Cockney to disappear from London?

Jul 14, 2010 by

A conducted by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, suggests that Cockney is on the move. Previously common on the streets of London’s East End, this accent is now moving further east, to the surrounding counties of Essex and Hertfordshire, especially towns such as Romford and Southend. In London itself Cockney, which has been around for more than 500 years, is being replaced by a new hybrid language — what Prof. Kerswill calls Multicultural London English — a mixture of Cockney, Bangladeshi and West Indian accents.

To an American reader, Cockney is most familiar from the speech of Eliza Doolittle (in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”/”My fair lady”), Sam Weller and the Artful Dodger (in Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers” and “Oliver Twist”, respectively) and Sergeant Trotter (in Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap”). And of course, it’s the Cockney rhyming slang that is familiar to many.

Cockney rhyming slang is a form of speech in which a word is replaced by a rhyming word, typically the last word of a two- or three-word phrase, with the effect that the meaning of the spoken or written words is not obvious to receivers who are not familiar with the code. For example, frog and toad means ‘road’. And if you are not familiar with the code, go figure what it means to fall down apples and pears? (Answer: apples and pears means ‘stairs’). To make things even more obscure for the outsider unfamiliar with the code, the part of the coded phrase that rhymes with the original word is typically though not always omitted, as in I’m going up the apples to mean ‘I’m going up the stairs’. One of the most beautiful things about Cockney rhyming slang is that it can be slyly humorous, as trouble and strife for ‘wife’ or beauties and beasts for ‘priests’. Rhyming slang is also often used in a euphemistic way, to replace taboo words — often to the extent that the association with the taboo word becomes unknown over time. Some of the examples of this use of Cockney rhyming slang include pony and trap for ‘crap’, horse and cart for ‘fart’ and Jimmy Riddle for ‘piddle’ (as in ‘urinate’).

But Cockney is not just the rhyming slang! Typical features of Cockney pronunciation include T-glottalisation (the use of the glottal stop instead of [t] and sometimes [p] and [k] as in Richard Whiteing spelling of “Hyde Park” as Hy’ Par’); Th-fronting (pronouncing /θ/ as [f] and /ð/ as [v], as in [brɒvə] ‘brother’); H-dropping (hence, Eliza Doolittle’s trouble with pronouncing Henry Higgins’ name; as well as diphthong alterations (for example, replacing /eɪ/ with [æɪ~aɪ], as in [fæɪs] ‘face’ or [taɪk] ‘take’). You can hear examples of Cockney pronunciation in Eliza Doolittle’s “Just you wait”: here, the word ‘wait’ sounds like ‘white’ and ‘late’ sounds like ‘light’.

Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait!
You’ll be sorry, but your tears’ll be to late!
You’ll be broke, and I’ll have money;
Will I help you? Don’t be funny!
Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait!
Just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins, till you’re sick,
And you scream to fetch a doctor double-quick.
I’ll be off a second later And go straight to the the-ater!
Oh ho ho, ‘enry ‘iggins, just you wait!
Ooooooh ‘enry ‘iggins!
Just you wait until we’re swimmin’ in the sea!
Ooooooh ‘enry ‘iggins!
And you get a cramp a little ways from me!
When you yell you’re going to drown I’ll get dressed
and go to town! Oh ho ho, ‘enry ‘iggins!
Oh ho ho, ‘enry ‘iggins! Just you wait!
One day I’ll be famous! I’ll be proper and prim;
Go to St. James so often I will call it St. Jim!
One evening the king will say:
“Oh, Liza, old thing,
I want all of England your praises to sing.
Next week on the twentieth of May
I proclaim Liza Doolittle Day!
All the people will celebrate the glory of you
And whatever you wish and want I gladly will do.”
“Thanks a lot, King” says I, in a manner well-bred;
But all I want is ‘enry ‘iggins ‘ead!”
“Done,” says the King with a stroke.
“Guard, run and bring in the bloke!”
Then they’ll march you, ‘enry ‘iggins to the wall;
And the King will tell me: “Liza, sound the call.”
As they lift their rifles higher, I’ll shout:
“Ready! Aim! Fire!”
Oh ho ho, ‘enry ‘iggins,
Down you’ll go, ‘enry ‘iggins!
Just you wait!

There are also some grammatical features characteristic of Cockney. One such feature is the use of me instead of my, as in At’s me book you got ‘ere. Curiously, when the possessive pronoun is emphasized, my and not me is used, as in At’s my book you got ‘ere (and not ‘is). Another feature is the use of ain’t instead of isn’t, am not, are not, has not, and have not. Finally, as in several other dialects of English, double negatives are perfectly at home in Cockney, as in I didn’t see nothing.

So will Cockney disappear within the next 30 years? I don’t Adam and Eve (‘believe’) it!

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