The Cockney English accent. Then and now - Студенческий научный форум

XII Международная студенческая научная конференция Студенческий научный форум - 2020

The Cockney English accent. Then and now

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The United Kingdom is probably the richest in variations of language country in the world.

English is rich in accents and dialects - variations in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary that spread over a small area. An accent may be identified with the locality in which its speakers reside (a regional or geographical accent), the socio-economic status of its speakers, their ethnicity, their caste or social class (a social accent), or influence from their first language (a foreign accent). Secondary English speakers tend to carry over the intonation and phonetics of their mother tongue in English speech. Such accents are called by linguists “non-native pronunciation”. Another kind of accent is called “native pronunciation”. The most famous “native” accents and dialects are Cockney, Estuary English (Southeast British), West Country (Southwest British), Midlands English, Northern England English, Geordie, Welsh and Scottish English.

Accents play great roles in communication. An accent is a reflection of the unique background of each personality and many people take pride in their individual accent and style. But, having an accent may cause some difficulties in communicating with others. That is why it is important to know about accents, their features and learn to understand them.

1. The history of Cockney accent

Cockney is one of the most known types of London vernacular. It is named after the scornful mocking nickname of the natives of London from the middle and lower strata of the population. The name “cockney” comes from the expression “cocken-ay”, which means cock’s egg. It was a medieval term referring to a small, deformed egg, supposedly put off by a cock.

A common view is that in order to be a cockney, one must have been born within earshot of Bow Bells, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow (Their ringing is heard no more than five miles from the church). St Mary-le-Bow is an historic church situated in the City of London. It was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and later rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren.

In the 16th century, this accent did not have the stigma of abnormal English. All citizens of London, except for a royal family and courtiers, spoke it. The transformation of the Cockney into a social dialect and its degradation to the level of wrong, "bad" English, occurred at the end of the 18th century, called the Age of Enlightenment. People, who spoke with this accent, were called cockneys. At the beginning of the 16th century, compatriots began to apply the term “cockney” or “cockny” to people who were born and grew up in cities and therefore were considered weaker ones. In the 17th century the term cockney was used as an expression of disregard and contempt, in any case, by the 17th century, it was used only in relation to the Londoners. Together with its native speakers, the language moved to the outskirts and became a dialect of eastern London, fueled by the acceptance of settlers from the neighboring counties, which were flooding London in the era of industrialization. A new stage in the life of the English language began. The central regions of London passed to the variant of English that became the basis of modern "literary English”.

In 1824, Sir Robert Peel formed the first police detachments, located on Bau Street in London. At that time, they were called Bow Street Runners, Peelers, Boobies. It is known that the bearers of slang were residents of the impoverished areas of London, where terrible crime prevailed. The rhyming slang of cockney was a very successful language code. None of the police officers would ever have guessed what the representatives of the London East End are talking about. However, slang has become widespread among the working population, that is, at least half the population of the capital. Instead of the word, phrases were used, rhyming with it. Thus, for example, the word "stairs" became "apples and pears", instead of "phone" used "dog and bone".

2. Modern Cockney accent development

Like any dialect or language, Cockney continued to evolve, and today it reflects the contours of contemporary pop culture in Great Britain. Much of “new” Cockney that first emerged in the late 20th century uses celebrities’ names: Alan Whickers standing in for “knickers,” Christian Slater for “later,” Danny Marr for “car,” David Gower for “shower,” Hank Marvin for “starving,” and Sweeney Todd for “the Flying Squad” (a unit within the London Metropolitan Police). Likewise, those coinages can be coarse, revolving around drinking (Paul Weller for “Stella” [Stella Artois, a beer brand], Winona Ryder for “cider”) and bodily functions (Wallace and Gromit for “vomit”). Adaptations have also occurred: on the rock ’n’ roll was eclipsed by on the Cheryl Cole to mean “being on the dole” (i.e., receiving government aid). Celebrity-centred Cockney can be strung into long riffs:

I left my Claire Rayners [trainers] down the Fatboy Slim [gym] so I was late for the Basil Fawlty [balti, a type of curry]. The Andy McNab [cab] cost me an Ayrton Senna [a “tenner,” or £10 note], but it didn’t stop me getting the Britney Spears [beers] in. Next thing you know it turned into a Gary Player [all-dayer] and I was off my Chevy Chase [“off my face,” or drunk].

Now rhyming slang has started to develop more and more. In our time, native speakers distinguish three types of cockney accent:

1) classical – it is widely used and recognized since the time of Robert Peel;

2) modern – its lexical units compose and introduce modern media;

3) mockney (fake cockney) - mutated cockney, Cockney imitation by a middle-class or upper-class man in England.

Recent linguistic research suggests that today, certain elements of Cockney English are declining in usage within the East End of London and the accent has migrated to Outer London and the Home Counties: in London's East End, some traditional features of Cockney have been displaced by a Jamaican Creole-influenced variety popular among young Londoners, sometimes referred to as "Jafaican"(it is most famously spoken by the rap star Dizzee Rascal), particularly, though far from exclusively, those of Afro-Caribbean descent. Nevertheless, the glottal stop, double negatives, and the vocalization of the dark L (and other features of Cockney speech), along with some rhyming slang terms are still in common usage.

An influential July 2010 report by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety, predicted that the Cockney accent will disappear from London's streets within 30 years. The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said the accent, which has been around for more than 500 years, is being replaced in London by a new hybrid language. "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 learnt English as a second language", Prof Kerswill said.

Conversely, migration of Cockney speakers has led to migration of the dialect. In Essex, planned towns that grew from post-war migration out of London (e.g. Basildon and Harlow) often have a strong Cockney influence on local speech. However, this is, except where least mixed, difficult to discern because of common features: linguistic historian and researcher of early dialects Alexander John Ellis in 1890 stated that Cockney developed owing to the influence of Essex dialect on London speech. In recent years the dialect has moved out of inner-city London towards the outskirts of Greater London. Today Cockney-speaking areas include parts of Dagenham, Barking, Billericay, Brentwood, Romford, Chigwell, Loughton, Harlow, Tottenham, Enfield, Brimsdown, Basildon, Thurrock, Cheshunt, Bexley, Sidcup, Walling, Eltham and Islington among others.

In 2012 the Museum of London, citing a study it had conducted, announced that Cockney rhyming slang was dying out and suggested that youth slang, rap and hip-hop lyrics, and text messaging was threatening the “traditional dialect” of working-class Londoners. At about the same time, a campaign to teach Cockney in East End schools developed, as did efforts to recognize Cockney rhyming slang as an “official dialect” among the more than 100 languages already spoken by the area’s diverse population.

3) Changing attitudes towards Cockney English

The Cockney accent has long been looked down upon and thought of as inferior by many. In 1909 these attitudes even received an official recognition thanks to the report of The Conference on the Teaching of English in London Elementary Schools issued by the London County Council, where it is stated that "[...] the Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire". On the other hand, however, there started rising at the same time cries in defence of Cockney as, for example the following one: "The London dialect is really, especially on the South side of the Thames, a perfectly legitimate and responsible child of the old kentish tongue [...] the dialect of London North of the Thames has been shown to be one of the many varieties of the Midland or Mercian dialect, flavoured by the East Anglian variety of the same speech [...]". Since then, the Cockney accent has been more accepted as an alternative form of the English Language rather than an "inferior" one; in the 1950s the only accent to be heard on the BBC (except in entertainment programmes such as Sooty) was RP, whereas nowadays many different accents, including Cockney or ones heavily influenced by it, can be heard on the BBC. In a survey of 2000 people conducted by Coolbrands in autumn 2008, Cockney was voted equal fourth coolest accent in Britain with 7% of the votes, while The Queen's English was considered the coolest, with 20% of the votes. Brummie was voted least popular, receiving just 2%.

4. Sociolinguistic issues of Cockney English

The Cockney accent is generally considered one of the broadest of the British accents and is heavily stimatized. It is considered to epitomize the working class accents of Londoners and in its more diluted form, of other areas. The area and its colorful characters and accents have often become the foundation for British "soap operas" and other television specials. Currently, the BBC is showing one of the most popular soaps set in this region, "East Enders" and the characters’ accents and lives within this television program provide wonderful opportunities for observers of language and culture.

5. Distinctive features of Cockney

The Cockney accent is characterized by a special pronunciation, which is irregular of speech. Here are typical features of the Cockney speech:

1) ‘h’ dropping

In cockney, you don’t pronounce /h/ at all. So ‘horrible’ is /ɒrɪbəw/, ‘hospital’ is /ɒspɪʔəw/, ‘who’ is /uː/ and ‘help’ is /ewp/.

2) /æ/ replaced with /e/

Any word producing the front open /æ/ vowel would be pronounced with mid-open /e/ instead:

blackboard, bat, that

3) th’-fronting

Cockney would replace voiceless ‘th’ /θ/ in words like ‘think’, ‘theatre’, ‘author’, with /f/, so they would be pronounced /fɪŋk/, /fɪəʔə/, /ɔ:fə/:

/fɪŋk/, /fɪəʔə/, /ɔ:fə/.

Similarly, voiced ‘th’ in ‘the’, ‘this’, and ‘Northern’, would be pronounced /v/, so /və/, /vɪs/ and /nɔ:vən/.

4) Glottal Stops /ʔ/

Cockney speakers will use glottal stops to replace /t/ before consonants and weak vowels:

water /wɔ:ʔə/, cottage /kɒʔɪdʒ/

5) a final -er is pronounced [ə] or lowered [ɐ] in broad Cockney

Cockney is non-rhotic.

As with all or nearly all non-rhotic accents, the paired lexical sets commA and lettER, PALM/BATH and START, THOUGHT and NORTH/FORCE, are merged. Thus, the last syllable of words such as cheetah can be pronounced [ɐ] as well in broad Cockney.

7) vocalisation of dark L

hence [ˈmɪowɔː] for Millwall.

The actual realization of a vocalized /l/ is influenced by surrounding vowels and it may be realized as [u], [ʊ], [o] or [ɤ]. It is also transcribed as a semivowel [w] by some linguists.

Speaking about the special rules of grammar used by cockney, linguists distinguish several non-strict rules, the usage of which is necessary in order to emphasize the vernacular, the contempt of speech:

The word “my” is usually replaced by “me”.

Example: Instead of “my car is broken” they say “it's me car is broken”.

The words “was” and “were” are used in exactly the opposite way than in Standard English.

Example: I was not talking to you. You was not there.

Cockneys use double negation.

Example: You want some money? I is not got none. (Do you want money? I have nothing.)

The usage of negation “is not” instead of “am not”, “is not”, “are not”, “has not” and “have not”.

Example: I is not coming (I will not come).

A striking aspect of Cockney, especially when compared with RP, is its effusive range of tone and emotion. Barltrop and Wolveridge comment:

The East Londoner likes his utterances to be attention-catching whether they are plaintive, indignant, gloomy or humorous … Nagging, anecdote, giving opinions and even greeting a friend in the street are done with the same mobility of voice, to squeeze the utmost meaning out of them, and it is noticeable in ordinary conversation.

Cockney is characterized by its own special vocabulary and usage, and traditionally by its own development of "rhyming slang." For example:

Apples and Pears - Stairs. Get up those Apples and Pears to bed!

Butcher's Hook - Look. Here! Take a Butcher's (Hook) at this!

Dog and Bone - Phone. I was on the (Dog and) Bone when you knocked at the door.

Today, cockney rhyming slang phrases have entered the British lexicon, and many are still used in London and indeed all around Britain.


During over 700 years of history, there have been changes not only in the meaning of the term Cockney, but also in the areas of its use. The purpose of the dialect has changed: from the secret, code language, the London dialect of Cockney has become a common word game, and dialect speakers can themselves "invent" new meanings of words and put them into use.

Cockney and its modifications can still be heard now, in 2020, but for how long it will be heard – that’s the question.


1) Wright, Peter (1981). «Cockney Dialect and Slang»

2) Ellis, Alexander J. (1890). «English dialects: Their Sounds and Homes».

Cockney dialect

Written By: Adam Jacot de Boinod

Compiled by World Heritage Encyclopedia™ licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

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