The term cockney has had several distinct geographical, social, and linguistic associations. Originally a pejorative term applied to all city-dwellers, it was eventually restricted to Londoners and particularly to "Bow-bell Cockneys": those born within earshot of Bow Bells, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in the Cheapside district of the City of London. More recently, it is variously used to refer to those in London's East End, or to all working-class Londoners generally.
- Notable people
- Use in films
- Migration and evolution
- Typical features
Linguistically, cockney English refers to the accent or dialect of English traditionally spoken by working-class Londoners. In recent years, many aspects of cockney English have become part of general South East English speech, producing a variant known as Estuary English. Today cockney-speaking areas include parts of Dagenham, Barking, Billericay, Brentwood, Romford, Chigwell, Loughton, Harlow, Basildon, Thurrock, Cheshunt, Bexley, Sidcup, Welling and Eltham among others.
The earliest recorded use of the term is 1362 in passus VI of William Langland's Piers Plowman, where it is used to mean "a small, misshapen egg", from Middle English coken + ey ("a cock's egg"). Concurrently, the mythical land of luxury Cockaigne (attested from 1305) appeared under a variety of spellings—including Cockayne, Cocknay, and Cockney—and became humorously associated with the English capital London.
The present meaning of cockney comes from its use among rural Englishmen (attested in 1520) as a pejorative term for effeminate town-dwellers, from an earlier general sense (encountered in "the Reeve's Tale" of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales c. 1386) of a "cokenay" as "a child tenderly brought up" and, by extension, "an effeminate fellow" or "a milksop". This may have developed from the sources above or separately, alongside such terms as "cock" and "cocker" which both have the sense of "to make a nestle-cock... or darling of", "to indulge or pamper". By 1600, this meaning of cockney was being particularly associated with the Bow Bells area. In 1617, the travel writer Fynes Moryson stated in his Itinerary that "Londoners, and all within the sound of Bow Bells, are in reproach called Cockneys." The same year, John Minsheu included the term in this newly restricted sense in his dictionary Ductor in Linguas. The use of the term to describe all Londoners generally, however, survived into the 19th century before becoming restricted to the working class and their particular accent. The term is now used loosely to describe all East Londoners, although some distinguish the areas (such as Canning Town) that were added to London in 1964.
The region in which cockneys are thought to reside is not clearly defined. A common view is that in order to be a cockney, one must have been born within earshot of Bow Bells, the bells of St Mary-le-Bow. However, the church of St Mary-le-Bow was destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Although the bells were destroyed again in 1941 in the Blitz, they had fallen silent on 13 June 1940 as part of the British anti-invasion preparations of World War II. Before they were replaced in 1961, there was a period when, by the "within earshot" definition, no "Bow Bell" cockneys could be born. The use of such a literal definition produces other problems, since the area around the church is no longer residential and the noise of the area makes it unlikely that many people would now be born within earshot of the bells, although the Royal London Hospital, Guy's Hospital and St Thomas' Hospital are within the defined area covered by the sound of the Bow Bells. The closest maternity units would be the City of London Maternity Hospital, Finsbury Square, but this hospital was bombed out during the World War II Blitz, and St Bartholomew's Hospital (or Barts), whose maternity department closed in the late 1980s. The East London Maternity Hospital in Stepney, which was 2.5 miles from St Mary-le-Bow, was in use from 1884 to 1968. There is a maternity unit still in use at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. Home births were very common until the late 1960s.
A study was carried out by the City in 2000 to see how far away Bow Bells could be heard, and it was estimated that the bells would have been heard up to six miles to the east, five miles to the north, three miles to the south, and four miles to the west. According to the legend of Dick Whittington the bells could once be heard from as far away as the Highgate Archway (4.5 miles north). The association of cockneys with the East End in the public imagination may be due to many people assuming that Bow Bells are to be found in the district of Bow, rather than the lesser known St Mary-le-Bow church in Cheapside in the City of London. Thus while all East Enders are cockneys, not all cockneys are East Enders.
The traditional core districts of the East End are Bethnal Green, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Stepney, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Clerkenwell, Aldgate, Shoreditch, Millwall, Cubitt Town, Hackney, Hoxton, Bow and Mile End. "The Borough" to the south of Waterloo, London and Tower Bridge were also considered cockney before redevelopment all but extinguished the local working-class areas, and now Bermondsey is the only cockney area south of the River Thames, although Pearly Kings and Queens can be found as far out as Peckham and Penge. The area north of the Thames gradually expanded to include East Ham, Stratford, West Ham and Plaistow as more land was built upon. The Becontree estate was built by the Corporation of London to house poor residents of London's East End on what was previously a rural area of Essex, and Peter Wright wrote that most of the residents identified as cockneys rather than as Essex folk.
Use in films
Migration and evolution
Recent linguistic research suggests that today, certain elements of cockney English are declining in usage within the East End of London and the accent has migrated to Outer London and the Home Counties. In London's East End, some traditional features of cockney have been displaced by a Jamaican Creole-influenced variety popular among young Londoners (sometimes referred to as "Jafaican"), particularly, though far from exclusively, those of Afro-Caribbean descent. Nevertheless, the glottal stop, double negatives, and the vocalisation of the dark L (and other features of cockney speech), along with some rhyming slang terms are still in common usage.
An influential July 2010 report by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety, predicted that the cockney accent will disappear from London's streets within 30 years. The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, said that the accent, which has been around for more than 500 years, is being replaced in London by a new hybrid language. "Cockney in the East End is now transforming itself into Multicultural London English, a new, melting-pot mixture of all those people living here who learnt English as a second language", Prof Kerswill said.
Conversely, migration of cockney speakers has led to migration of the dialect. In Essex, planned towns that grew from post-war migration out of London (e.g. Basildon and Harlow) often have a strong cockney influence on local speech. However, this is, except where least mixed, difficult to discern because of common features: linguistic historian and researcher of early dialects Alexander John Ellis in 1890 stated that cockney developed owing to the influence of Essex dialect on London speech. In recent years the dialect has moved out of inner-city London towards the outskirts of suburban London and into the Home Counties. Today cockney-speaking areas include parts of Dagenham, Barking, Billericay, Brentwood, Romford, Chigwell, Loughton, Harlow, Basildon, Thurrock.
Cockney speakers have a distinctive accent and dialect, and occasionally use rhyming slang. The Survey of English Dialects took a recording from a long-time resident of Hackney, and the BBC made another recording in 1999 which showed how the accent had changed.
John Camden Hotten, in his Slang Dictionary of 1859, makes reference to "their use of a peculiar slang language" when describing the costermongers of London's East End. In terms of other slang, there are also several borrowings from Yiddish, including kosher (originally Hebrew, via Yiddish, meaning legitimate) and stumm (/ʃtʊm/ originally German, via Yiddish, meaning quiet), as well as Romany, for example wonga (meaning money, from the Romany "wanga" meaning coal), and cushty (Kushty) (from the Romany kushtipen, meaning good). A fake cockney accent is sometimes called mockney.
Most of the features mentioned above have, in recent years, partly spread into more general south-eastern speech, giving the accent called Estuary English; an Estuary speaker will use some but not all of the cockney sounds.
The cockney accent has long been looked down upon and thought of as inferior by many. For example, in 1909 the Conference on the Teaching of English in London Elementary Schools issued by the London County Council, stating that "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". Others defended the language variety: "The London dialect is really, especially on the South side of the Thames, a perfectly legitimate and responsible child of the old kentish tongue [...] the dialect of London North of the Thames has been shown to be one of the many varieties of the Midland or Mercian dialect, flavoured by the East Anglian variety of the same speech". Since then, the cockney accent has been more accepted as an alternative form of the English language rather than an inferior one. In the 1950s, the only accent to be heard on the BBC (except in entertainment programmes such as The Sooty Show) was RP, whereas nowadays many different accents, including cockney or accents heavily influenced by it, can be heard on the BBC. In a survey of 2,000 people conducted by Coolbrands in the autumn of 2008, cockney was voted equal fourth coolest accent in Britain with 7% of the votes, while The Queen's English was considered the coolest, with 20% of the votes. Brummie was voted least popular, receiving just 2%.
Studies have indicated that the heavy use of South East England accents on television and radio may be the cause of the spread of cockney English since the 1960s. Cockney is more and more influential and some claim that in the future many features of the accent may become standard.
Studies have indicated that working-class adolescents in areas such as Glasgow have begun to use certain aspects of cockney and other Anglicisms in their speech. infiltrating the traditional Glasgow patter. For example, TH-fronting is commonly found, and typical Scottish features such as the postvocalic /r/ are reduced. Research suggests the use of English speech characteristics is likely to be a result of the influence of London and South East England accents featuring heavily on television. However, such claims have been criticised.
Certain features of cockney – Th-fronting, L-vocalisation, T-glottalisation, and the fronting of the GOAT and GOOSE vowels – have spread across the south-east of England and, to a lesser extent, to other areas of Britain. However, Clive Upton has noted that these features have occurred independently in some other dialects, such as TH-fronting in Yorkshire and L-vocalisation in parts of Scotland.
The term Estuary English has been used to describe London pronunciations that are slightly closer to RP than cockney. The variety first came to public prominence in an article by David Rosewarne in the Times Educational Supplement in October 1984. Rosewarne argued that it may eventually replace Received Pronunciation in the south-east. The phonetician John C Wells collected media references to Estuary English on a website. Writing in April 2013, Wells argued that research by Joanna Przedlacka "demolished the claim that EE was a single entity sweeping the southeast. Rather, we have various sound changes emanating from working-class London speech, each spreading independently".