow Bells all over Britain.
1 March 2019
Dr Chris Strelluf is a sociolinguist, working primarily from variationist approaches. Most of his work has focused on describing dialects of English, and identifying changes in dialects resulting from a range of social and linguistic factors. More generally, he is interested in how people do things with language and how language does things to people.
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