As London Rifles* so does its Rabbit**

As a UK national who occasionally teaches English to non-native speakers, I am often asked about my own accent which some of my students think is very unusual. 


I was brought up in West London in the 1980s. The cultural groups with whom I was surrounded were mainly of English, Irish, West Indian and Caribbean origin. Accordingly, they were native English speakers albeit with a very wide variety of accents. Each first generation group had its own sound but the second generation, with whom I attended school, mostly spoke in a fairly unremarkable London accent of the type that you just don’t really hear any more.  I guess this is why younger non-native English speakers ask me about mine. 

I was reminded of this when watching a BBC4  programme featuring reggae band, Aswad. The lead member, Brinsley Forde, is a second generation Carribean immigrant who grew up in London, and he speaks with the same ‘ordinary’ London accent with which I grew up.

Now compare this to grime artist Stormzy’s  voice. Would you really have believed they are both Londoners? Stormzy is also a second generation (his mother is from Ghana) but his accent has a completely different sound and flow to it.  

Stephen Manderson (aka Professor Green) and Ben Drew (aka Plan B) are both white Londoners who speak in a similar accent to Stormzy.  Again, compare this to model, Kate Moss. Kate was born near to where Stormzy comes from in Croydon, 20 years earlier. 

Traditionally, Londoners spoke with Cockney accents.  There have been entire dissertations written about the origins of this accent, but in summary, it was (note the past tense!) an accent as well as a form of rhyming slang used by working class Londoners. It was characterised by:

  • /ʔ/ Random glottal stops: “coh-age” = cottage; “ ‘avin’ “ = having. I’m  fond of saying that, back in 1979, when Paul Weller sang, “there’s a row going on down in Slough”, he would have said, ‘there’s a raaah goin’ on daaaawn in Slaaaagh’ if he had been a real Londoner.
  • /h/ Dropped haitches: “nuffin’ ” = nothing; “furty” = thirty. 
  • And a generally relaxed way of converging speech: “Jubileevit?!” = “do you believe it?!”, “innit?” = “isn’t it?

 I must admit that I have never in my life, outside of television programmes, heard anyone using the rhyming slang dialect.  Maybe a few odd words now and again, e.g. 

  • “I’ll get on the dog about it” – (dog and bone = phone)
  • “That bird there covered in tom” – (tom = tomfoolery = jewellery).  ‘Bird’ is a very London/Southern English way of referring to a girl, but I have no idea where it’s from. I think it’s too generic to be exclusively a London thing, though I haven’t actually heard it that much outside of London.
  • The title of this blog piece: *rifle ranges = changes, **rabbit & pork = talk
  • “You don’t half bunny” – (bunny = rabbit = talk a lot)  I feel obliged here to link what’s become the famous use of this one!

 Admittedly, I am probably from the ‘wrong’ side of London to have been exposed to the full-cockney dialect as it is mostly associated with the east and south parts of London. I wonder, though, if it was rarer than we might believe, despite being England’s most famous accent?  

Some examples of famous people attempting to use this accent and dialect include:

In the 1980s, some linguistic features of the London accent started appearing in what had formerly been the very clipped and precise speech once used by TV presenters.  What we used to call, ‘BBC English’. 

This morphed into what is now identified as Estuary English, and has become the standard speech for most of middle class London and the surrounding counties.  Here’s Jamie Oliver demonstrating it. What is most notable is the use of the schwa sound /ə/ which stops the speech sounding as clipped and formal as it once did.  It’s kind of a softer version of the glottal stop, and has crept in to English speech to the extent that even our Prime Minster (currently the Eton educated, Boris Johnson) uses it.

Alongside this development, through the 90s and 00s, London’s immigrant population was joined by many for whom English wasn’t a first language, notably from parts of Africa and Eastern Europe.  Dialects, accents, and speech patterns have merged and converged, and produced the form of speech used by young, mostly working class, Londoners. Wiki has, as ever, helpfully given this its own entry under, ‘Multicultural London English’ which explains in detail its emergence. 

So, if we accept that ‘my’ London accent is gone for good, will we be still be listening to MLE in another generation? 

I don’t think so. 

That’s a bold statement but a reasonable one as I think the accent has to change.  Like the cityscape itself, and people who come and go, London exists in a state of flux and its accent reflects this. English is one of the world’s largest native languages, and London is a magnet to young people across the globe.  The city is too diverse and the language too widely spoken to ever remain constant.  

Do you agree with me? What accent do you associate with London? 

Tone, Timbre, and Coca-Cola (or, ‘how to find the right tone for your voice’!)

Most of us are familiar with the concept that how we say something is as important – if not more so – than what we actually say.  This article takes a look at how we can craft the right tone.

tone of voice by Mary Donné
The world’s most famous soft drink has a tone of voice!

It was UCLA academic Albert Mehrabian who taught us that good communication is made up of three parts:

  • Words
  • Body language; and 
  • Tone of voice

I lead learning groups in both presentation skills and autism support.  Within these sessions, we spend a fair bit of time thinking about how we may need to tailor our communication if the receiver has a barrier to their understanding – as in the case of an autistic person.  Or, if we ourselves are a little unsure about the communication – as with someone who is new to public speaking or writing for an audience.

Most of us are familiar with the concept that how we say something is as important – if not more so – than what we actually say. 

Timbre” refers to the quality of the sound we make.  If we’re describing a person’s voice as: harsh, soft, rough, silky, breathy, raspy.  Each of those adjectives could refer to the timbre. The timbre of the Glasgow accent is very different from the timbre of the Birmingham accent.  And the timbre often conveys a particular tone, which is where it really get interesting.  

Tone refers to the character of the voice. The tone you use is the impression you wish to convey with your speech: brisk, businesslike, authoritative, vulnerable, or friendly.  Each of these words may describe the tone of a person’s written or spoken communication.  

Tone isn’t just restricted to the spoken word.  Your written communication has a tone, as does the overall feel and message of the thing you wish to communicate.  

Even a brand can have a tone.  

I worked for advertising giant, McCann, back in the 1990s.  At this time one of the agency’s clients was Coca-Cola, and I recall hours being spent crafting the unique tone of the brand’s messaging.  Spend a moment thinking about Coca-Cola’s advertising slogans, e.g. ‘have a Coke and a smile’, or ‘you can’t beat the feeling’. These words all evoke feelings of happiness, friendship, sunshine, and so on.  Even more so because within Coca-Cola’s advertising, the taste of the drink itself is very rarely mentioned. The tone and message is conveyed through facial expressions and smiles. Now this is no accident! Coca-Cola’s (and their advertisers’!) amazing success demonstrates just how powerful the tone we use in our communication is, and how words by themselves are just one part of this. 

So how can we make sure that we get our own tone right, and convey the message we intend?  I would start with:

  • Being sincere.  
  • Being authentic. 
  • Being confident. 
  • I have put these three together as it’s hard to have one without the other two.  If you are confident in the message you’re delivering, and you really believe it, you will usually come across as authentic and sincere.  There is nothing wrong with being a little nervous when speaking (or writing!) for the first time, and being self-aware is no bad thing and won’t detract from clear sincerity.  But trying to convince an audience of something that you yourself don’t really believe, rarely works. In public speaking your body language will tell a different story from the words you are using, and a fake or false tone is hard to maintain in regular written communication. 

Then, we need to:

  • Mind our language – don’t use discriminatory language (even in jest), mild profanity or blasphemy.  You will offend people – trust me, you will! Humour is a very personal thing and it’s difficult to get the tone right with it.  Even more so if the joke you are trying to make is about a potentially sensitive matter. I always think it’s best just to steer clear! 
  • Avoid jargon – most people hate it.  In particular ‘management course speak’ .e.g. “Reaching out”, “touch base offline”, and so on.  
  • Finish with a sense-check.  Do you really understand what you’re about to say, or what you have written?  Really? Could you summarise it all in one or two sentences for a five year old child?  To paraphrase Albert Einstein, there is nothing so complicated that even a small child cannot understand it if it’s explained properly.  

If you can’t summarise your message in this way, then you may need to take another look at your work and refine it.  Generally, the more complicated the message, the more likely that the tone you wish to convey will get lost beneath the ‘fluff’.  The simpler you keep things, the easier it is to keep the tone you want. 

And finally, let your own personality shine through.  If you’re a friendly and informal type of person, then it’s going to be difficult to maintain a cool and ultra-distanced tone (remember what we said about being authentic?)  It’s far easier and more natural to work with your own personality, and maintain professionalism by being respectful to your listener or reader and, as above, avoiding unnecessary jargon, slang, or potentially offensive language. 

I hope this is helpful and I would love to hear any of your thoughts about how to keep the tone right in your spoken or written communication!


What Iceland can Teach us about the Value of Language

A short visit to Iceland and some observations about the fascinating language and culture.

Last week I celebrated my birthday in the beautiful city of Reykjavik.  It was my first visit and it won’t be my last. Iceland is unique in so many ways: it is the most peaceful country in the world; the Icelandic phone book lists every person by their first name; and it boasts one of the most difficult to learn languages.  As a bit a of language obsessive and aspiring polyglot this seriously interested me.
The Icelandic Language is hard!

Icelandic is one of a group of Nordic languages which includes Swedish and Danish but, interestingly, not Finnish, which is way out there on its own and apparently completely incomprehensible to the Swedes, Danes, and Icelanders.   Continue reading “What Iceland can Teach us about the Value of Language”

Why the World Loves the Irish Accent (and specifically the Cork accent!)

As anyone who follows me on Instagram will know, I have just returned from a weekend in Cork.  Accordingly, I have been listening to a lot of Irish accents.

‘Cork’ is the name of both the city and the surrounding county.  The moniker itself is an anglicised version of Corcaigh (phonetically pronounced ‘kar-kee’).  The so-called ‘capital of the south’ is known for its stunning scenery, its colourful history – its nickname is ‘The Rebel County’ – and of course its distinctive and unusual accent. Continue reading “Why the World Loves the Irish Accent (and specifically the Cork accent!)”