On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect
London Cockney is as distinct and as clearly defined a dialect as Scottish or Yorkshire or any other. Its origins can be traced back to Kentish, East Anglian, Mercian and Saxon speech forms. Certain idioms of colloquial Cockney language appear in Chaucer.
I have never understood why Cockney speech is said to be lazy English. It is the opposite. Cockneys love language, and use it continually, with a rich mixture of puns, slang, spoonerisms and rhymes. They carry a verbal library of anecdotes, ditties and yarns in their heads, which can be
improvised to suit any occasion. They love long, colourful words. They can throw in description and simile with lightning speed, with a sure instinct for effect. Rhythm is important, and the compelling rhythm of a cockney dialogue is equal to that of a Mozart opera. Cockneys have a verbal mastery second to none in my opinion. The only trouble is, it is so fast and so idiomatic that it goes straight over the heads of most people.
To listen to a group of Cockneys talking together, when they do not suspect they are being overheard, is like listening to another language. Most people will only be able to understand the odd word here and there. The speed
of speech goes like an express train. Half a dozen words are slurred, condensed, abbreviated, swallowed whole, and the end result is one word, understandable to another Cockney, but to nobody else, for example
Wachoofinkovisen? (What do you thinkof this, then?)
To achieve this rapid delivery of speech, an essential device has been developed to a high degree of perfection - the glottal stop. This is a consonant sound, easier to execute than to explain. Most consonants are produced by the tongue, teeth and hard palette. The glottal stop is produced by rapid opening and shutting of the glottis (the entrance to the windpipe). It is a
conscious action, but with continued use becomes unconscious. Cockney babies, in my experience, used to produce this sound before they could speak.
Singers use the glottal stop to prefix a vowel. It is used a great deal in the German language. In English it is used to separate two vowels in words like ‘pre-empt’, ‘re-enforce’, ‘co-opt’, ‘re-enter’, and a few others. Most people saying these words will place a glottal stop between the vowels, and the movement can be felt in the throat.
Cockneys use the glottal stop to replace ‘t’ and several short words. Phonetically, the glottal stop is represented by two dots ‘:’ like a colon. The words ‘water’ or ‘little’, written
with a glottal stop, become wa:er, li:le. Thousands of English words contain ‘t’ and to replace them all with a glottal stop sign makes the written word look ridiculous. Consider: ‘eedin:aw::oo ’ave ’i:i: (he didn’t ought to have hit it.)
This rapid succession of vowels would be unintelligible in speech without the use of the glottal stop.
‘t’ can come in for other changes. Sometimes it becomes a ‘d’, e.g. bidda budder (bit of butter), arkadim (hark athim), all ober da place (all over the place).
‘t’ followed by ‘r’ becomes ‘ch’, e.g. chrees (trees), chrains (trains).
‘t’ followed by another word beginning with a vowel again becomes
‘ch’, e.g. whachouadoin’ov? (what are you doing?), doncha loike i:? (don’t you like it?).
Sometimes ‘t’ is heavily emphasised, becoming ‘ter’, e.g. gichaw coa-ter, we’re goin’ah-ter (get yourcoat, we’re going out).
‘th’ is nearly always replaced by ‘f’ or ‘v,’ e.g. vis, va’ , vese and vose (this, that, these and those); and fink, fings, fanks, frough (think, things,thanks, through).
‘f’ and ‘v’ were so common in the 1950s and the sound was so impressed into my aural memory that I have found it very difficult to write the Cockney speech without using them. Ve baby, ve midwife, and so on, came more naturally
than Standard English. The widespread use of ‘f’ and ‘v’ may have arisen early in the twentieth century because practically all men, and not a few women, usually had a limp, wet Woodbine hanging off the lower lip. The articulation of an ‘f’ or ‘v’ would leave the soggy appendage undisturbed, but the fricative ‘th’ might result in it being spat out!
Over decades speech changes, and I believe that the ‘f’ and ‘v’ are dying out. Perhaps this is because cigarettes are filter tipped and thrown away! The succulent remains of a Woodbine are not preserved and cherished and rolled around the lips as they used to be.
On the subject of change, the
Dickensian reversal of ‘v’ and ‘w’ seems to have dropped out of Cockney speech altogether, e.g. vater (water) and wery (very). Occasionally an old-fashioned shopkeeper (are there any left?) can be heard to say welly good, sir, but not welly often!
As speed is all important, ‘h’ is seldom used. However, the suggestion (which is a sort of tasteless joke) that Cockneys trying to ‘talk proper’ put ‘h’ in the wrong places is not quite correct. I have listened very carefully, and only noticed an aspirated ‘h’ used for special emphasis, often with a glottal stop thrown in as well, e.g. oie was :henraged (I was enraged); bleedin’ ca:s :heverywhere (bleeding cats
‘L’ in the middle or end of a word is usually lost and replaced by ‘oo’ or ‘w’. This is just about impossible to write convincingly. Consider: li:oo
(little); bo:oo (bottle); vere’s a sayoo of too-oos darn Mioowaoo (there is a saleof tools down Millwall).
‘N’ and ‘m’ seem to be virtually interchangeable; a patient of mine had an emforced rest due to an emflamed leg .Another found aoo vose en:y bo:oos ah:side ve ’ahse enbarrussin’. (allthose empty bottles outside the house embarrassing). In Poplar people used to eat bre:m bu:er (bread and butter).
There are many other consonant changes, which vary from family to
family and from street to street. ‘Sh’, ‘ch’, ‘zh’ (as in treasure) and ‘j’ replace almost anything, e.g. we’re garn :a shea-shoide (we’re going to theseaside). Ve doctor, ’e shpozhezh, vish fing wazh a washp shting azh wha: ‘azh shwelled up loike (the doctor hesupposes, this thing was a wasp sting that has swelled up).
Wocha is the most common of allCockney greetings, which has passed into Standard English. It is a very old form of “What are you (doing)?” The ‘ch’ in wocha replaces two or three words.
‘J’ can replace ‘d’. Jury Lane’s a jraugh:y ole plashe. (Drury Lane’s adraughty old place.)
‘J’ and ‘zh’ frequently join words together, e.g. Izee comin’, djou fink? (Is he coming, do you think?) ’Azhye mum? (How is your Mum?).
The softening of fricatives may have arisen from the fag-end already mentioned. In fact to speak the dialect, one only has to purse the lips, imagine a Woodbine stuck somewhere on the lower lip, and let the words roll out with the minimum of mouth movement, and you’ve got it!
If you think representing consonants in written Cockney speech is hard, that is only because you haven’t tried the vowels! There are five vowels in the alphabet, plus ‘y’ and ‘w’, and no possible combination of these seven
sounds can convey the complexity of Cockney vowels, which are washed and soaped and rinsed and put through the wringer, then stretched and twisted beyond anything that any phonetician can imagine. Italian is the language of pure vowels (the singer’s delight). English has diphthongs and a few triphthongs. Cockney has quadraphthongs and quinquaphthongs, septaphthongs and octophthongs, and God knows how many more. They all differ from person to person, from time to time, from place to place, and from meaning to meaning. Vowels are the vehicle by which voice inflexion is carried, and singers spend years studying the tone, colour and meaning that can be placed on vowels.
The Cockney does it from birth.
Many Cockney vowels are elongated and made unnecessarily complex, e.g. loiedy, lahoiedy (lady). Others are reduced to almost nothing, e.g. fawna (foreigner).
Diphthongs in Standard English can become a single pure vowel in Cockney, e.g. par (power), sar (sour).
In writing, to render ‘I’ as ‘oi’ gives the wrong impression, because Cockneys do not say ‘oi’, as in oil or joy. They say something like aoiee.
‘Ow’ becomes an approximation of ‘aehr’, e.g. aehr naehr braehn caehr
(how now brown cow).
‘O’ (as in go) is ‘eao’ (or something like it), e.g. ‘e breaok ’is
leig, feoo off of a waoo, ’e did (hebroke his leg, fell off of the wall, he did); ’e niver aw: :oo ’ave bin up vere, aoiee teoozh’im (he never ought to havebeen up there, I tells him).
I was struggling to express the Cockney accent in written form, until a professor of English Literature said to me, “You will not succeed, because it cannot be done. People have been trying since the fifteenth century, but it has never been successful.”