According to various sources, there are over 43 different dialects in the UK. England alone encompasses many accents, the most recognizable being the “posh” accent, predominant in Southeastern England.
However, another accent gained notoriety in recent years, especially in show business (popularized via actors such as Jason Statham and Michael Caine, to name a few).
We’re speaking of the “Cockney” accent (also known as the “London accent”), which is heavily associated with working-class people from the Eastern end of London. The word “Cockney” originally carried a demeaning tinge, though this connotation has progressively waned.
The Cockney Accent
The Cockney accent (or dialect) can be quite tricky to master completely, especially when dealing with consonants and slang.
Perhaps the best way to approach the Cockney accent is by first getting acquainted with how the vowels sound. Throughout this guide, we’ll make frequent comparisons with the Received Pronunciation (RP) and the “standard” American accent.
The Sound of the Voice
The general sound of the voice when speaking Cockney tends to be focused on the sides and front of the mouth. You may also be required to widen your lips regularly. Contrary to the case with the Received Pronunciation or the American West Coast accent, this accent is prone to include some nasal action at various points.
Knowing where to put the voice is crucial if you want to attain the perfect Cockney accent as it segues into how the vowels would have to be pronounced.
The vowels in the Cockney dialect tend to be more open than those in Received Pronunciation. Let’s delve into some of the most important rules for pronouncing them:
The /ʌ/ Sound
The short vowel /ʌ/ sounds like a more open /æ̙/ in a wide variety of situations. The following words would be heard in RP as follows:
- Mutt: Mʌtt
- Blood: Blʌd
- Uncle: Ʌnclə
- But: Bʌt
- Lovely: Lʌvely
With a Cockney accent, these same words would sound as follows:
- Mutt: Mæ̙’
- Blood: Blæ̙d
- Uncle: Æ̙nclə
- But: Bæ̙
- Lovely: Læ̙vly
Inversely, when switching from a standard American accent to Cockney, you’d have to close the vowel sound /a:/ to make it sound more like /ɔː/ (aw). So, for example:
- Talk: Ta:k
- Thought: Tha:t
- Saw: Sa:
- Because: Beca:s
- Talk: Tɔːk
- Thought: Thɔː’
- Saw: Sɔː
- Because: Becɔːs
The /ɛ/ (short e) and /u:/ sounds include a little diphthong (the speech sound generated by linking two vowels in one single syllable). You could read the following examples for reference:
- Tree: Trɪ
- Three: Thrɪ
- Fees: Fɪs
- Good: Gu:d
- Two: Tu:
- Loose: Lu:s
- Tree: Trəi
- Three: Thrəi
- Fees: Fəis
- Good: Gəʊd
- Two: Təʊ
- Loose: Ləʊs
Conversely, some diphthongs get replaced with long vowel sounds (they’re “monophthongized”.) Hence, the words:
- Town: Taʊn
- Frown: Faʊn
- About: Abaʊt
Would sound like this in Cockney:
- Town: Ta:n
- Frown: Fra:n
- About: Aba:t
Of course, this is not always as stark as the examples above. In many instances, Cockneys would still produce a diphthong but tone down the sliding sound in aʊ.
Another trait of the Cockney accent is “diphthong shifting”. This consists of changing how a diphthong is ordinarily read in standard English. Thus:
- Nice: Naɪs
- Day: Deɪ
- Sold: Səʊld
- Pay: Peɪ
- Lie: Laɪ
Would sound, in the Cockney accent, as follows:
- Nice: Nɔɪs
- Day: Daɪ
- Sold: Saʊld
- Pay: Paɪ
- Lie: Lɔɪ
Cockneys are known for making strong vowel sounds while de-emphasizing consonants. With that in mind, the “schwa” – that is, the vowel that reads like a weak and short /u/ – is rendered with a stronger /a:/ sound.
To illustrate, the words:
- Doctor: Doctə
- Water: Watə
- Stronger: Strongə
Would sound like this in the Cockney accent:
- Doctor: Docta:
- Water: Wa’a:
- Stronger: Stronga:
Now that we’ve got the general gist of what the vowels sound like, let’s elaborate a bit on how the London accent pronounces certain consonants within a word.
One very common feature associated with Cockney pronunciation is the lack of a proper /h/sound. The /h/in most standard British and American accents is aspirate, as in, it reads like a mild sigh. Cockneys tend to skip past the aspirate sound and pronounce the vowel that follows.
- House: ‘ouse
- Hand: ‘and
- Hammer: ‘ammer
- Him: ‘im
- Heart: ‘eart
This will likewise apply to words like who which, while not starting with /h/, nevertheless begin with an aspirate sound.
For the record, h-dropping is not an exclusive phenomenon in the Cockney accent, being similarly quite common in regions such as Northern England, East or West Midlands, and even the Southern Wales region (Cardiff).
East Londoners are inclined to make a sudden stop when coming across a t between vowels or at the end of a word. This stop is accompanied by a sound effect produced from the glottis, so it’s often called a “glottal stop”.
Common words that employ this glottalization technique include:
- Butter: Bu’a:
- Notting: No’in’
- Sitting: Si’in’
T-glottalization can lead to phrases sounding much faster than they usually would in other dialects or English accents devoid of this feature. For example, the phrase:
- “A little bit better”
Would sound somewhat like this:
- “A li’l bi’ be’er”
The th (θ) sound in the Cockney accent is frequently replaced by either an f (unvoiced th) or v (voiced th) sound. Fronting in this context refers to the position of the mouth as the person enunciates the syllable, rather than the position of the sound within the word.
Here are some examples of how the th-fronting would sound like in Cockney:
- Bother: Bova:
- Bathe: Bave
- Either: Eiva:
- Think: Fink
So, a phrase such as:
- “I think I’d rather leave.”
Would sound like this:
- “Oi fink I rava: leave”
The l sound at the end of certain words or before another consonant (referred to as “dark l”) is commonly vocalized as w instead of l. To give some examples:
- Talking: Tawkin’
- People: Peopow
- Adorable: Adorabow
Hence, a phrase like:
- “I had a brawl with Paul.”
Would be said roughly like this:
- “Oi ‘ad a braw wiv Paw.”
Before moving on with our next section, we need to address the rhoticity, an aspect that British and Australians might take for granted, but that some Americans might find peculiar.
British dialects are known for being “non-rhotic”, meaning that they tend to skip the roaring sound in the /r/ consonant, especially at the end of words.
Let’s give some examples:
- Water: Wa’a:
- Brother: Brova:
- Teaser: Teasa:
To speak like a proper Cockney, it’s not enough to get the phonetics right. You also should get acquainted with the slang and idiomatic expressions typical of East London.
Admittedly, much of the slang has been toned down to appeal to the current values of multicultural London. Nevertheless, the traditional Cockney accent has become so popular that some of the old slang has been recovered or maintained.
Let’s start with:
While this is a very common manner of speech even among some Americans, it’s known to be a grammatical mistake. However, Cockneys are peculiarly susceptible to utilizing these double negations.
Usual examples of these double negations include:
- “I don’t have anything”: “I ain’t got nothing”
- “I don’t owe you any favors”: “I don’t owe you no favours”
Cockneys have the tendency to replace the possessive pronoun “my” with “me”. To exemplify this point:
- “Have you seen my snickers”: “‘have you seen me Snickers?”
- “Pizza is my favorite food”: “Pizza is me favourite food!”
Londoners also have their particular vocabulary which differs slightly from the standard English vocabulary used in America and the rest of Britain. These are some of the most prominent slang words and expressions that they utilize:
- Woman: Bird
- Beer: Pint
- Pound (Sterling): Quid
- No way!: Do me a favour!
- Go away: Sling your hook
- Guy: Bloke
- Wow!: Cor Blimey!
- Rich: Minted
- Cigarette: Fag
- Unacceptable: Bang out of order
- Man: Geezer
- Girlfriend: Missus
Many of these words were eventually incorporated into common British discourse, though they’re still highly representative of Cockney culture and ethos.
Rhyming slang is an advanced form of slang that’s proper to London. It was developed especially to conceal the meaning of a sentence in front of policemen and outsiders by using code words and phrases that only a specific group could understand.
To this day, many foreigners would be left confused by some of the phrases and words because, in appearance, they don’t seem to relate in the slightest with the concept that is attempted to be conveyed.
It’s called rhyming slang because it replaces the target word with a phrase (or, in some cases, the first word of a phrase) that rhymes with it.
Let’s now show some emblematic examples of these expressions:
- Apples and pears = Stairs (“Are you going up the apples?”)
- Lemon and lime = Time (“What’s the lemon and lime?”)
- Britney Spears = Beers (“I only paid for three Britneys!”)
- Uncle Ted = Bed (“I’m going to Uncle Ted! I’m knackered!”)
- Army and navy = Gravy (“Do you want some army and navy with that?”)
- Sexton Blake = Fake (“That scammer sold you a Sexton!”)
While rhyming slang stopped being a London-exclusive language resource, they remained Cockney in essence.