South-East English Working Class Speech in Film

Examination Thesis, 2008

56 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. History and Features of Post-War British Cinema

3. South-East English Working Class Speech
3.1 Cockney English
3.1.1 Social Aspects
3.1.2 Linguistic Aspects Rhyming Slang Phonological Aspects
3.2 Estuary English

4 Appearance of Working Class Speech in Films
4.1 Hue and Cry
4.2 Quadrophenia
4.3 Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
4.4 Chicken Run

5 Cockney as Dramatic Instrument

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Class is one of those phenomena like love, depression and the feel-good factor which resists definition, though we know it when we see it.”[1]

This work will try to refute this claim, persisting that class is an indefinable and merely personal criterion of post-war British movie. It will be spotted that especially the working-class is, by using typical speech patterns, a major marker when a film deals with the British class system.

To enlighten in which surrounding the British post-war movie is set, a brief introduction of the cinema history will be given. This will not only look at the development in British cinema, but also relate to the country’s historical and economical changes from the post-war to modern time. As cinema is always of international concern, relations to other developments in other countries will be given a short insight when necessary.

As already stated in the quotation above, class and class markers are not easy to confine. An overview will be given about the British class system and its importance throughout the history. As this is a characteristic of British culture and the way of life, some examples of how this self-assurance marks life will be given by quoting a native sociologist. The focus will lie on the working class, as this work deals with specific dialects that derive out of the same. This includes an overview over the history of London’s working class and special criteria it has to fulfil.

When operating with working class speech, the main dialects for south-east England will be described, as well as the fundamental idea of the term dialect. This will be included in the historical and sociological development of both examples being given – Cockney English as main emphasis and Estuary English.

To analyse speech in movies, special features have to be filtered out. This will comprise the presentation of specifically Cockney or Estuary English features, as well as joint markers. It will be shown that only Cockney English fulfils the decisive factors of a class language and that Estuary English is more the realisation of a national and sociological shift of language, away from class or education.

The final part will deal with four post-war British movies. Hue and Cry, Quadrophenia and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels will form the base, as they roughly cover the development of British cinema from early post-war times to present day cinema. Chicken Run will be analysed regarding Cockney English as an instrument in animated children’s Cinema. All movies will be highlighted concerning the used language. As base, examples will be given and if possible phonetically transcribed. With this corpus and the knowledge of the historical and sociological background of each movie, it will be analysed how the language serves as class marker and dramatic instrument to transport meaning.

The conclusion will draw back to the quotation above. It will be pointed out, if it can be refuted and if class can be highlighted in cinema by using speech as a tool.

2. History and Features of Post-War British Cinema

During and after World War II the British film found itself in the shadow of two major influences. The first was the documentary movement with its understatements, avoidance of excess, and not questioning the social norms, which developed out of the People’s War Spirit; “One of the myths that arose from war-weary Britain [as] a belief in the unity and equality of the community. The myth continued for a brief time after the war, fuelled by hopes for the Labour government’s experiment, when recovering English society felt the possibility of continuing the unity experienced in the “people’s war” to solve the nation’s massive social problems.”[2]

The second overwhelming influence came from America in the shape of Hollywood, providing the film market with the majority of movies. The term British Film was coined when in 1927 the British government reacted to the latter, and the Cinematograph Films Act of the cinema had started. Films were discussing contents as the question of what Britishness or national identity meant. Even life on the social periphery could be demonstrated.

Being still far away from prosperity, the British film industry had to face the next problem – the invention of the video recorder. Now people could not only watch their programmes at hom had to be specified. So it had one to be made by a British company, one to represent the British Empire, and the majority of the company directors had to be of English nationality. Additionally the scenes had to be shot in the Empire, and the labour wages had to go at least by 75% to English staff.

Even in the post-war period of the developing English cinema the American market had a great influence on the distribution of films. A tax crisis in 1947 drove the British government to impose a 75% tax on the earnings in foreign countries – especially in the United States as the main market. This resulted in an eight month boycott of the British market in America. All efforts to stabilize the economic market, for example the quota quickies, low-budget movies without any artistic content or values, could not save the British movie. These efforts produced an opposite result and gave the national cinema a poor representation. The act was modified in 1938, and finally repealed in 1960.[3]

After World War II the British film market was formed by the organization of film companies and the personalities behind it. The Ealing studios, although already reopened in the early 30s, is a good example for this, as it not only continually provided the nation with English films, but also determined the movie landscape until the late 50s. “Hue and Cry was the first of what have become known as the Ealing comedies and it began the fantasy premise of community.”[4] The person behind this cinematic movement towards the above quoted People’s War Spirit was Michael Balcon, who “produced these films as ‘fantastic escape’”[5]. The movies in the post-war years were dominantly realistic, a phenomenon that derived from the former movements. “Realism was identified with black and white, straight forward narrative characters. It was heavily influenced by Britain’s documentary heritage.”[6] They had to be correct in speech and topic and not to criticise the establishment. Only some films in post-war times covered another genre - the melodramas. People suffered from two world wars, economic depression and the cold war; this kind of movie offered what they lacked in life, like peace, security, and comfort. “Their appeal for better or worse, was their location within the parameters of Hollywood popular cinema and their resistance to documentary realism.”[7]

In the 50s the British feature film faced a critical prestige. It appeared to be not strong enough to survive neither on the national nor the international market. British movie-makers started to accept co-productions, mainly with America, to produce big-budget films for the international market. These films did mostly not follow any ideals, as they were mainly profit-orientated. The New Wave movement brought an incline in moral restrictions and releasing class. “The New Wave’s gritty, spare aesthetic of kitchen sink realism is heavily indebted to the documentary style of Free Cinema, which focused on depictions of the English working class.”[8] The film left realism as the main aim and allowed pleasure and recreation. Nevertheless the number of cinema-goers declined in the end of the 50s. People became aware of a new mobility that gave them the possibility to choose from a variety of free-time activities. A more important technical advance was the spreading of the television set. The prices had fallen that much, that even middle-class families could afford them. Often people decided to stay home and rather dig into fantasy-worlds indoors. At the beginning of the next century many cinemas had turned into ballrooms and Bingo halls.

The 60s made a big change for the British movie, as the public tolerance towards minority opinions increased. The films could be more precise, critical and freer in speech. Even The British Board of Films Censors had to admit that it could not refuse the release of films, only because they were criticising the establishment.[9] The so called high-culture years of the cinema had started. Films were discussing contents as the question of what Britishness or national identity meant. Even life on the social periphery could be demonstrated.

Being still far away from prosperity, the British film industry had to face the next problem – the invention of the video recorder. Now people could not only watch their programmes at home, but they could even make a choice of what to see. Far too late (in 1984) the Government tried to react on this, by releasing the Video Recording Act. By using the nation’s youth as an excuse, it said that no recordings should be hired unless they were classified by censorship. This could not save the industry.

In the 1980s Hollywood experienced a boom, but by the middle of the decade, the cinema in Britain was in deeper crisis then ever with declining audiences for all types of films[10]. The only partial success it could achieve was the international success of productions that projected images of Britain’s colonial heritage. The rest of the world seemed to share the English sense for nostalgia and cultural imperialism. This tendency can still be spotted in the “nostalgic representation of Englishness and class to be found in key examples of the stylish and brash Brit flicks of the late 1990s drawn from the gangster cycle or the so-called ‘post-heritage’ films”[11]. The later discussed movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is one example for this new genre in British cinema.

3. South-East English Working Class Speech

One must focus on the meaning of certain terms in detail and in combination, To isolate the specific dialects this work deals with.

When speaking about south-east England one normally refers to the counties Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Surrey, West and East Sussex, Kent, and Greater London. This work will deal in first instance with the region of Greater London and when required its outer periphery. The two dialects that are pointed out for this region are Cockney English (CE) for London’s East End and Estuary English (EE) for Greater London, the surrounding counties and sometimes Britain in general. The problems with pointing out the geographic boundaries will be described when dealing with the specific dialects below.

Also the term dialect must be refined. The meaning of the word dialect includes grammatical and lexical features. Dialects are always intelligible versions of a language, and are often related to the social background of the speaker. Accents are mostly part of dialects, but can also occur in language without representing a dialect. An accent refers often to a particular geographical region – regardless of any specific country. Another word that needs explanation is slang. Slang is a blending of the two words s(ecret) and lang(uage). Out of this derives the meaning; slang is the result of altering a language to make it understandable for only a small group of persons. “Common to many languages, it is the lingo of the gutter, the street, the market-place, the saloon […] – indeed almost anywhere where men work and play. […] A thriving and developing language has plentiful slang.”[12] This will become important when dealing with the Cockney Rhyming Slang in the next chapters. Other examples for slang would be backslang or Pig Latin. By using backslang, people simply pronounce words from back to the beginning (ecilop for police), whereas Pig Latin is a highly developed system to alienise language. Therefore people alter the suffix and use it as prefix and add the ending –ray to the new creation. The rules for this have various exceptions and additional rules, which will not be explained here.[13]

The term working class can only be specified by focussing the British class system on the whole. The multiple ways of grouping the society in socioeconomic studies, verifies, that class in Britain still plays a major role. Whereas the abstract model of classification (A, B, C1, C2, D, E) - similar to the more meaning bearing but still very detailed middle-class-model (working, lower-middle, middle-middle, upper-middle, upper class) - is more improved. The general grouping into upper, middle and working class is the best known; especially in handling the phenomenon non-scientifically.[14]

A formal definition describes the working class as “the socioeconomic class consisting of people who work for wages, especially low wages, including unskilled and semiskilled laborers and their families”[15]. General markers for working class are often the work that is performed, the income (which is mainly earned by physical labour), and the type and length of education. However, these attributes often turn out illusory by “the fact, that class is not judged at all on wealth, and very little on occupation, but purely on non-economic indicators such as speech, manner, taste and lifestyle choices”[16].

K. Fox states about the English, that “we are clearly as acutely class-conscious as we have ever been, but in these ‘politically correct’ times, many of us are increasingly embarrassed about our class-consciousness, and do our best to deny or disguise it”.[17] Specifically referring to class and its occurrence in speech, she continues that “all English people, whether they admit it or not, are fitted with a sort of social Global Positioning Satellite computer that tells us a person’s position on the class map as soon as he or she begins to speak. […] We may like a regional accent, and even find it delightful, melodious and charming, while still recognising it as clearly working class.”[18] Summing up these statements, one can say that speech is one of the most important markers for class in today’s British society.

This work will mainly deal with CE as the archetype of south-east English working class speech, as EE is not always referred to as specifically class bound, as will be pointed out later.

3.1 Cockney English

When dealing with the term Cockney English, one must consider its versatile realisation, not only in the social meaning, but also in its linguistic aspects. This part deals with the historic birth of Cockneys as a specific culture of personalities and their cultural markers as well as with both parts of Cockney Speech; the more literal part appearing as Rhyming Slang and the phonological aspects of spoken language.

3.1.1 Social Aspects

Opinions differ when seeking for the origins of the term Cockney. The most common and supposedly educated presumption (as the OED explained the term in 1362) is that the word derives from the combination of the words cock and egg in the meaning of a misshapen egg, and later describes a cokney person as “ignorant of country ways”[19] (1521). Two more mythical etymologic assumptions derive out of two stories. The first tells about a Londoner who for the first time heard a cock crowing and exclaimed The cock neighs! A more likely transmission originates the word Cockney out of a myth about the Land of Cockeign. Because of its wealth and luxury, people tended to compare London with the country of abundance.[20]

By depicting who is a Cockney and who is not, there are wider and narrower descriptions of areas within London where a typical Cockney must have been born and dwelled. This area is often roughly described as the East End. This usually generates a problem of defining this area. As multivariable as the word Cockney itself is the word East End; not only is the mere physical localisation in geographical terms difficult, but again the people who call themselves East Enders in a sentimental and intangible meaning can not easily be located. In the fifties the East End included Hackney, the south of Victoria Park and parts of today’s Newham – “very definitely north London. But times, and meanings, change, […and] nowadays the East End seems to include not only Hackney, Newham, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham, but much of urbanized Essex as well.”[21]

Traditionally and in a refined definition, a Cockney must have been born within earshot of the ringing bells of the church St. Mary-Le-Bow – generally taken to be three miles. Formerly this included the areas known as The City, Bethnal Green, Stepney, Shoreditch, White Chapel, Finsbury, Hackney (Highgate). Scaling these areas up to the size of boroughs it would stretch out over the City of London, Islington, Hackney, and Tower Hamlets. The fact that St. Mary-Le-Bow was damaged during World War I and the bells remained silent until 1961 shows the more spiritual affection people show towards this description. Officially there were two generations of no Bow-Bells, and so no Cockneys, but “…as long as you could have heard the bells if they were present then it doesn’t matter if they weren’t there at the time they were born”[22]. In this work it will be referred to as the East End, when dealing with this area, as there is no noun to entitle the area of the latter description.

Santipolo points out five stages in the development of the meaning of the word Cockney, and follows a historical line of seven-hundred years:

- Stage I encloses the 14th century, when the meaning of a misshapen and malformed egg appeared for the first time.
- In stage II, which spreads from the late 14th into the 15th century, the word Cockney meant a pampered and spoiled child.
- Stage III encircles the 16th century, when all city-dwellers (opposed to people living in the country-side) were called Cockney.
- In stage IV in the 17th century arose the meaning with which this work deals: Cockney described Londoners, in particular those who were born within the sound of Bow Bells.
- Stage V in the 18th century finally defined a Cockney as the inhabitants of London and their particular dialect.[23]

In order to describe the social characteristics of a Cockney person, one has mostly to rely on personal statements and comments of Cockneys themselves. The East End was often seen as a place of life of deprivation and losses, but turns out different when people describe their life, “because it isn’t. It is a place of great varied riches: courage, warmth, strength, anger, humour and rebellion”[24].

People feel part of an extended Cockney Family, and as they belong to the working-class and mostly lowest income group, they counterbalance their environmental and financial losses by building a strong community and proudly calling themselves Cockneys. A women describes her life, after she moved with her parents from the East End to Essex – normally a pleasant advance in the quality of life: “What I’m saying is, I know the house was a lot better than where we’d lived in Poplar, which, to be honest, was no better than a slum when you think of it, but we lost a lot moving away from there. She [my mother] was never happy. Never really settled. It was never her home. Not like the East End was.”[25] These lines depict the state of identification of being Cockney as an intrinsic value and not as a life led by certain customs.

Another characterisation that often appears when confronted with the working class Cockney is the historically passed down attribute of the tightrope walk between the right and the wrong side of the law. “The reputation for rebelliousness among those outside the authority of the city was further enhanced in later years by the Cockney taste for rowdy, popular entertainment and in the area’s accommodation of wanton playhouses and brothels, but it was a reputation that was not always justified.”[26] Undeniably there were and are more ne’er-do-wells in the East End, as this is a phenomenon of all poorer areas wherever one has a close look. Especially during the prosperous Victorian years in London the gap between the wealthy and the poor – mainly East Enders or better: Cockneys – friction arose whenever unexpected interfaces appeared.

One entity that persists until this day and can definitely be seen as a result of a joint Cockney effort is the London Pearly Kings and Queens Society. The founding of this organisation goes back to 1875 when Henry Croft, a former orphan was set free into the world of the London costermongers and decided to work for the poor and weak. Emerging into the wild market life of the East End, he got a job as street sweeper. Soon he realised that he needed some attention to raise more money for his social aim. He started to collect the smoke pearl buttons which the costermongers used to sew on the piped seams of their trousers and sewed them himself on his cap. When he died, he had managed to collect over £5,000 and an estimated number of four hundred accrued Pearlies attended his funeral. Since today the society exists on, and in their own words “is still a very active organisation, collecting for many charities in the Greater London area”[27].

3.1.2 Linguistic Aspects

The important feature when dealing with working class speech is the linguistic aspect of CE. It will be highlighted here that CE and EE share specific markers, but also differ in many aspects.

The linguistic approach of CE deals with the lexis, phonology and sometimes syntax of the dialect. The Rhyming Slang describes the lexical part as a language with own words and expressions. The phonological aspect deals with the appearance in pronunciation and audible phenomena. The syntactical particularities will be covered here as well, as they are too minimal to form an own entity. Rhyming Slang

RS presents the lexicological part of CE. The current development is that the knowledge of RS terms is in decline. The younger the questioned people are, the fewer examples they are able to give. It is estimated that about thirty expressions are frequently used at the present, and even they are about to disappear soon. In terms of linguistics this would put the main focus on the pronunciation of CE.[28] As this work deals with the appearance of CE in post-war cinema, RS is of main importance; it proves a definite intent when used in films. Compared to the use of phonological aspects, it presents a more noticeable form of changed speech.

The make-up of RS is simple and always the same; a word is replaced by another word, a binary expression or a phrase that rhymes with it. What makes it particularly difficult for a non-rhymer to fathom the meaning, is the fact that often the last part of the phrase or the expression is omitted (e.g. mate = China Plate = China). As this is in either case the part that rhymes with the initial word, it is hardly possible to ascertain its origin. Hence many people reviewed this as a proof for the secrecy and bondage to delinquency of RS. Modern studies assume simple, economic reasons behind the shortening.[29]

The first written mentioning on rhyming slang is dated back to 1859. J. C. Hotten refers in his book The Slang Dictionary to “ ‘the Rhyming Slang’, implying that it was by this time already an established code with recognized rules and status, in use among the petty criminals and down-and-outs of central London”[30]. Regarding the real intentions for the genesis of rhyming slang the meanings differ; some consider it as “a fully elaborated secret vocabulary of the underworld, designed to enable its users to communicate with each other, safe from prying ears”[31] and some as “the product of some kind of verbal competition between Irishmen and Cockney working side by side in the London docks”[32]. Both theories carry their evidences, as many books, describing RS, transfer a negative notion inherently in their titles (The Vulgar Tongue; Poverty, Mendacity and Crime)[33] and at the same time the vocabulary of RS consists of many Irish proper and legendary names[34].


[1] Gillett, 2003, p.8

[2] Williams, 2007

[3] Napper, 2000, p. 114

[4] Williams, 2007

[5] Williams, 2007

[6] Williams, 2007

[7] Landy, 2001, p. 65

[8] Lowenstein, 2001, p. 225

[9] Richards, 2001, p. 26

[10] Ellis, 2001, pp. 95

[11] Dave, 2006, p. xiii

[12] Cuddon, 1999, p. 834

[13] Ayto, 2003, p. ix

[14] Fox, 2005, p. 15

[15] Various Ed, 2000

[16] Fox, 2005, p. 406

[17] Ibid., p. 80

[18] Fox, 2005, p. 73

[19] Santipolo, 2003, p. 422

[20] Matthews, 1972, p. xiii

[21] O’Neill, 1999, p. xviii

[22] Ramsey, 1997

[23] Santipolo, 2003, p. 423

[24] O’Neill, 1999, p. xxii

[25] O’Neill, 1999, p. xxii

[26] Ibid.


[28] Pointner, 1996, p. ii

[29] Santipolo, 2003, pp. 423-424

[30] Ayto, 2003, p. vii

[31] Ibid., p. viii

[32] Santipolo, 2003, p. 429

[33] Ayto, 2003, p. viii

[34] Santipolo, 2003, p. 429

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South-East English Working Class Speech in Film
University of Flensburg
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South-East, English, Working, Class, Speech, Film
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Simone Staake (Author), 2008, South-East English Working Class Speech in Film, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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