The cockneys. Who are they and why do they speak so weirdly?
The term cockney has had several distinct geographical, social, and linguistic associations. Originally a pejorative term applied to all city-dwellers, it was eventually restricted to Londoners and particularly to the “Bow-bell Cockneys”: those born within earshot of Bow Bells, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church in the Cheapside district of the City of London. More recently, it is variously used to refer to those in London’s East End, or to all working-class Londoners generally.
A costume associated with cockneys is that of the pearly King or Queen, worn by London costermongers who sew thousands of pearl buttons onto their clothing in elaborate and creative patterns.
The Cockney Accent and Pronunciation
Linguistically, cockney English refers to the accent or dialect of English traditionally spoken by working-class Londoners. In recent years, many aspects of cockney English have become part of general South East English speech, producing a newish variant, spoken by young people, known as Estuary English.
In the following section, you’ll see lots of phonemic symbols. If you don’t know how to pronounce them, most of them can be found here: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk (and the full International Phonetic Alphabet, IPA can be found here: International Phonetic Alphabet)
- As with many accents of the United Kingdom, cockney is non-rhotic meaning the letter “r” is not pronounced when after a vowel. A final -er is pronounced [ə] or lowered[ɐ] in broad cockney.
- Broad /ɑː/ is used in words such as bath, path, demand. This originated in London in the 16th–17th centuries and is also part of Received Pronunciation(RP).
- T-glottalisation: use of the glottal stop as an allophone of /t/ in various positions, including after a stressed syllable.
- /θ/ can become [f] in any environment. [fɪn] “thin”, [mɛfs] “maths”.
- /ð/ can become [v] in any environment except word-initially when it can be [ð, d, l, ʔ, ∅]. [dæɪ] “they”, [ˈbɒvə] “bother”.
- H-dropping. The difference between musical and music-hall, in an H-dropping broad cockney, is thus nothing more than a matter of stress and perhaps syllable boundaries.
- /aɪ/ → [ɑɪ] or even [ɒɪ] in “vigorous, dialectal” cockney. The second element may be reduced or absent (with lengthening of the first element), so that there are variants such as [ɑ̟ə~ɑ̟ː]. This means that pairs such as laugh–life, Barton–bitingmay become homophones: [lɑːf], [bɑːʔn̩].
- /aʊ/ → [æʊ] or even [a:] in “vigorous, dialectal” cockney. This means that word such as house can sound like the American pronunciation of ass.
- Vocalisation of dark L, hence [ˈmɪowɔː] for Millwall. The actual pronunciation of a vocalised /l/ is influenced by surrounding vowels and it may be realised as [u], [ʊ],[o] or [ɤ]. A vocalised /l/ is entirely absorbed by a preceding /ɔː/: e.g., salt and sortbecome homophones (although the contemporary pronunciation of salt/sɒlt/ would prevent this from happening), and likewise fault–fought–fort,pause–Paul’s, Morden–Malden, water–Walter. A preceding /ə/ is also fully absorbed into vocalised /l/. Thus awful can best be regarded as containing two occurrences of the same vowel, /ˈɔːfɔː/. One further possible neutralisation in the environment of a following non-prevocalic /l/ is that of /ɛ/ and /ɜː/, so that welland whirl become homophonous as [wɛʊ].
- Use of me instead of my, for example, “At’s me book you got ‘ere”. Cannot be used when “my” is emphasised; e.g., “At’s my book you got ‘ere” (and not “his”).
- Use of ain’t to mean (am not, isn’t, aren’t, hasn’t or haven’t)
- Use of double negatives, for example, “I didn’t see nuffink (nothing)”.
Most of the features mentioned above have, in recent years, partly spread into more general south-eastern speech, giving the accent called Estuary English; an Estuary speaker will use some but not all of the cockney sounds. The following example (from comedian Catherine Tate) is an example of Estuary English used by young people today:
The cockney accent has long been looked down upon and thought of as inferior by many. In 1909 these attitudes even received 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”. However, at the same time cries in defence of cockney began to be heard, as in, for example: “The London dialect is really, especially on the South side of the Thames, a perfectly
However, at the same time cries in defence of cockney began to be heard, as in, for example: “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 was RP, whereas nowadays many different accents, including cockney or accents heavily influenced by it, can be heard on the BBC. In a survey of 2,000 people conducted by Coolbrands in the autumn of 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%.
“Ev’ry li’ou Lambeff gau, wiv ‘er li’ou Lambeff pau… You’ou foind ’em ou, doin’ da Lambeff wouk, oy!”.
(Every little Lambeth girl, with her little Lambeth pal… You’ll find them all, doing the Lambeth Walk, hey!)
Cockney Rhyming Slang
Rhyming slang is a kind of slang used in London by Cockneys but many phrases have spread into informal British English.
Rhyming slang is believed to have originated in the mid-19th century in the East End of London, with sources suggesting some time in the 1840s. It dates from around 1840 among the predominantly Cockney population of the East End of London who are well-known for having the characteristic accent and speech patterns mentioned above.
There are many fun common turns of phrases from locals in London that I’ve put together for your reading pleasure:
- loaf (of bread) = head
- Use yer loaf an’ fink next time (Use you head and think next time )
- butcher’s (hook) = look
- Let’s have a butcher’s (Let’s have a look)
- porkie (pie) = lie
- Stop telling porkies (Stop telling lies)
- china (plate) – mate/friend
- Me old china (My old friend)
- bubble (bath) – laugh
- You’re ‘avin‘ a bubble mate (You’re having a laugh/You’re pulling my leg)
- rabbit (and pork) – talk
- Stop rabbiting on mate (Stop waffling/rambling on)
- dicky bird = word
- We ain’t heard a dicky bird out of the kids all night (We haven’t heard a word/sound)
- tea leaf = thief
- You li’ou tea leaf (You little thief)
- brass tacks = facts
- Let’s get daan to brass tacks (Let’s get down to facts)
- Barney (Rubble) = trouble
- I ain’t come ‘ere to start no Barney (I haven’t come here to start any trouble)
- bread (and honey) = money
- I ain’t got no bread ( I haven’t got any money)
- trouble (and strife) = wife (now used affectionately with all family members/friends)
- ‘Ello trouble (Hello my friend/family member)
- apples (and pears) = stairs
- I’m going up the apples (I’m going up the stairs)
- half-inch = pinch, meaning steal
- Did you half-inch that car?” (Did you steal that car?)
- mutt’n’jeff = deaf
- “You will have to speak up, he’s a bit mutton”
- tod sloan = alone, or own
- “I’m going on my tod”
- Scarpa (flow) = go
- Scarpa lads! The police are coming” (Scarpa Flow is the name of a bay in Scotland)
It remains a matter of speculation whether rhyming slang was a linguistic accident, a game, or a cryptolect developed intentionally to confuse non-locals. If deliberate, it may also have been used to maintain a sense of community. It is possible that it was used in the marketplace to allow vendors to talk amongst themselves in order to facilitate collusion, without customers knowing what they were saying. Another suggestion is that it may have been used by criminals as a kind of thieves’ cant to confuse the police.
Rhyming slang is also used in Australia, due to the fact that many of the original English immigrants to Australia would have been convicts from the prisons of London. These prisons (such as Belmarsh, Pentonville and Wormwood Scrubs) were overflowing with prisoners, most of whom were from poor, working-class, Cockney backgrounds who the British upper classes wanted to get rid of.