Introduction to Cockney

Cockney is the dialect used in and around London. Its main distinguishing features are its pronunciation and its rhyming slang terms, plus its question tag 'innit'. The popular Cockney dialect has recently been joined by a socially higher cousin, Estuary English, a mixture of Cockney pronunciation and more standard English.


Cockney is completely non-rhotic (the 'r' sound is lacking, particularly at the end of words) and has distinctive consonant and vowel sounds (apologies for the very rough and ready phonetic transcriptions, HTML doesn't support the phonetic script):

- unvoiced 'th' sounds like f, hence 'with' is pronounced "wiff";
- voiced 'th' sounds like v, hence 'father' is pronounced "favve";
- 't' and often 'k' sounds within a word or at the end of a word are often replaced with a glottal stop (a slight pause, as when you say the worrying comment "oh-oh"); so 'water' becomes "woh-e", 'little' is "lih-l" and 'butter' "buh-e"
- the 'h' sound is dropped, though these is hypercorrection as in 'Did you hever see it?;
- syllable-final 'l' more or less disappears, becoming something close to a 'w' sound as in "Sain' Pauw's Caffedraw"
- the RP diphthong 'ai' of 'line' sounds more like 'oi' as in "loin";
- the RP diphthong 'ei' of 'lane' sounds more like 'ai' as in "line";
- the RP diphthongs 'aw' as in "about" and 'ow' as in "both" become a long monophthong 'aa', hence "abaat" and "baaf"

An advert in the 1990's came up with this line to illustrate Cockney pronunciation: "The water in Majorca don't (doesn't) taste quite like what it ought to" which in classic Cockney parlance would sound something like: "Ve woh-e in Mahjorca daun tais' quoi' loi' woh' i' ou' er".

Cockney Rhyming Slang

The history of Cockney Rhyming Slang is uncertain:

- it possibly originated in the 18th century when London was expanding rapidly and many outsiders came to the city for work. So as to exclude them from their conversations, the locals may have developed this 'secret' code;
- it possibly derived from thieves' slang, another 'secret' code.

Rhyming slang is based on word play, eg.

- Would you Adam and Eve it? = Would you believe it?
- Can I have a butcher's hook? = Can I have a look?

Rhyming slang forms can be shortened, making the 'code' even more complex, eg.

- Would you Adam it? or Can I have a butcher's?

Some terms are used throughout Britain and beyond, eg:

- butcher's - loaf - titfer - Johnnie Horner

Estuary English

- also known as 'New London Voice', 'Mockney'

Estuary English is a variety of modified regional speech. It is a mixture of non-regional and local south-eastern English pronunciation and intonation. If one imagines a continuum with R.P. and popular London speech at either end, Estuary English speakers are to be found grouped in the middle ground. They are "between Cockney and the Queen" in the words of the headline in The Sunday Times.

David Rosewarne, Estuary English: Tomorrow's R.P.?

Today Estuary English speakers are in the ascendancy. Already they are found in practically all walks of life, including education and the arts. With the young generation in the south-east of England adopting Estuary English in varying degrees across a wide range of social allegiances, the prestige of this versatile variety can only grow. Estuary English has already infiltrated RP. In another decade or two it may well be on the way to supplanting it.

Paul Coggle, Do You Speak Estuary?

© (except quotations) Nigel J. Ross, 2003




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