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March 02, 2019

Why you probably already speak some Cockney

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This was originally published on the University of Warwick Knowledge Centre on 1 March 2019. I have modified it slightly from the form that appeared there, and have changed the title. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0)

I’m a sociolinguist, which means that I research the ways people use language to do things--and the ways language does things to people. As a rule, I cringe when people imitate accents. Imitations are usually lousy, and invariably include problematic stereotypes—think Dick Van Dyke stepping in time. Bad imitations and rehashed stereotypes reinforce negative attitudes about accents, and these negative attitudes have real consequences for speakers of these accents. In the United States, for instance, researchers have shown that people are denied jobs and housing because of their accents.

Cockney, of course, has a long history of being highly stigmatised. It’s therefore a prime candidate for being badly imitated in ways that harm its speakers. If #SpeakCockneyDay doesn’t get farther than “’ello Guv’na” and “up da apples”, there will be much to cringe over on 3 March.

On the other hand, Andy Green recognises that a dialect is not just a way of speaking, but a central aspect of our personal and cultural identities. That is absolutely worth celebrating--especially when it means spending time with friends or doing things for charity to express innate generosity. If these are part of the culture that’s expressed through Cockney, then Cockney indeed belongs in the DNA of all Englishes.

The good news is that, across Britain, many people can speak Cockney just by talking normally. Rather than disappearing from the streets of London, features of Cockney are spreading into accents all over Britain.

In most cases, wherever these features spread, they still carry negative social stigmas, and those stigmas carry adverse consequences for speakers. If we can agree to celebrate Cockney speech, perhaps we can agree to celebrate Cockney features wherever they show up in English. If so, we can combat negative evaluations of accents and reduce the negative effects of these evaluations on speakers, while also celebrating the connections between our ways of speaking and our ways of living.


Andy has put #SpeakCockneyDay on “the ’fird of the ’fird” as a nod to one of the most salient features of Cockney: the replacement of the sounds traditionally associated with the letters <th> with the sounds of [f] and [v]. Linguists often refer to this feature as “TH-fronting.” TH-fronting is thriving throughout Britain (or friving froughout, if you prefer). Researchers have found TH-fronting across England and Scotland, and a 2016 article in the Mail warned that the "th" sound would disappear in 50 years. TH-fronting is often stigmatised as “yuf speak” or, in the case of the Mail article, blamed on “foreign visitors.” But TH-fronting is a clear case of a traditional Cockney feature spreading into other British Englishes. We should celebrate TH-fronting as one of the ways that Cockney is alive and well.


Linguists refer to the sound that occurs in the middle of a word like uh-oh as a “glottal stop.” Imitations of Cockney will invariably include the replacement of /t/ with glottal stops, especially when the /t/ is in the middle of a word like better. Cockney accents may extend this “T-glottaling” to use glottal stops in the place of sounds associated with <p> and <k>, or may replace consonants at the beginning or end of a word with a glottal stop, or may reinforce a consonant by adding a glottal stop to it. As with TH-fronting, T-glottaling has long been documented in a wide variety of British Englishes, and gives every indication of continuing to spread. As with TH-fronting, the spread of T-glottaling represents the continued vibrancy of Cockney in English, and should be celebra’ed.


When Andy wishes readers “’appy March 3rd,” he is demonstrating H-dropping. H-dropping is so widely attested in Englishes that it’s not really accurate to call it a Cockney feature (Donald Trump, for instance, is H-dropping when he pronounces huge as “yuge”). H-dropping is widespread in the UK, documented, for instance, in recent books on the East Midlands and West Midlands. But while it’s not a “Cockney feature,” it is definitely a feature of Cockney. So celebrating H-dropping wherever it occurs is another great way to celebrate Cockney sounds.

These are just a few of the features that have escaped the East End to become part of the future of English. #SpeakCockneyDay is an opportunity to recognise the spread of these features, to celebrate the perpetual vibrancy and innovativeness of English and its speakers, and to appreciate that we can now hear the Bow Bells all over Britain.

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