Estuary English. Sociohistorical Background and Phonetic Features

Essay, 2021

12 Pages, Grade: 13,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Sociohistorical background
2.1 Geographical and social spread
2.1 Mobility

3. Phonetic features
3.1 T-Glottaling
3.2 L-Vocalization
3.3 Diphthong shift
3.4 Yod-Dropping

4. Is Estuary English the same as Cockney?
4.1 Conclusion

Work citied

1. Introduction

It is part of the process to take a closer look at one's own language again and again, to analyse changes, and then to dismiss them as a terrible development that needs to be destroyed. In this context, the news media like to act as the self-appointed mouthpiece of people. Thereby the belief is held that language development equates with the decline of language. This complaint tradition can be traced back to the 13th century. The language of the people at that time was Anglo Norman English, which evolved from Norman French. The upper classes in England spoke French at the time and considered the language of the people to be uncultivated (Fischer 2003: 54). In the 15th century, the printer William Caxton complained about the inconsistency of the English language and pushed the idea of standardization (Milroy & Milroy 1985: 32f).

While efforts were made to cultivate "good" language and to regard the standard as the only correct way of expression, there were nevertheless always contrary language developments which did not adhere to the standard. Especially concerning articulation, such a development can also be observed today in the southeast of England. The mixture of local Southeast English features with those of the standard was named Estuary English by David Rosewarne in 1984. Soon this "new" variety was attracting a great deal of public attention; a wave of reports and newspaper articles washed over England, all attempting to describe the phenomenon. This quickly led to a continuation of the complaint tradition and a fear of the decline of the English language.

“The spread of Estuary English can only be described as horrifying. We are plagued with idiots on radio and television who speak English like the dregs of humanity, to the detriment of our children.” (Hilgers 2000: 1)

For a long time, only a few linguists dealt with Estuary English. The phenomenon remained in the hands of journalists, who continued to exaggerate it. Possibly this aroused the interest of many linguists, who now took a theoretical approach to Estuary English. Since Estuary English was formed into a concept by linguists in the last decades, it could be revised that the phenomenon is a new development that will possibly replace the standard language RP. Rather, it was reasoned that it is a trend in the language development of southeast England that has been going on for some time.

This paper deals first with the beginning of ongoing changes, as well as with the controversies that arose as a result. Findings that were gradually discovered concerning phonetics are presented. This is followed by a discussion of sociolinguistic aspects. Here, both geographic and social spread are addressed. In addition, the role of Estuary English as an influence on Cockney (English regiolect in London) will be investigated in a study.

2. Sociohistorical background

2.1 Geographical and social spread

As for the geographical distribution and the area in which Estuary English is spoken, opinions differ. David Crystal even writes of an extension to Hull and the North Wales border (2003: 327). However, such theses cannot be proven. It is hard to imagine that Estuary English already affects all dialects up to Cornwall or up to Hull in northern England. Therefore, a geographical classification should be claimed only cautiously. The classical geographical extension considers a much smaller region: London and the neighbouring home counties. Despite everything, it can be assumed that Estuary English has expanded in the past decades since 1984, only how far remains unclear.

In addition to geographic expansion, Estuary English is also thought to be expanding socially. This expansion is particularly noticeable in the media. Television programs are now often hosted by Estuary English speakers in order to attract the widest possible audience. Politicians also tend to speak the language of their constituents. A well-known example is ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is known for adapting his language depending on the situation and the people he is speaking to.

“People [...] were surprised to hear Mr Blair dropping his aitches and descending into estuary English.” (Sylvester 1998: 57)

“What I don't like about Tony Blair is the way he lowers his dignity by lowering his standards of speech.” (Hardman 1998: 57)

Estuary English is also widely used in public life today. According to Rosewarne in Haenni (1999: 49), even classical domains such as business circles, public service and in parliament, the medical profession, and in academia (especially among students) are affected. It must be noted that Estuary English itself has entered many areas where one would have traditionally expected RP. In general, the classic Estuary English speaker is assumed to be young, middle or lower upper class, educated, and capable of social advancement (Haenni 1998: 51). Due to the generally increased possibility of social advancement nowadays, according to Altendorf (2003: 25) there has been a spread of London working class features. In addition, Estuary English increases street credibility:

Consequently, lower-class speakers use Estuary English to sound "more posh", while higher-class speakers use Estuary English to sound "less posh" and achieve higher "street credibility". Especially among young speakers these motives seem to be important, also they see Estuary English as a "marker of social identity" to distance themselves from their parents and other groups they do not want to be a member of (Haenni 1998: 51). A confluence of social mobility and street credibility is seen by some as the strongest fuel for Estuary English (Altendorf 2003: 25). Estuary English offers a balance on which many speakers feel safe, since social stigmas can be discarded and communication can take place unambiguously without having to reveal one's social background. This is why Estuary English is repeatedly described as a new, classless accent (Bradbury (1994) in Haenni 1998: 52). The next section describes how the mobility factor contributed to the emergence of the Estuary English construct in the first place.

2.1 Mobility

During World War II, no English city was bombed more than London (Altendorf 2003:140). The result was many homeless people, which led to slum formation. The British government's attempt to prevent these slum formations resulted in so- called "new towns" around London in the Home Counties. These were satellite towns such as Milton Keynes outside London's city limits. Since the Eastend, the City of London, and the Docklands were particularly affected by the bombings (Nowel 2005: 34), and the resettled from these parts of London can be considered classic Cockneys, they also constituted the majority of the citizens of the New Towns. Thus, there was increased contact between the resident local accents and the immigrant 'Londoners'. London has also attracted people from all over Britain for centuries. Between 1750 and 1850 alone, the population quadrupled from 650,000 to 2.5 million (Parsons 1998: 40). Especially during 1979-1990, many jobs were created in the Southeast. This particularly attracted people from the north of England, where wages were lower and unemployment higher, to the south (Altendorf 2003: 141). Since the cost of living in London is among the highest in the world, there are many people working in London who live in the surrounding area and commute to work in the morning. It is also these commuters who take the language they use at work in contact with their colleagues, and perhaps even acquire or consolidate it through them, back to their homes further away and contribute to its spread there. (Hilgers 2000: 45) In any case, the increased mobility and the aforementioned factors led to intensive language contact with a wide variety of accents and local colorations, which probably resulted in the development of Estuary English.

3. Phonetic features

“On the level of phonemes, Estuary English is a mixture of 'London' and General RP forms”. Rosewarne's observation is accurate in that the majority of non-standard forms used in Estuary English originated in the London language, and that other changes have become accepted in today's RP.

These current RP- features include, Yod-Dropping after /l/ in words like revolution as well as after /s/ in words such as presume or pursuit. Speakers who do pronounce the /j/ are, according to Gimson, “Conservative RP”- speakers. The absence of /j/ in the expressions named above does not necessarily emerge in EE, but often does so. Furthermore, RP speakers occasionally use T-Glottaling in non-intervocalic positions, a feature that was once typical for Cockney and that became less stigmatized during the last twenty years. This is perhaps one of the most striking characteristics that are not standard.

3.1 T-Glottaling

The degree of use of this function is not strictly defined. Certainly, it is frequently used in Cockney, both in word final and word initial positions. According to Rosewarne, current RP employs the Glottal Stop in some word initial positions. Examples would be Ga'wick, Sco'land, network, sea'belt or sta'ement.

It is rather inconclusive to which extent EE employs the Glottal Stop. Rosewarne gives the broad description that an EE speaker uses more Glottal Stops than an RP speaker, but less than a Cockney speaker. The realization of a glottal stop [?] instead of the alveolar plosive [t] is probably the most distinctive of the features of Estuary English. However, it should be noted that this feature is present in many varieties of British English and is by no means typical of Estuary English. Przedlacka's recent investigation reveals that about 85% of the questioned speakers exhibit this feature. Consequently, T- Glottaling indeed is a feature that has become rather common in its use.

3.2 L-Vocalization

The vocalization of dark /l/ is positively listed by all reference sources. Altendorf additionally ranks it among the current changes within RP in the south-east and London.

3.3 Diphthong shift

Some diphthongal shifts have been ascribed to EE. Here, Coggle (1993) and Rosewarne (1994) imply that “the EE realization has a lower onset than that found in RP”. This low onset is combined to a high, back and rounded offset that makes the diphthong undergo a shift that is similar to the diphthongal shift in Cockney.

Both Rosewarne and Wells agree on a diphthongal shift in face and price. Rosewarne suggests that a homophony of say and sigh exists. Other investigations assume that EE rather agrees with the Cockney realization of face and price, thus leading to an onset with a “back quality”. Przedlacka's research has revealed that a shift certainly exists, however, it is realized differently according to the single Home Counties.


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Estuary English. Sociohistorical Background and Phonetic Features
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen
Varieties of English around the World
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ISBN (Book)
Estuary English, Cockney, Phonetics, Phonology, Varieties, English, Hausarbeit, Essay
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Alina Isakow (Author), 2021, Estuary English. Sociohistorical Background and Phonetic Features, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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