How Estuary English won the world over
Twenty five years ago, The TES published my article on Estuary English (EE). Since I coined the term, EE has entered the language, and the word “estuary” can now also be used by itself to describe an individual’s speech.
A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology describes EE as an accent “falling somewhere between broad Cockney at one extreme and unmistakable RP (received pronunciation) at the other”. This is similar to how I put it in the TES piece in October 1984: “If one imagines a continuum with RP and London speech at either end, Estuary English speakers are to be found grouped in the middle ground.”
When the article appeared, there was no description of the speech of millions of people who spoke neither RP nor a strong local accent. Nowadays, EE probably has more speakers than any other accent in southern England. It has continued to attract interest in the media and academia ever since, and in recent years has played an increasing role in the teaching of English as an additional language throughout the world.
The pronunciation of EE has not changed greatly in the past 25 years, though there is some evidence of young EE speakers replacing the voiced and voiceless “th” sounds found in the words “three” and “that” of RP with the more London-style “f” and “v”.
The description of sounds remains largely the same. For example, the dark “l” which occurs in RP in such words as “royal”, “salt” and “milk” in EE becomes a “w” sound, similar to the first sound in “web”.
A contemporary example of the “t”-dropping described in 1984 can be found in the speech of Prince William, though clearly he is a speaker of RP. He dropped all but one of the “t”s at the ends of the words when he said: “I don’ wan’ to talk about i’” (the apostrophes stand in the place of the dropped sounds). When these two features occur together in one word, football becomes “foo’baw” and all right becomes “awrigh’”.
Since the 1990s, younger EE speakers have used “upspeak” intonation patterns. This involves the use of question-type inflections when giving new information or making a statement. In this way, tentativeness is added to a statement such as “It starts at eight?” so that it could sound like a question.
Meanwhile, yod-dropping – where the sound “j” is elided – continues. After the “t” in “tube” as pronounced in EE, the “j” is dropped and replaced with a “sh” sound that appears at the beginning of the word “shut”. Similarly, after the “d” in “duty”, the yod “j” in non-rapid RP speech is replaced by in EE the consonant to be found in the first consonant in the word “German”. This makes the words “Jew” and “due”, “June” and “dune” homophones in EE.
Other words have become virtual homophones in EE as a result of diphthong differences from RP: “way/why”, “day/die”, “say/sigh” and “lane/line”. The EE pronunciations of “boy” and “buy”, “point” and “pint” are much less differentiated than they are in RP.
Recently, a little of the stigma visited on EE by the media, mainly in the last decade of the previous century, seems to have transferred to RP, with “posh” or “toff” and “RP speaker” becoming almost interchangeable. Edward Stourton, the RP-speaking Radio 4 presenter, is reported as having come close to being sacked for being “too posh”.
On the other hand, it is not a long time since Sally Gunnell, the former Olympic athlete, left the BBC, saying she was upset because of viewer criticism of her “awful Estuary accent”.
The process by which the accents in state schools in southern England meld has not changed, though the range of the varieties of English represented in these schools has increased. In 1984, I did not see evidence of the use of EE in English private schools. However, in the late 1990s, Carsten Huttermann of Munster University in Germany found that most of her pupils started with RP, but many, particularly among the boys, ended up as EE speakers (this was noted in her unpublished masters thesis “Untersuchungen zum ‘Estuary English’ an einer ‘Public School’ in Sudengland”).
Discussions with native and non-native teachers of English as a second language indicate that in the past five years recorded teaching materials have used many more accents of English than previously. The accents of British speakers are generally divided by age: EE is the most widely used for younger voices, while adults on the recordings are predominantly RP or near-RP speakers.
However, those who have an EE accent may still find that it proves a disadvantage if they wish to work with business people in other countries. An ongoing Anglo-American socio-linguistic research project, in which I am involved, has been studying how people in Argentina, Malaysia, the Pacific Rim, the US and the UK react to the accent. Its findings suggest that EE is rated less favourably than the standard accents of Britain and the US. Despite this, EE is likely to survive as an accent far into the future.
More than two centuries ago, Londoners started to drop the “r” sound in their pronunciation of such words as “horse” and “power”. This change spread through a large part of Britain and all but a corner of the US, albeit slowly. There are still some old people in Reading who pronounce the “r” in “horse” much as a latter-day American cowboy does.
By comparison, the spread of EE has been very rapid. The accent is well established, and I would expect it still to be heard in classrooms and staffrooms after another quarter of a century.
The making of mockney
The portmanteau word “Mockney”, combining mock with Cockney, is sometimes used inaccurately in the media as a synonym for Estuary English. But it is distinct from EE, referring to a deliberate and often temporary affectation. It originated in the 1990s, though no phonological description has been traced.
It could be described as toffs trying to be toughs because a Cockney accent is considered working class, whereas EE is not. Jamie Oliver, the TV chef, and the film director Guy Ritchie have both been given as an examples of people adopting Mockney.
Published in The TES on 13 November, 2009 | By: David Rosewarne