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:
- Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. The man himself has since acknowledged how awful he sounded.
- Charlie Hunnan – Green Street. Charlie is a Geordie, from Newcastle, in real life. His accent here never quite makes it over the River Tyne.
- And this is Nicky Minaj trying a cockney/London accent. To be fair, this isn’t actually a bad attempt and is much much better than the other two!
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?