cockney: semantics and the glottal stop

Argot. Jargon. The charm and bane of the vernacular. If anyone is sensitive about accent, its the English. Accent being a key marking point of where to place the individual on the pecking order of a society ultra-conscious of class and distinction. And typically, the Cockney was at the bottom or lower rungs. Cockeny English, a broad mix of patois and rhyming slang appropriated and transformed into a new vernacular; a modern corruption with legitimate credentials being culled originally from Irish, Yiddish, Gypsy and whatever else was hustling on the streets of the East end trying to make scant ends meet, but not necessarily an honest dollar. Gentrification of the urban sectors and more social mobility have dissipated the impact of Cockney, but it remains well anchored in the culture…

“‘Vell, that’s wery true, Sammy,’ replied Mr Weller, mollified at once; ‘but wot are you a doin’ on here? Your gov’nor can’t do no good here, Sammy. They won’t pass the werdick, they won’t pass it, Sammy.’ […] ‘Wot a perwerse old file it is!’ exclaimed Sam, ‘alvays a goin’ on about werdicks and alleybis, and that. […].” (Chapter 43) Dickens, Pickwick papers Sam Weller

---Although the quality of Mulready's works as paintings leaves much to be desired, they are important social documents. As art reviewer Keith Roberts has noted, "Children could be used to publicize the iniquities of the social justice system without seeming to attack the social structure; reform might well be achieved by appeals to the conscience through sentiment rather than by reasoned argument and criticism of an overtly political character." This was an approach that Charles Dickens knew well and deployed to devastating effect in his novels.--- Read More:

…Cockney is characterized by its own special vocabulary and usage, and traditionally by its own development of “rhyming slang.” Rhyming slang, even if more often than not, used for effect. Today, it is considered to epitomize the working class accents of Londoners and in its more diffuse form, of other areas, a kind of cultural commodity now like East Enders, which give something of a window onto the accents and lives, though heavily romanticized and sentimental in the English tradition. The best source document is probably Henry Mayhew’s study of the poor in East London; the total absence of “civilized” bourgeois morals of the time, yet culturally both rich and a kind of truth found in the profane juxtaposed against conventional ideas of sanctity.

---. Over the years, the gecko has transformed from decidedly American to Cockney English, and now to a semi-working class English gecko.--- Read More:

In Thomas Sheridan’s A Course of Lectures on Elocution (1762), we find the word applied for the first time to the dialect: “[…] in the very metropolis [London] two different modes of pronunciation prevail, by which the inhabitants of one part of the town, are distinguished from those of the other. One is current in the City, and is called the cockney; the other at the court end, and is called the polite pronunciation. As amongst these various dialects, one must have the preference, and become fashionable, it will of course fall to that which prevails at court, the source of fashions of all kinds. All other dialects, are sure marks, either of a provincial, rustic, pedantic, or mechanic education; and therefore have some degree of disgrace annexed to them.” Read More:

---A street seller of birds' nests, from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, 1851, 8276.E5.5-- British Library Read More:

So, at the heart of the dialect, is the general idea that the vowels remained anchored in traditional English, but the consonants tends to wander off, they go astray with a life of their own. This style, which is really an aesthetic of communication was remarked back through the likes of Shakespeare and even previously with Chaucer. The glottal stop and the downshifting of accent was also remarked by William Dafoe on his writings on travels into the heart of the English hinterland which brought exposure to English hillbillies and the equivalent of the L’il Abner types, and Constance Rourke’s American style backwoodsman and traveling minstrel shows.

But, these consonants with a life of their own was often sharply contrasted: language of the lower classes with those of academia and the court. George Bernard Shaws’s Pygmalion was an extension of Fabian society views on the inherent inferiority of these social layers and H.G. Wells was even more dangerous with a more muscled tome of eugenics and natural selection to rid society of what he considered parasites. What began as abbatoirs for stray dogs in London was envisioned as performing the same function on the class that Henry Mayhew reported on.

( see link at end) …Rumours of the death of the Cockney accent have been greatly exaggerated. New research shows that the dialect will disappear from London’s streets within a generation. But don’t worry – it will survive in the Home Counties, particularly in Hertfordshire and along the East End corridor to Essex.

Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, the man behind the research, says, “In much of the East End of London, the cockney dialect that we hear now spoken by older people will have disappeared wit

another generation. People in their forties will be the last generation to speak it and it will be gone within 30 years. Since the 1950s and the New Town movement, more affluent east Londoners moved out of the capital and into Essex and Hertfordshire, especially to places like Romford, Southend and Hemel Hempstead, and they took their accent with them.”

As its traditional speakers emigrate to Essex and Hertfordshire, the 650-year-old accent is dying off in London, to be replaced by multicultural London English, heavily influenced by West Indian patois, Bangladeshi and remnants of old cockney – now given the nickname, Jafaican. You can hear the pattern happening today: teenagers in Essex speak like Henry Cooper and Barbara Windsor; in Lambeth, they are more likely to sound like Ali G.

Part of the reason for the migration is white flight – white Cockneys fleeing East End immigration for the country. House prices, too, have influenced the change. Anyone born within the sound of Bow Bells would have to fork out a million quid or more to buy a family house if they wanted to stay inside the old Cockney boundary.Read More:

Those who could claw their way above the poverty line soon moved out – aided by the arrival of the railways – leaving behind the highest concentration of the poor and underprivileged anywhere in London. When social reformer Charles Booth produced his extensive survey of the living conditions of the poor in 1887, he concluded that 13% of the East End population was chronically poor and, of those, “a part must be considered separately, as the class for whom decent life is not imaginable.”

No wonder then, that crime, immorality, drunkenness and violence were so rife. Gangs, prostitutes and robbers roamed the unlit alleys that, by the late 19th century, had become known as ‘The Abyss’.

Perhaps the area’s darkest moment came in the late summer and early autumn of 1888, when Jack the Ripper carried out a series of grisly murders on Whitechapel prostitutes. He was never caught.

Despite – of perhaps because of – the misery, the local ‘Cockneys’ (as East End dwellers became known) developed an indomitable spirit and a reputation for humour. Nowhere is this more evident than in the playful distortion of the English language known as Cockney Rhyming Slang. The ‘secret’ language is thought to have originated in the 1840s among street traders (costermongers) as a means of concealing their often dodgy dealings from the newly-formed police force – while having a laugh at their expense. Whatever its origins, phrases like ‘have a butcher’s’ (butcher’s hook = look), ‘telling porkies’ (porkies = pork pies = lies) and ‘on my tod’ (Tod Sloan = alone or own) have given our language a rich legacy that lasts to this day. Read More:


Related Posts

This entry was posted in Feature Article, Ideas/Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>