Estuary English: Dialect levelling in Southern Great Britain

Seminar Paper 2005 12 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Reference Dialects
2.1 Received Pronunciation (RP)
2.2 Cockney / Popular London

3 Estuary English (EE)
3.1 Dialect, accent or degenerate speech?
3.2 Regional extension of EE

4 The Pronunciation of EE
4.1 Consonants
4.1.1 L-vocalisation
4.1.2 Glottaling
4.1.3 Affricatisation
4.1.4 Yod-dropping
4.2 Vowels
4.2.1 HappY-tensing
4.2.2 Minimal vowel changes
4.3 Diphthongs
4.3.1 Diphthongisation of RP vowels
4.3.2 Diphthong and triphthong shifts from RP to EE
4.4 Unadapted Cockney Features
4.4.1 H-dropping
4.4.2 Th-fronting
4.4.3 Yod-dropping in initial position
4.4.4 Hypercorrect /h/

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“The third thing that is needed is to remove the class labels from the English language. It is not desirable that all the local accents should disappear, but there should be a manner of speaking that is definitely national and is not merely (like the accents of B.B.C. announcers) a copy of the mannerisms of the upper classes. This national accent – a modification of cockney, perhaps […] should be taught as a matter of course to all children alike.” (George Orwell 1947)

Ever since David Rosewarne first coined the term of Estuary English in 1984, the concept of an evolving dialect that extends across regional and social boundaries has given rise to a heated debate between linguists, some of who predict that Estuary English is threatening to replace RP in its role as a national standard. Sharing phonemic characteristics with both RP and the Cockney dialect, Estuary English has, although regionally confined to the South East of England, become a variety of the English language that crosses borders between different age groups, professions and social backgrounds, and is even represented in the media. This paper shall contrast Estuary English with both Cockney and RP in sociolinguistic terms and on a phonemic level. Further goals are to identify historical and social factors that may explain the current linguistic development in Southern Britain, and finally, to summarize the debate between renowned linguists about whether or not a significant role should be assigned to Estuary English, the dialect somewhere “between Cockney and the Queen” (Rosewarne 1994/37: 3).

2 Reference Dialects

In contrast to many traditional dialects, Estuary English has a speech community that extends over a large region, the borders of which many linguists have not quite agreed on. Similarly, they have not settled on all phonetic properties that constitute the variety, although it is generally said that Estuary English combines elements of RP and Cockney, or popular London speech. The phenomenon named Estuary English is therefore said to exist on a continuum of the two reference dialects, which will, for the purpose of illustrating this language levelling trend, be looked at in this section.

2.1 Received Pronunciation (RP)

Although the language of the aristocracy had been considered a superior variety as early as the fifteenhundreds, the truly influential emergence of RP as an elitist accent dates back to the nineteenth century. Until the public school system expanded in 1870, “no standard accent was detectable among those who had received a priviledged education” (Milroy; Bex & Watts 1999: 185). Not only did the prestigious accent open the doors to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge[1] for its users, but it also gained economic importance as a prerequisite in a wide range of white collar professions. Throughout the twentieth century, RP has maintained its status as a variety of English of superior aesthesis, as expressed by academics such as Wyld and Haugen:

If it were possible to compare systematically every vowel sound in RS [Received Standard] with the corresponding sound in a number of provincial and other dialects, assuming that the comparison could be made, as is only fair, between the speakers who possessed equal qualities of voice and the knowledge how to use it, I believe no unbiased listener would hesitate in preferring RS as the most pleasing and sonorous form, and the best suited to the medium of poetry and oratory.

(Wyld 1934: 605)

The standard is accepted and used by members of high-status social groups and is a prerequisite for social recognition, power and wealth.

(Haugen 1966: 932)

Being a socially exclusive variety of English, RP has lost any regional character and is confined mainly to a minority class (approximately 3% of the population (Trudgill 2002)), despite its function as a model for the masses.

Of course this raises questions about authority: Nowadays, social classes are not as definite as they used to be centuries or even only decades ago. Who is in the position to decide what English should sound like today? Furthermore, RP has lost some of its importance as a qualification for employment, and the desire to distinguish oneself socially has faded, especially among young people. All of these are factors that may be relevant in answering the question why RP is losing its significance and making way for Estuary English.

2.2 Cockney / Popular London

Most linguists use the term Cockney to describe a traditional East London working-class dialect that is confined to certain city districts. Popularly, Cockney has been used in a wider sense to describe non-standard speech with working-class elements also found in London and the South East (Altendorf 2003: 36). This second definition of the Cockney dialect is already showing a tendency towards the development of Estuary English. There are, however, syntactical, grammatical and lexical elements of Cockney (as well as the famous rhyming slang) that have not been adapted by Estuary (some of these will be looked at in the next section). Coggle (Coggle 1993) makes fine distinctions about this in his book, which provides humorous quizzes for the reader to test their position along the Cockney - RP spectrum.


[1] The speech used at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, along with that of London, has held a reputation

as the ‘best’ variety of English since the seventeenth century (Milroy; Bex & Watts 1999).


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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University of Bayreuth
Estuary English Dialect Southern Great Britain



Title: Estuary English: Dialect levelling in Southern Great Britain