Lancaster University

This is archived news from Lancaster University. You can find up-to-date stories in our current news section.

Research shows that Cockney will disappear from London’s streets within a generation

07/01/2010 12:50:25

Data and research by Paul Kerswill,Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University – due to be published in early 2011 in a study called Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety – suggests that the traditional Cockney speech form (a distinct accent and dialect) will disappear from London’s streets within the next 30 years, moving to areas outside of the Capital and being replaced by Multicultural London English.The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

To mark this change, Kings Place, the Kings Cross-based arts centre, is seeking to celebrate London dialects old and new: asking Londoners to talk to elderly relatives and contribute Cockney poetry and phrases to a growing archive at for performance at a future spoken word event. A special downloadable mp3 recording of Bow Bells will also be available on the Kings Place website, ensuring that future generations of Cockneys worldwide can connect with their heritage, and perhaps offering the really determined the chance to ensure that their children and grandchildren are born within the sound of (virtual) Bow Bells.

Over the past 30 years the world famous Cockney dialect, which has been spoken in London for more than half a millennia, has been transformed into a new hybrid language and dialect form called ‘Multicultural London English’ with the original Cockney facing extinction within its city of origin. This new hybrid, known in slang terms as ‘Jafaican’ is a mixture of elements of Cockney, Bangladeshi and West Indian. As a recognisable vocal reference point, it is most famously spoken by the rap star Dizzee Rascal.

At the same time the traditional Cockneys have moved out of the Capital and into surrounding regions of Essex and Hertfordshire, especially areas such as Romford and Southend, where the accent – and the culture - continues to thrive with many teenagers still proudly claiming their Cockney roots.

Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University, says: “In much of the East End of London the Cockney dialect that we hear now spoken by older people will have disappeared within another generation. People in their 40’s will be the last generation to speak it and it will be gone within 30 years.”

“Since the 1950’s 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. It has been ‘transplanted’ to these towns, so to speak.

“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.

“Ever since the 1960s these areas of London have become home to immigrants from the West Indies, the Indian Subcontinent and many other places, from South America and Africa to Central Asia and the Far East. Some of these people spoke the kind of English typical of their original countries (such as Nigerian English or Indian English). Others couldn’t speak English, so children were speaking their native language at home but were learning English at school. This means that children were no longer learning their English dialect from local Cockney speakers, but from older teenagers who themselves had developed their English in the linguistic melting pot. Out of all this, the new English which we call Multicultural London English emerged, most likely in the 1990s, and this is the new sound of Inner-City London which we hear today.”

Cockney poetry competition

In the 1700’s a group of poets, including John Keats and Shelley, amongst others, were brought together under the moniker of the Cockney School because of their decision to make social statements through their poetry by using Cockney rhyming styles and idioms.

The term came in the form of hostile reviews in Blackwood's Magazine in 1817. Its primary target was Leigh Hunt but included John Keats and William Hazlitt.

To celebrate this linguistic history Kings Place is launching a competition asking cockneys to delve into their family archives to try and find poetry written by their relatives that uses the Cockney dialect. Poems can be uploaded to the site with performances of the poems being given by leading poets at a future Words on Monday event at Kings Place and to be included in the research being carried out by Professor Kerswill.

Eivind Torgersen and Paul Kerswill are researchers at Lancaster University who specialise in language change in English. They are currently working on the ESRC three-year project, together with colleagues at Queen Mary University of London, to find the origins of Multicultural London English and how it is acquired and spreading in inner city areas of London. The findings will be released in a report to be published in early 2011.