Cockney. Its Characteristics and Its Influence on Present-Day English

Term Paper 2006 16 Pages

English - Pedagogy, Didactics, Literature Studies


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Characteristics of the Cockney Dialect
2.1 Pronunciation
2.1.1 Vowels
2.1.2 Glottalling
2.1.3 H dropping
2.1.4 Dark l
2.1.5 Replacement of Dental Fricatives
2.2 Grammar
2.3 Cockney Rhyming Slang

3 Cockney Influence on Present-Day English
3.1 Possible Influences
3.1.1 Pronunciation
3.1.2 Grammar
3.1.3 Cockney Rhyming Slang
3.2 Cockney as the New Standard English?

4 Summary and Conclusion


1 Introduction

The Cockney dialect was long frowned upon by anyone who felt superior to this allegedly substandard, uneducated and vulgar manner of speaking. The Cockneys[1] were considered stupid, poor and uneducated themselves (Bähr 1974: 108). That was the prevailing attitude towards Cockney until very recently when the acceptance of the dialect and its speakers noticeably changed. What is a Cockney, though? A true Cockney has to have been born within the sound of the Bow Bells of St Mary-le-Bow Church in London's East End (Wells 1982: 302). The Cockney distinguishes himself by staying true to his origins deeply linked to the dialect. Cockney is one of the most remarkable dialects all over the English-speaking world. Back in 1938, though, William Matthews, author of Cockney – Past and Present, feared the decline of the dialect altogether because of the virtually non-existing acceptance in English society. Cockney was mainly a working-class accent, but was also aquired by criminals who enjoyed the population's incapability to understand the accent and dialect. The dialect was eventually made a scapegoat for the corruption of Standard English (Bähr 1974: 108). A lot has changed since. When having a look at popular culture today, one might have the impression that the perception of the dialect has revolutionised. Cockney even seems to be on the rise again, being promoted by films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and music by The Streets for instance.

In this paper, I want to examine in how far the recent obervations can be seen as a development of taking Cockney characteristics over into present-day English. By present-day English neither Received Pronunciation (RP) nor any other kind of Standard English (StE) is exclusively meant, but rather a broad definition of the English that can really be heard in England. Nonetheless, comparisons to RP and StE will be found because points of reference will be needed in the course of this paper. In the first part, Cockney will be contrasted to RP, for example, to illustrate its variation from the standard. The Cockney that forms the basis for the paper is the modern dialect. Like any other language it has undergone a great change since it was first recorded and to examine or only include several stages of its development would go beyond the scope of this paper.

Before we can start examining the influence, however, the quintessence of the Cockney dialect has to be understood. In the first section, the accent and dialect will be analysed with regard to its pronunciation, grammar and its most creative feature, the Cockney Rhyming Slang. The study of suprasegmentals, such as intonation, speed of talk or stress patterns, were intendedly excluded, because they bear no relevancy for this paper. The second part will deal with the actual question, examining where possible influences of Cockney can be found. Afterwards, there will be a short prognosis for the future of the dialect. At the end, the results of this paper will be summarised and the initially asked question will hopefully have been answered in detail. It shall be pointed out to what extent Cockney is represented in present-day English.

This paper does not claim completeness in any of its sections, but is intended as a short overview of the Cockney dialect as such, and its influence on selected parts of the English language.

2 Characteristics of the Cockney Dialect

2.1 Pronunciation

The features that will be examined in this section of the paper are not necessarily used by every Cockney speaker because as “true with almost any dialect . . . there are several layers from the broadest to the most refined“ (Wright 1981: 12). Barely any speaker will use all of the pronunciations as they are presented; the characteristics can all be found among the various varieties, though.

2.1.1 Vowels

In principle, both accents, RP and Cockney, make use of a very similar vowel inventory. The feature that distinguishes the accents from one another is a Cockney vowel shift that primarily affects the long vowels and diphthongs (Bähr 1974: 109). Due to the similarity concerning short vowels, we will concentrate on the vowel shift and its consequences for the different pronunciations of the accents in this part of the paper.

The vowel shift has the effect that an RP vowel phoneme is pronounced differently in Cockney. The Cockney realisation is equivalent to an RP phoneme again, which will be altered by the Cockney pronunciation once more. Since this explanation is rather theoretical, the following example might help to illustrate the problem. In RP, the lexeme paint will be pronounced /peInt/, in Cockney however, the same word will be /paInt/, which is homophonous to the RP pronunciation of pint. Pint in Cockney is pronounced /pQInt/, resembling the standard pronunciation of point (/pOInt/). In the end, “[o]ne move causes another“ (Wright 1981: 129). Therefore, the differences in the realisation of vowels can be visualised as follows, whereas the phonemes are only an approximation to the allophonic reality.

(Bähr 1974: 109)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

When having a look at this chart, one will realise that Cockney partly uses diphthongs and long vowels that do not even occur in the phoneme inventory of the Received Pronunciation. The diphthongs /JI QI oI VU/ and the long vowels /a: Q:/ do not exist in RP. It can be observed that Cockney does not use long closed vowel, since both /i:/ and /u;/ are replaced by diphthongs and hence absent from its phoneme inventory.

When it comes to open long vowels, though, Cockney speakers tend to use vocalic extremes that are closer to the cardinal vowels than the RP phonemes (cp. /a: Q:/). The Cockney /a:/ can be compared to the German realisation of the sound. From what has just just been said, one might get the impression that Cockneys barely use their lips when talking. Both cardinal vowels with the most extreme lip movements are non-existant. It has to be kept in mind, though, that Cockney replaces /i:/ and /u;/ with closing diphthongs, again.

It can be observed that Cockney does not use closed long vowels, and chooses to diphthongise them. This has the effect that Cockney has almost cleared itself of all pure long vowels. To fully scrutinise the linguistic background of this phenomenon would unfortunately go beyond the topic of this paper and is therefore left where it is for the moment.

2.1.2 Glottalling

The glottal stop, [}], is another interesting feature of the Cockney accent that is produced by a complete closure of the epiglottis resulting in an abrupt stopping of the stream of sound (Matthews 1938: 80). Matthews even claims that the “chief consonantal feature of the dialect is the prevalence of the glottal stop“ (Matthews 1938: 80). It is mainly known for its allophonic usage for the phoneme /t/. Some linguists, however, state that it is also used as a replacement of the phonemes /p k/ and even /f/.

In Cockney the glottal stop mostly occurs if a /t/ needs to be realised either intervocalically, in final position or before /l/, making butter sound like ['bV}J] and what like [wQ:}]. The glottal stop replacing the /t/ “occurs in all contexts except the onset of a stressed syllable“ (Giederich 1992: 225). The phonemes /p/ and /k/ are realised as glottal stops when standing intervocalically or in final position. The phoneme /f/, however, can only be substituted by a glottal stop if in final position, making light and life homophones (Matthews 1938: 167), but sticking to the RP pronunciation of coffin for instance.

2.1.3 H dropping

Baumann (1910: XX) calls this feature the mistreatment of the aspirate. The h dropping is a characteristic that is quickly explained. Cockneys usually omit an /h/ if in frontal position. Words like hard will become /a:d/.

As with most people who grow up speaking a broad dialect, Cockney speakers face the problem of hypercorrection, as well. Most of them

know where there 'should' be [h], but even when they are on their guard

there are apt to be 'slips' and erratic pronunciations, the same words being

sometimes pronounced with and sometimes withour [h]. (Sivertsen 1960: 141).


[1] The term Cockney describes both the dialect and the speakers.


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Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz – Department of English and Linguistics
Cockney Characteristics Influence Present-Day English Introduction Linguistics




Title: Cockney. Its Characteristics and Its Influence on Present-Day English