Is London’s cockney accent ‘brown bread’?
The cockney accent. Famous for making millions laugh with the infamous Trotter clan as well as being the native tongue for on-screen gangsters like Phil Mitchel and Danny Dyer. The unmistakable accent is now regarded as a national treasure, a part of Britain’s heritage that plays an integral role in molding the unique identity of our capital city… but is it time at the bar for London’s trademark sound?
In a time, long before Peggy Mitchel was slinging punters out of her pub and Del-Boy Trotter was flogging his dodgy gear from Nelson Mandela House, the cockney accent was ridiculed for being the accent of the pauper. Only the poorest members of society uttered the impoverished cockney accent and the undeniable vocabulary that came with it. Despite the prestige and glamour that is so often associated with the cockney speech in today’s society, it was once seen as a burden to end a conversation with the utterance “alright son, be lucky”.
Some would suggest that the cockney accent is a thing of the past. With immigration into England’s capital city reaching an all-time high in recent years and the expansion of Multi-Cultural London English (MLE), it would seem as though the cockney accent is “brown-bread”.
The most obvious signs of a diminishing cockney accent is the virtual disappearance of cockney rhyming slang. There was a point in history when each pub in the East-End had a couple of ‘geezers’ sat at the bar having a few ‘Britney Spears’ discussing their ‘Shaun Goaters’… the later meaning motors, as I’m reliably informed.
But this trademark speech has decayed in recent times and the distinctive dialog is far less commonplace across the city of London. Why is this? Well originally, cockney rhyming slang was created by market traders so that they could talk ‘business’ without police officers being able to understand what exactly that ‘business’ entailed. Not that there was anything wrong with what they were doing… Obviously.
But as consumerism boomed in England’s capital and big retail businesses prospered, London’s markets, from Brick Lane to Maltby Street, took a devastating hit and consequently, so did rhyming slang.
One of the most influential factors contributing to the decline of the cockney accent is the rapid growth of MLE.
One of London’s many beauties is that it is one of the biggest cultural mixing pots in the world and as a result, the cockney twang has been blended with the Afro-Caribbean accent over multiple generations of mass migration. The result is a rhythmic widespread accent known as Multicultural London English (MLE) or “Ja-Faken”.
Although MLE is the offspring of London’s traditional cockney accent, there are a lot of distinct differences between the two. The pronunciation of the word ‘choice’ in a cockney accent, means the vowel sound will shift towards an “oy” forming ‘choice’ whereas, in an MLE accent, the O-sound becomes more monophthong with elements of a southern American accent, sharpening and quickening of the “oy” sound.
But, it is important to note that Multicultural London English does not reverse Cockney trends. The words ‘goose,’ ‘food’ and ‘you,’ in a cockney accent, is pronounced with a central or frontal vowel (the ‘oo’ sound being dominant). Not only does MLE conform to this forward shift, it actually seems to push this vowel further forward than other types of the cockney accents in some circumstances resulting in a prolonged stress of the double vowel “Fooood”
So is the cockney accent on its way out? Not at all. Although research suggests that the dialect will disappear from London’s streets within a generation, it will survive in the Home Counties, particularly in Hertfordshire and along the East End corridor to Essex. If you listen closely you can hear this change happening already. Teenagers in Essex sounding more and more like Barbra Windsor and Danny Dyer, their East Anglian neighbors in Suffolk and Norfolk are delighted, I’m sure.
Part of the reason for the cockney migration is the attraction of the countryside. Having lived in the concrete jungle of London for years, the appeal of some grass and a tree or two is too much to resist for a lot of older cockneys. So the result is a move to the picturesque landscapes of Southend-On-Sea or maybe even Hemel Hempstead if they’re really lucky…
House prices in London have also played a big role in influencing the change. Anyone born within the sound of Bow Bells would have to fork out a million pounds or more to buy a family house if they wanted to stay inside the old Cockney boundary.
So is the globally recognized accent on its way out? Well it’s no secret that the cockney accent was far more dominant in London forty years ago. But, this does not mean it has disappeared, nor does it mean that the accent is destined for a place next to BlackBerry mobile phones, cheque books and the Yellow Pages as a thing of the past. The accent that is now engrained as one of Britain’s most famous linguistic features has simply relocated and the fundamental characteristics it carries with it, those of humour, innovation and pride have moved along with it.