The Cockney dialect within the British English language has gradually risen from its humbling beginnings as being once an insult during the fourteenth century for Londoners, or city folk, who chose to use wit instead of education to make a living.
Understanding the dynamics of how powerful London’s influence on language and culture has been throughout the centuries can be summed up in the words of King James I in the seventeenth century, when he stated “soon London will be all England” (Santipolo,408).
Cockney is, of course, a deviation of the current Standard English dialect-Queen’s English-which has its origins from the Middle English era during the fifteenth century when the capital moved from Winchester to London. It has no connection with the Old English written standard, West Saxon (Santipolo, 404). Because of its direct lineage to the location and structure of today’s standard mother tongue, Cockney should be embraced as an equal in representing England’s diverse nation.
The word Cockney derives from a combination of Middle English’s “coken” (cock) and “ey” (egg) meaning misshapen or imperfect egg. Characteristics of this language include well known rhyming slangs such as trouble and strife (wife) ; sausage and mash (cash); as well as the omission of certain vowels like the –h in the beginning of the words horse (‘orse) and humour (‘umour); and the changing of other vowels such as this to (‘dis) and mother to (muvver).
Today it can be categorized as a Sociolinguistic dialect ,which has narrowed to stand as a proud birthright for those who are birthed in close proximity to east London’s Bow Bells, although it has had stigmas due to the dialect being mainly spoken by criminals in the 1900s as well as working class citizens.
Coupled with the disgrace of economic issues, Cockney has a long history of despair surrounding it. An influx of sickness, disease, overpopulation, and violence has been associated with this part of London, especially since the 1800s. This negativity has also been solidified in the minds of many with the serial killings of Jack the Ripper. This mass murderer created panic and disdain amongst this culture for a period of about five years in the late nineteenth century.
Because of its prime location near ports, the East End of London drew many unhealthy businesses and people; as well as embraced emigrants fleeing from political turmoil, which created even more problems for the residents of “The Abyss” (East End-Land of Cockney). Despite these issues, the working class citizens fought hard to create and maintain an intimate community that flourished against the odds.
This analysis will cover the evolution of the dialect and culture surrounding Cockney, as well as compare and contrast the dialect to other mainstream British accents such as The Queens English and Estuary English, in order to gain an understanding of how it has prevailed throughout the centuries.
To fully comprehend the prevailing nature of Cockney, one has to look only at the dynamics of the British culture, which stems from a history of royal hierarchies and prestigious households that considered wealth as well as language to be defining factors of the worth of an individual.
Most of the privileged families have spoken “The Queen’s” or Standard English, while Cockney and even Estuary English are spoken by the majority of those who are the backbone of society.
This moniker was restricted to the working class during the 1800s and references to it can be seen in literature as far back as the works of Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, when the narrator describes himself as a “cokenay” within the Tale of Reeves (Cockney):
|“And to hymself he maketh routhe and wo.|
|“Allas!” quod he, “this is a wikked jape;|
|Now may I seyn that I is but an ape.|
|Yet has my felawe somwhat for his harm;|
|He has the milleres doghter in his arm.|
|He auntred hym, and has his nedes sped,|
|And I lye as a draf-sak in my bed;|
|Anhen this jape is tald another day,|
|I sal been halde a daf, a cokenay!|
|I wil arise and auntre it, by my fayth!|
|‘Unhardy is unseely,’ thus men sayth.”|
|And up he roos, and softely he wente|
|Unto the cradel, and in his hand it hente,|
|And baar it softe unto his beddes feet. (Chaucer 346-59)|
This description of being “a mother’s boy”, or pampered child, possibly came from the Middle English “cocker”; simply meaning to “pamper.” The earliest time period that Cockney has been seen in literature is in William Langland’s poem from 1362 entitled Piers Plowman:
“And I sigge, bi my soule,
I have no salt Bacon, we no
Cockneyes, bi Crist, Colopus
( Piers Plowman qtd in Santipolo 415)
During the mid twentieth century, some still considered Cockney, amongst other English dialects, to be “the most generally despised and downtrodden” (Reaney 491, quote by Matthews). This mindset seem to have gained momentum during this time with help from the London County Council in a report aimed at elementary schools proclaiming “the Cockney mode of speech, with its unpleasant twang, is a modern corruption without legitimate credentials, and is unworthy of being the speech of any person in the capital city of the Empire”(Cockney).
Still there were those, who, in books like Pickwick Papers; movies such as “My Fair Lady”; and even in phonology descriptions like Eva Siverston’s Cockney Phonology, chose to display this vernacular with intellect and decency. Today, notable men and women like Michael Caine, Idris Elba, Barbara Windsor, and Samantha Fox, bring esteem and positivity to this birthplace.
Morphology and connotation plays as much of an important role in distinguishing Cockney as does its inhabitants. It has certain terminologies that are unique to its culture. Looking at literature that details these differences is a marvelous way to get a taste of what lies underneath the surface of the language. Jon Jolley is an author who has written poems within the past few years that give homage to being Cockney; luckily, he also used words that exist within the society:
(Bencurtis Cockney Poem)
They promised to return one day, to give another bash,
I think they enjoyed it as much as us, and ‘elped us raise some cash,
The songs they sang all took us back, to the ‘ appy days of old,
To ‘orse and carts and friendly folk and coppers good and bold.
The friendly corner shop was there, to greet us with a smile
And all of that returned tonight, just for a little while. (Jolley)
This example uses the word “coppers”, which is a cockney term for the police. This wording would have a connotation that brings to mind police officers back in the day that were feared and revered (London created the first organized police force, and they only used batons to catch criminals); also this word signifies underworld criminals in the U.S. like the mafia, along with the comic and tv series of Dick Tracy. This evolution of “coppers” shows how words can be borrowed and spread over continents.
Another passage from this author gives an insight of daily life:
I’ll see all the ‘appy people, what used to be araund,
And listen to the ‘orse and carts, wot made that loverly saund.
The air would be full of the costermongers loud and cheerful calls
Wiv all the fings they ‘ave for sale, all piled upon their stalls. (Jolley)
This second example has an interesting word in it that would be good to study for morphology. Costermongers is a word that one may never have heard if not a native of London, but the connotation is of people selling things at a flea market or an open market. Looking up the word it is indeed a British street seller of fruits and vegetables.
It is also a combination of costard and monger with the –s added on to make it plural. Jolley’s word choice in this poem is perfect when visualizing the rustle and bustle of London life back in the day. Loud noises, people screaming, friendly chattering, moving bodies, horses and carts everywhere; just a lively place like no where else. Kind of like when someone visits NYC with the bright lights, having normally lived in on a small, quiet, country farm; it’s the feeling of ‘wow’.
The elements of cohesiveness in the written form have also aided writers in developing techniques to do this dialect justice on screen and in books. This uniquely corresponds with the evolution of the Cockney dialect in the way literature has grown in representing this language throughout the years. In order to grasp a better understanding of the affect of the techniques at play, one must further dissect the literature which has been catered to display traits of this accent.
Lets then look at another excerpt from the author Ron Jolley who wrote “Bencurtis Cockney Poem”:
Cor; now I’ ve gawne and seen it all, I’ ve seen the blooming lot
I never would ‘ave fought it, the pleasure that we got,
If you ‘ad told me long ago, they were coming ‘ere in force,
I would never ‘ad believed it; well do I mean them of course…(Jolley)
Jolley’s style in writing this poem is one of familiarity; he diligently utilizes the personal voice with normal rhythm speech contractions as well as writing the words in the correct speech omission pattern as native speakers. Also, he begins with “cor” or, of course, as if what he is about to express is common knowledge to everyone. He then ends this passage with the repetition of the same words even as he speaks of “them” who he has not yet given an agent, bringing end focus to a subject that has not yet been declared.
This next excerpt is chosen from King Circumstance by Edwin Pugh:
Moll stirred uneasily under the scrutiny and opened her eyes. The child clapped her hands, and her lips parted in a smile. Moll stared at her with an expression of drowsy half-inquiry on her face. Presently she sat up and began to arrange her tumbled hair.”Come ‘ere,” she said. The child still smiled at her, but made no attempt to approach, though the gap in the fence was amply wide enough to admit her.
Moll laughed with noisy vehemence.”You can’t hear what I say to you, can you, Bet? “she said, shaking her head at the child. The child nodded. Moll laughed again. “An’ you couldn’t answer me if you did ‘ear, could you?” she continued, “because yer quite deaf an’ dumb, aint yer, Bet?”The child uttered a harsh, crooning murmur, and squeezed through the gap. She sat down beside Moll and drew from her pocket a very dirty, sticky piece of pink sweetstuff. This she offered to Moll with an air of charming invitation. Moll put it aside.
“Sweet little dear!” she said, and stooped forward and kissed the child. “Though I aint no right to kiss ‘er,” she murmured.”Me so ‘orrible an’ vile, an’ ‘er such a little angel” (Pugh, 232-233).
Pugh uses “scrutiny” and “inquiry” in the passage, words which are usually chosen to express harshness and judgment, in order to explain the feeling that the character Moll has when she is innocently looked upon by a child. This allows the reader to understand the purity of the moment; it is as if the woman is not worthy of being in the presence of a small and possibly handicapped youth, who some may deem as unimportant. This author also uses similar strategies as the first when writing in regular speech contractions as well as using slang terms like “deaf and dumb” and “sweetstuff.”
Now let’s look at a more reserved, less authenticated piece of literature that includes Cockney words. This passage is from chapter eight in an 1846-47 penny dreadful called The String of Pearls: A Romance:
“ It was with no small violence to his own feelings that he listened to their conversation, and appeared to take an interest in their proceedings.
‘Well,’ said one, who sat next him, ‘I’m just off for the north-road.’
‘Any fortune there?’
‘Not much; and yet I mustn’t complain: these last three weeks the best I have had has been two sixties.’
‘Well, that would do very well.’
‘Yes, the last man I stopped was a regular looby Londoner; he appeared like a don, complete tip-top man of fashion; but Lord! when I came to look over him, he hadn’t as much as would carry me twenty-four miles on the road.’
‘Indeed! don’t you think he had any hidden about him? they do so now.
‘Ah, ah!’ returned another, ‘well said, old fellow; ’tis a true remark that we can’t always judge a man from appearances. Lor! bless me, now, who’d a-thought your swell cove proved to be out of luck! Well, I’m sorry for you; but you know ’tis a long lane that has no turning, as Mr Somebody says – so, perhaps, you’ll be more fortunate another time.
But come, cheer up, whilst I relate an adventure that occurred a little time ago; ’twas a slice of good luck, I assure you, for I had no difficulty in bouncing my victim out of a good swag of tin; for you know farmers returning from market are not always too wary and careful, especially as the lots of wine they take at the market dinners make the cosy old boys ripe and mellow for sleep. Well, I met one of these jolly gentlemen, mounted on horseback, who declared he had nothing but a few paltry guineas about him; however, that would not do – I searched him, and found a hundred and four pounds secreted about his person’ (The String of Pearls).
Although this type of literature was geared toward London’s working class adolescence in the mid 1800’s, the style of writing is not catered with the omission patterned speech of the local residents; furthermore, it has only two bonafide words of Cockney-“cove” and “don.” It seems to remain consistent with the voice of the third person narrator throughout all the dialogue and narration. This was most likely the preferred style in those days. At least until the late nineteenth century when writers such as Mark Twain, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edwin Pugh, and Finley Peter Dunne introduced the creative possibilities in lyrically expressing dialect on paper.
Taking the first author noted, Mr. Twain, and his literary piece Pickwick Papers, one can view this writing as a story of the struggles of a Cockney when he has gained prestige. The main character, Mr. Pickwick, has dialogue throughout the book with his butler- and fellow Cockney -Sam, who has a pessimistic view of Mr. Pickwick’s new life and environment.
In a review by William Axton, he parallels these two characters as being alter egos. These opposing forces can be seen in an excerpt that draws closely to the Cockney dialect when Sam speaks:
“They are fine fellow; very fine fellows; with judgments matured by observation and reflection; tastes refined by reading and study….”
“They’re a smokin’ cigars by the kitchen fire,” said Sam.
“Ah!” observed Mr. Pickwick, rubbing his hands, “overflowing with kindly feelings and animal spirits. Just what I like to see.”
“And one on’ em,” said Sam, not noticing his master’s interruption, “One on’ ems got his legs on the table, and is a drinkin’ brandy neat, vile t’other one-him in the barnacles- has got a barrel o’ oysters atween his knees, wich he’s a openin’ like steam, and as fast as he eats ‘em, he takes aim vith the shells at young dropsy, who’s a sittin’ down fast asleep, in the chimbley corner.”
“Eccentricities of genius, Sam” observed Mr. Pickwick. “You may retire.”
(Axton, 666, quote from Pickwick Papers)
This conversation is about two gentlemen that Mr. Pickwick is about to rub elbows with and Sam is not having any of it. He despises the upper class and can be seen as the viewpoint of the working class in general. Mr. Pickwick, having risen above his status as Cockney, views this life as a great chapter of genuine intellect and prosperity, where seemingly no one is doing wrong. Of course both of these vantages on the extreme are unjust, but this book becomes a platform to blend the barriers separating the social classes, and thoroughly leads to Mr. Pickwick rising to the occasion for moral purity. This literature, as well as others, have helped bridge the gap for Cockney to evolve into a culture that embraces more than just a few city dwellers, and to stand for the progress of the men and women it encompasses.
There has also been a recent study (Fox) that suggests the continuation of evolution in Cockney due to the influx of ethnic groups such as those from Bangledish, as well as Jamaican-Creole heritages, who have deviated the spoken words of the dialect from its typical “East End” roots, and spread the accent further to include the outskirts of London. This would include variations in slang as well as pronunciation from the PRICE and FACE lexical systems, although there are those who still speak traditional Cockney. An interesting point to note is that the ‘original’ bow bells were destroyed in 1666 and have been rebuilt on several occasions.
There was a time period in between when there did not exist a bell, therefore, if literally taken, no one born could have been considered a Cockney until the bells were remade. The perimeter of St. Mary Le-Bow bells would have covered about six miles to the east, three to the south, four to the west, and five north; although a definite cutoff has never been established (Cockney).
The expansion in the boundary of Cockney culture, though, has blended into a sub-language called Estuary English, and is heard mainly in the South East portions of England. This new “dialect” is spoken by the majority of younger crowds, and is widely accepted and considered to be a slighter variation from Standard English than its predecessor- Cockney. The h- droppings, t -glottal stops, and wider mouth nasal pronunciations are synonymous with both Cockney and Estuary English, and the main difference tends to be the groups speaking the language. Cockney has been around for centuries and is a hallmark sound for London’s working class, and Estuary English can be seen as a hip status for today’s middle class youth who want to get away from the “chains” of Received Pronunciation.
The traditional phonology of Cockney is quite distinctive in its use of consonant switches and omissions; coupled with elongated sound executions it is taken the farthest away of any other British dialect from the standards of the Queen’s English. Although Received Pronunciation, or RP, was ‘officially’ coined by Daniel Jones in the early 20th century, the etiquette came from the standards set forth by Early Modern English spoken in the East Midland territories of England during the 14th and 15th centuries. Highlights of this standard include the non rhotic accent, which causes words such as “pawn” and “porn” to be voiced identically due to the silencing of the –r; non- weak vowel merging with words such as “ten” and “tin” being distinctly separate; and vowels transforming into a gliding vowel, and even triphthongs (Received Pronunciation).
Cockney shares some of these traits, but varies accordingly when RP keeps its –h consonants at the beginning of words and doesn’t substitute f sounds for –th in the middle of words such as Arthur.
In a review of Eva Siverston’s Cockney Phonology, Seymour Chatman states that Siverston uses an American linguist’s modified version of The Trager System to identify phonology attributes.
He goes on to confirm that the “four pitches, three stresses, and three terminal contours (are) adequate for Cockney….Generally, Cockney turns out to be less exotic than one might imagine”(Chatman 55-56). This simple formatting breaks Cockney down into “peaks”, or vowel phonemes, which equates to roughly twenty variations in all that include semi-vowels /h/, /j/, and /w/. Other characteristics of Cockney described by Chatman are “ the intrusive /i/ (ex.) (/idaipSian/, Egyptian…the unusual variant before /l/ (ex.) /al/ for owl…extremely strong aspiration of voiceless stops, even to the point of affrication ex. /tij/ tea is [tsai], /bad/ bad is [bedz], and /bak/back is [bekx] …(and) the glottalization of voiceless stops (ex.) /seprit/ separate..” (Chatman 56). With someone taking the time to lay these facts plainly out, they provide a better avenue for Cockney to be studied and incorporated into mainstream entertainment.
During the twentieth century, Cockney began being used more in various ways to promote character plots in literature and in film. This influx includes Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and its remake into the 1960’s screenplay My Fair Lady, as it portrays a Cockney born and bred female flower seller being re-cultured to become a more civilized London resident. It must be noted that Shaw attempted to keep Ms. Doolittle, the protagonist in his play, self-sufficient in her Cockney ways.
But due to popular demand, he relented and initially made a film debut of Pygmalion in the 1930’s, where Doolittle marries a less known character. After his death, the most notable version appears: the musical remake, My Fair Lady, featuring the catchy tune “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”; where most remember Doolittle’s Cockney dialect -and her struggles with it (McGovern).
The evolution of Cockney within this scope takes pursuance of the phonetics as well as studying other dynamics of the human voice that can be seen in Mary Brindle’s A Lessac System Model For the Teaching and Study of Standard British, Cockney, and Irish Stage Dialect. Brindle uses a quote in the beginning of her analysis from Lessac himself that summarizes the process well: “ Learn the principles of verbal and vocal life—learn them well—but experiment along the way….find yourself exploring the idea that nothing stands alone, isolated, or encapsulated. .” (Brindle 14, quote by Lessac).
In grasping the correct sound of Cockney as well as any other dialect, one must focus attention on some of the elements discussed earlier such as the dialect’s phonetic alterations, rhythm and tempo, as well as resonance focal area, lilt range and intonation tendencies, and special dialectal pronunciations (Brindle).
The idea that “nothing stands alone” come in Brindles statement about teaching students: she proclaims that students have an easier time learning Cockney after first mastering the Standard British dialect, instead of trying to learn it independently from its counterpart. In other words, learning the dynamics as a standard whole helps as a safety- net in the event that one may forget the basics while executing the spoken words of the deviated dialect.
The resonance quality of Cockney is high pitched and can be described as a bit whiny. The rhythm tends to be slow and drawn out, with some intonations causing the mouth to widen and stretch. Coupled with omission patterns and its sing-songy ranges, it becomes apparent how learning this dialect may be time consuming and difficult to grasp.
One of the most exclusive characteristic of Cockney is its rhyming slangs. These are a combination of words placed together as phrases and may not have anything to do with the actual word it equates to; the main objective of the rhyming slang is to stay as far away from this word as possible. The phrases can be generally categorized as follows: classic, modern, or mockney. As the name implies, classic cockney phrases stem from its centuries old language and have been loved enough to remain incorporated into today’s vernacular.
Modern and even mockney are terms used for newer renditions of slang originating within the past hundred years; mockney is the category used to place the most refined of slangs that only a few are enlisted to choose. Adam and Eve (to believe), Kettle and Hob (fob watches), Butchers Hook (to look), and Alligator (later) are a few of the classical endearments while Virginia Wades (shades), Al Capone (phone) and Eartha Kitts (breasts) are the more modern twists to the language.
It is interesting to note here that Cockney slang has transitioned a large amount of words into its lexicon by way of the immigrants who choose to make their home in the London area. As noted earlier, its most recent influences are Jamaican and Bangledish, although it also shares words from the language of the gypsies, Romany, as well as many others such as Hindi, Yiddish, Arabic, and other local tongues of Asian and African inhabitants (Santipola 431). “Ackers” and “bints” are words from Arabic that mean money and girls respectively. “Doolally” means mad and comes from the Indian town of Deolali-where a British mental institution was located (Santipola 431).
Also, a Cockney word for child, “chavvy”, comes from the gypsy world, as does “mush” which means mate. Partially going back to its roots, Cockney also borrows words from Germanic Yiddish: “gezumph”(swindle), “goy” (non-Jew), and “schlemiel” (a simpleton). With so many languages intermingled, one can see how the rhyming slangs are a celebrated focal point when discussing this dialect.
A compilation of phrases from the sixteenth century to present day can be found in Eric Partridge’s Smaller Slang Dictionary. In a review of this book, Margaret Bryant describes the work as “family friendly”, with Partridge having omitted obsolete and indecent vernacular; including most of the underworld language, from his much larger work-Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English– to provide readers with the most up to date versions of slangs (Bryant 68).
Another review of a similar book, The Oxford Dictionary of Rhyming Slang, gives an authentic viewpoint by a London born resident. Steve Roud tells the pros and cons of a book like this, in relation to the general population that it is deeming to represent.
He states in his analysis that “If one of my family suddenly said I’m off up the apples to find me daisies (Apples and pairs = stairs; Daisy roots = boots) we would think they had gone quite mad- unless of course they said it in such an exaggerated tone as to make it an obvious parody” (Roud 335). He, however, does later go on to state that if he was to visit the natural environment in the market street district, that someone would probably speak this way. This leads one to believe that Cockney culture has its layered dimensions; the further in you go, the more authentic the experience is.
In retrospect, Cockney’s evolution can be broken down into five timeframes: fourteenth century as a misshapen egg; late fourteenth century as a spoiled child; sixteenth century as any city person; seventeenth century as a Bow-Bell Londoner; and in the eighteenth century as working class Londoners-their dialect and culture-.The latter two periods co-exist today and allow Cockney to be placed into the field of Sociolinguistics (Santipolo 426). It is by far an astonishing feat for Cockney to have survived centuries of onslaughts, injurious critiques and affairs; to rise in the face of contempt and disdain and become a proud right to be shared in-as Reginald Bolton’s “The Cockney and His Dialect”(Bolton) attests- for the whole world to extol.
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Tamuriel L. Dillard