Estuary English as a Special Accent

A Linguistic Analysis

Term Paper, 2007

12 Pages



Table of content

1. Introduction/ Motivation

2.1 Definition: - What is a dialect? What is an accent? - The study of accents and dialects in Great Britain
2.2 Estuary English as a special accent

3. Linguistic features (variables) of Estuary English
3.1 Vowels
3.2 Diphthongs
3.3 Consonants
3.4 Differences concerning vocabulary and grammar

4.1 Status and prestige of Estuary English
4.2 “EE” and the media

5. Summary

6. List of reference

1. Introduction/ Motivation

As a topic for this term paper I chose an interesting and currently discussed accent in the south of Great Britain: The so-called “Estuary English”. I was motivated to write about it because of its special role among the accents in the U.K: some believe it to be “tomorrow’s RP”. As there are a lot of varieties of English in the media and popular music, even foreign language learners get in contact with different pronunciations and accents. Apparently, as a future language teacher, it is important for me to teach students a right pronunciation of British English and moreover to be a role model in this respect. Therefore it will certainly help me to know something about the most popular accents in Great Britain and I believe Estuary English (EE) to be one of them.

What are the aims of the following term paper? At first, I will define some basic terms that are important for this topic and explain the special role of EE. Second, I am going to describe the linguistic features and variables of EE in detail by referring to linguistic studies and research that has been done. After that I will talk about the status and prestige of EE and explain the role of the media in this context. Finally I am going to finish with a short summary of what has been said.

2.1 Definition: - What is a dialect? What is an accent? - The study of accents and dialects in Great Britain

In everyday use these two terms can easily be interchanged by people who judge a persons language too quickly. But there are three main aspects within a language may vary: grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. As Hughes and Trudgill point out, “We shall use DIALECT to refer to varieties distinguished from each other by differences of grammar and vocabulary. ACCENT, on the other hand, will refer to varieties of pronunciation.” (Hughes, Trudgill 1996: 3) Seeing Estuary English as one of the British accents, the primary goal then is to describe the difference in pronunciation, mainly compared to the standard accent RP (Received Pronunciation). Moreover there are of course also some vocabulary differences in the language of EE, which I will describe very briefly in chapter 3.3.

As already said, linguists see ‘RP’ as the standard accent and this is also the accent that is thought for foreign language learners. Nonetheless, very few people in GB really speak RP. Both of these facts are important to know for EFL-teachers. The majority of the British people adopt a local accent, also to separate themselves and in a way be patriotic for the region they come from. This is only one of the questions that linguists want to find out. A lot of studies have therefore been made concerning accents in GB.

The variation of English in Great Britain is not only a matter of pronunciation but rather also of vocabulary and grammar as seen in the definitions above. As a result, there are some huge differences in England, especially between the north and the south. Another difference is that some accents are more regional than others, as Peter Trudgill, one of the busiest English sociolinguists, points out: “Some people have very regional accents, so that you can tell exactly where they come from […] Other people have fewer regional features, and you might be able to place them only approximately” (Trudgill 1990: 2) In order to study the different accents, linguists carry out surveys and record people from the respective area. It is important to include as many people as possible with a wide range of social background and age. Indeed, there are significant differences in the way that women speak compared to men or middle class citizens compared to lower class members. As for Estuary English, this is a rather new phenomena compared to other accents and only recently systematic studies of it have been made. The term is also seen quite critical among linguists, but that makes it even more special and interesting.

2.2 Estuary English as a special accent

Estuary English is a term that has first been coined by David Rosewarne in 1984 to describe the variety that is spoken in the southeast of England, including the counties Essex and Kent near the lower Thames Estuary. David Rosewarne himself describes it as “a mixture of non- regional and local south-eastern English pronunciation and intonation.” (Rosewarne 1994a: 3). In brief, one could say that EE is between Received Pronunciation (RP) and the popular London cockney accent concerning its pronunciation. Indeed, there are many similarities to those varieties. John Wells, author of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, has a rather critical opinion about Rosewarne’s views. Wells stresses that EE is defined by standard grammar and usage in contrast to Cockney, but unlike RP that it is regionally determined. So for him EE is “Standard English spoken with the accent of the southeast of England” (Wells, 1999).

Since Rosewarne has first dealt with this accent in 1984, the variety has spread very quickly and also found its way into the media, the role of which for EE I will talk about later. Obviously, EE seems to be a rather “young” or “new” accent compared to some traditional and older accents such as Liverpool English or the Norwich accent. Rosewarne mentions the “eastward movement of ‘popular London’ speakers from the east of the metropolis” (Rosewarne 1994a: 4) to explain the location of EE. Furthermore he found out that EE has been spreading both to the north and to the west which means that more and more people take over this accent. This development shows that EE can possibly increase its influence even more, which makes some people sceptical and worried. The Sunday Times even went so far as to say EE was “‘sweeping southern Britain’” (cf. Wells, 1997: 1). But actually this is not a new phenomenon. It is long known that certain features of London speech have been spreading all over the country. John Wells summarizes this point like this: “Estuary English is a new name. But it is not a new phenomenon. It is the continuation of a trend that has been going on for five hundred years or more- the tendency for features of popular London speech to spread out geographically […] and socially […]” (Wells, 1997:3). According to Wells the trend is nowadays more noticeable because of the higher social mobility and the lack of a strict class system. This is one of the reasons why EE is said to be able to becoming the “new RP”. For one this seems very unlikely, since the science of linguistics has worked out the exact and “best” pronunciation in its very details. Moreover there are some instances like the Queen who set the standard for the “right” pronunciation. But looking at the development of the English language in history, let us say the past 500 years; there has been an enormous change. So for me it is quite a logical step, that a language changes. This process might be a rather slow and subtle one, but it is impossible to stop it. Nevertheless, Altendorf cites Trudgill who has a clear opinion to the matter: “It is unlikely that it [Estuary English] will ever become anything more than a regional accent […]. The sociolinguistic conditions are not such that it could turn over into the new RP.” (Altendorf, 2003: 2) The final answer to this question can only be answered by time, but if not the whole accent is taken over as the standard, maybe some of the most remarkable features might become the norm. Wells makes quite a practical contribution to this question: “We must modernize it [RP] by gradually incorporating one or two of the changes typical of EE. To star’ with, we migh’ le’ people use a few glottal stops. Or would tha’ not mee’ with everyone’s approval?” (Wells, 1997: 3) As a provocative statement one could say that it does not matter anyway what the RP is like, because nearly everyone in Great Britain speaks with an accent and only about 3-5 % uses the RP in their everyday language. But of course a certain standard helps to ensure the quality of the English language and after all there has to be a certain standard for Foreign Language Learners.

In the following chapter I will explain the most eminent linguistic features of Estuary English.

3. Linguistic features (variables) of Estuary English

On the one hand, EE shares a lot of features with the London Cockney accent, for example l-vocalization, glottalling, happY-tensing, yod-coalescence etc. But on the other hand, things like h-dropping, which means omitting the h sound before vowels, or th-fronting, which means replacing the dental fricatives ([T, D]) with labiodental fricatives ([f, v]) are absent in EE. The latter seems to me as the best aspect to distinguish EE- speakers from Cockney speakers.

3.1 Vowels

HappY – tensing

HappY-tensing describes the change of the /I/ sound at the end of words like happy or coffee. The sound in EE changes from the normally used [I] in bit to the longer and lower [i:] in beat. The problem here is that the phonetic description is not exact (cf. Wells, 1997: 2). For those who are not familiar with term, I think it is quite difficult to figure it out or even hear it in spoken language.

Yod- coalescence/ Yod- dropping

The Yod- coalescence and Yod- dropping, have been very influential on RP in recent decades. Yod- coalescence means that a [tS] sound is used where a [tj] sound would be the norm. This occurs in words like tune, Tuesday or tulip. The same happens with the voiced /d/ sound in advance of a /j/- sound: the [dj] sound at the beginning of such words as dune or duke turns into a [dZ]- sound. The consequences of this process are that the words dune/ june and due/Jew become homophonous. This change is very strongly used in Cockney as well. Another London feature is the Yod-dropping. This, according to Rosewarne can also be seen in EE after alveolars, especially after an /l/, for example in words like absolute, lieu and illuminate which were once pronounced with a /j/- sound before the /u/. But this has changed and now the socially accepted pronunciation is just the /u/- sound.

3.2 Diphthongs

Estuary English created some diphthongs where RP uses simply vowels. The RP /I:/ becomes a diphthong in EE, the /əi/ to be exact; for example sea will be pronounced /səi/ in EE. The same change happens with /u:/ which becomes /əu:/. This sound occurs in ‘blue’.

There is also a change in the other direction. In words like either and neither the RP diphthong /aI/ in EE is pronounced simply as /i:/. This is when I caught myself in the act, because I used to pronounce it exactly this why (/"i:Də/), thinking it was the norm.

Moreover, EE uses /ai/ instead of the RP /eI/ diphthong. That makes the word ‘say’, being pronounced as /sai/ homophonous to sigh in EE. The pronunciation of ‘say’ in cockney (/sVi/) though is slightly different.

3.3 Consonants


This means that in some positions the l sound is pronounced as a [w]. Especially the dark [l] sounds are affected by this change. The alveolar consonant /l/ therefore turns into a semi-vowel /w/ sound. Examples for this are words like ‘football’ which becomes […]. This sounds like ‘foo’baw’. Here another feature is already included, namely the so-called ‘glottal stop’. The l-vocalization is a delicate change, because it can lead to misunderstandings. A funny example of the consequences this l-vocalization can have is given by David Rosewarne: “In Estuary English awful and all full could be confusable in rapid speech, as in the possible utterance: ‘I’m afraid our single rooms are awfuw’” (Rosewarne 1994b: 5).

Glottaling/ the glottal stop

This is probably the most popular change in the English language in the last years. It is the term for a “catch in the throat” (Wells, 1997) instead of a t-sound. Altendorf defines it more precisely: “The glottal stop is a voiceless plosive produced by an obstruction of the air-stream formed at the vocal folds.” (Altendorf, 2003: 63). As there is no real sound that is heard, we can only perceive “the abrupt cessation or the abrupt onset of the following sound.”(ibid). The important thing is that it is not the same as just leaving out the t-sound. Wells gives a good example to this: plate with a glottal stop becomes [pleI?] and this is certainly different to play [pleI]. Other examples for a glottal stop are ‘Gatwick’ ["g{?wIk] and ‘bottle’ [bo?l]. The question which arouses is: why is the glottal stop so popular, also in other accents? Probably the people who use it follow a goal, maybe unconsciously. The main aspect is that they want to sound different than the norm. It seems to depend on the context, on which side the speaker wants to step, because the t-glottalling “‘for this generation lies between “roughness” and “sophistication”, between stigma and prestige.’”(Altendorf, 2003: 153).

To remember that there is still a difference between EE and cockney I would like to cite Rosewarne again who makes clear that “As would be expected, an Estuary English speaker uses fewer glottal stops for /t/ or /d/ than a “London” speaker, but more than an R.P. speaker.” (Rosewarne 1994b: 5). As already said, the glottal stop is also popular in many other accents in Great Britain.

3.4 Differences concerning vocabulary and grammar

David Rosewarne points out some small differences concerning special vocabulary items. He says that Cheers is preferred to thank you or that basically is used quite frequently. Apart from that, there you go is said instead of here you are (cf. Rosewarne 1994a: 6). The examples mentioned are definitely interesting and certainly true. But it is useless trying to pay attention to expressions like that in order to define an estuary speaker. The differences in pronunciation are of course the most obvious features that can be noticed. Additionally, every speaker has his/her own preference of using certain words and apart of that, this is also a question of the context the speaker is in. John Wells however criticises the argument about Cheers, when he says that “‘Cheers’ (thanks) is not American, but widespread in Britain, certainly not restricted to those who might be called speakers of EE.” (Wells, 1999) I would like to compare it with the German word Servus, which can either be used as a synonym for Hallo or Tschüß. I myself and some of my friends use this quite frequently, but none of us would see ourselves having a Bavarian dialect.

As for grammatical changes, David Crystal mentions among other things the following: “The ‘confrontational’ question tag, as in I said I was going, didn’t I?” or “The omission of the –ly adverbial ending, as in You’re turning it too slow.” (Crystal, 1995: 2).


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Estuary English as a Special Accent
A Linguistic Analysis
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Anglistik)
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estuary, english, special, accent, linguistic, analysis
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Anonymous, 2007, Estuary English as a Special Accent, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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