London English from Cockney to Jafaican

Accent - London English from Cockney to JafaicanIf you’ve ever seen Mary Poppins, you’ll no doubt remember US actor Dick Van Dyke as the cheeky, cheerful chimney-sweep Bert… and his atrocious attempt at a Cockney accent. If you’ve ever seen Sacha Baran Cohen (of Borat fame) perform his Ali G character, then you’ll also have heard a faux ‘Jafaican’ accent. What do Cockney and ‘Jafaican’ have in common? They’re both distinctive London accents. Find out more as we explore London English – from Cockney to Jafaican.

London English from Cockney to Jafaican

Although Received Pronunciation – the standard English accent that you’ll hear in many film adaptations of Jane Austen novels, as well as in many English language coursebook listening exercises – grew out of London and the surrounding counties, the English of the city is characterised more than anything by a mixture of distinctive accents. Londoners can guess pretty well, just by hearing a fellow Londoner speak, if that person is from south or north of the River Thames, or from the East End of the city or the west.

Traditional East End Pearly King and Queen (Public Domain)

Traditional East End Pearly King and Queen (Public Domain)

Perhaps the most famous London accent of all is Cockney, the variety of English traditionally spoken by the working class in and around the East End. It has several distinctive features, just a few of which are:

  • h-dropping at the beginning of words, so that Harry’s house is on a hill becomes ‘Arry’s ‘ouse is on an ‘ill.
  • My becomes me in unstressed positions, so that That’s my book becomes That’s me book.
  • /θ/ becomes /f/, so that three, thing, maths and north become free, fing, mafs and norf.
  • /ð/ often becomes /v/ (except word-initially), so that bother, mother and either become bovver, muh-ver and ee-ver.
  • /i:/ and /ɪ/ are often both pronounced as /ɪ/ in monosyllabic words, so that feel and steal sound the same as fill and feel.
  • /t/ is replaced between two vowels by the glottal stop /ʔ/ (the consonant you hear in the exclamation ‘uh-oh’), so that little bottle of water becomes, approximately, liʔl boʔl ə waʔer.
  • don’t often replaces doesn’t in the third person singular. She don’t live ‘ere.
  • ain’t is frequent.

Of course, Cockney is also well-known for its rhyming slang, in which a particular word – say, look – is rhymed with an unrelated pair of words – in this case, butcher’s hook – and then one of the second two words is often dropped, rendering the phrase unintelligible to those who don’t know what it means. So to have a butcher’s means to have a look. The slang probably originated as a cryptolect that allowed thieves to communicate secretly, but it was also widely used by East End costermongers. Some other examples are:

  • trouble and strife – wife
  • pork pies – lies (telling porkies)
  • dog and bone – phone
  • And more recently (or so I’m informed) Britney Spears – beers

A London dialect which emerged in the late 20th century, and which is said to be rapidly replacing Cockney in predominance, is Multicultural London English. It is often derisively referred to in the press as ‘Jafaican’ (fake Jamaican) because of the erroneous belief that it started with Londoners of Jamaican origin, but in fact it’s a mixture of many accents from places as diverse as the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, as well as Cockney itself. Unlike Cockney, however, MLE doesn’t drop its aitches. Other features include:

  • Various changes in the pronunciations of diphthongs.
  • Tag-questions (can you? was it? do they?) are limited to innit? – like French n’est-ce-pa? – and sometimes is it?
  • The past tense of the verb to be is regularised so that was is used for all persons in the affirmative and weren’t for all persons in the negative (this is similar to some other British accents):

A: You was at Dave’s New Year party, innit?
B: No, I weren’t at that one. Jade and Gaz was, though. How was it?
A: It weren’t as good as last year’s.

Some MLE vocabulary is now fairly well-known, including:

  • bruv – an affectionate term for a friend (from brother)
  • ends – neighbourhood
  • yard – house/home
  • creps – shoes
  • safe – a greeting or general expression of approval

Another variety of English spoken partially in London but also more generally in the South East of England, especially Kent and Essex, is Estuary English (the name refers to the Thames river estuary that flows between the two counties). It is not strictly a dialect so much as a sociolect, spoken by the lower middle classes and combining elements of Received Pronunciation and Cockney. So for example, glottal stops, which are considered uncouth in RP, are frequently heard at the ends of words – don’t, can’t and want become donʔ, canʔ, wanʔ – but, as with MLE, aitches are rarely dropped.

Next time you’re in London, listen out for the English around you and see if you can hear some examples of these different varieties. Learning a few words and phrases from different dialects is always a lot of fun, innit?

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